Sam Bush interview with Aaron Bibelhauser

Many thanks to Louisville-based bluegrass singer and songwriter, Aaron Bibelhauser, to reprint his interview/article with Sam Bush, originally published by Audience 502. Aaron spoke with Sam on his radio show, Bluegrass Evolution, on WFPK about his upcoming virtual concert with the Louisville Orchestra this weekend (November 7).

Kentucky artists, past and present, have made a habit of bubbling over into the global music scene in ways that shake up the status quo. One wouldn’t need to look much further than current artists like Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, to see that in motion. Upon further inspection, their Appalachian roots, particularly bluegrass music influences, would be apparent, along with a certain fearlessness shared by these Kentuckians. Over five decades into his trailblazing musical journey, mandolin virtuoso, founder of the New Grass Revival, and longtime band leader Sam Bush is still injecting that fearlessness into his performances.   

November 7th, Sam Bush, along with his bandmate Stephen Mougin, will be teaming up with Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra to deliver a virtual concert performance, streaming live from Paristown Hall in Louisville, Kentucky. At first glance, this sort of collaboration may seem like worlds colliding, but that’s exactly what fans have come to expect out of Bush who said, “Man I’m ready! I’m so ready to play… Just to hear us with orchestrations, for the sake of it is one thing, but the treatment that Teddy [Abrams], and arranger Nate Farrington are giving these songs… that’s something really interesting to me.” Bush then added, “because we get to play with the orchestra, we actually get to call it a CONCERT… otherwise we just play shows!”  

Roughly twenty years before Sam Bush acquired his first mandolin as a child, another fearless Kentuckian was blazing a trail of his own with the mandolin. In the 1940s, Bill Monroe popularized a new kind of music that was rooted in traditional English, Scottish, and Irish ballads and dance tunes, combined with African-American blues and jazz, Gospel and close harmony vocals. This new, radical flavor of music became known as bluegrass, and it didn’t take too long for a traditionalist camp to form and claim a proprietary role among bluegrassers. Like most art forms, as quickly as the ground rules were established, there were folks willing to break the bluegrass mold and forge the path ahead. Ensembles like the Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, The Country Gentlemen, and The Dillards are often cited as such, and it should come as no surprise that these artists had a profound influence on the young Sam Bush.

Moving to Louisville in 1970, shortly after graduating high school near Bowling Green, KY, Bush quickly joined the Bluegrass Alliance, a band that was certainly primed to help mow down that progressive path forward. “I went straight to Washington Street, where we played the Red Dog Saloon, five or six nights a week, and it was just a thriving music scene down there.” Bush remarked, “It was a great scene in Louisville. I feel really fortunate that I got to come up… It just opened my eyes to a lot of music I’d never heard before.”

In no time, the eighteen year old Bush was joined in the group by a nineteen year old Tony Rice, now a legendary flatpicker and innovator on the acoustic guitar. Bush reminisced about wandering the town with Rice during their own set breaks to see other, more electrified Louisville bands like Dusty and NRBQ that were steeped in blues and rock influences. “Right down the street from us is where I met a lifelong friend named Tim Krekel.” It was the direct actions of Louisvillians, including Krekel, who introduced Bush to the music of the Allman Brothers, The Band, and the Byrds.

Armed with a newfound passion that exceeded the imaginary boundaries of traditional music, Bush and three of his band mates struck out on their own, forming the New Grass Revival in 1972. Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson (banjo), Curtis Burch (guitar, dobro), and Ebo Walker (bass) soon released their self titled, debut album. “It shook the bluegrass world up a little bit,” said Bush regarding that first record. “You know, if a rock and roll audience saw us, they thought we were a bluegrass band… if a bluegrass audience heard us, they thought we were a rock band!” Bassist and vocal phenom John Cowan joined the band in 1974, with banjo guru Béla Fleck and guitarist Pat Flynn being enlisted in 1981.  

Sam Bush and New Grass Revival often sported long hair and informal clothing, and included songs from a wide variety of musical genres. These continuous breaks with tradition were not always well received in bluegrass circles. Nonetheless, they went on to enjoy a much broader audience and released sixteen albums and collaborations over the years. When asked about the band’s recent induction into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, Bush replied, “That’s the thing about the Revival…  I can feel proud in knowing that we made the Bluegrass Hall of Fame doing it exactly like we wanted to… It’s a big deal for us… for New Grass Revival to have made the cut, so to speak.”

Fast forward to 2020 and few contemporary figures associated with bluegrass music have the ability to transcend divisions the way Sam Bush does. Because of the longevity and relevance of Bush’s musical contributions, both with the Revival and leading the Sam Bush Band, he tends to be one of a small handful of artists who are recognized and revered by fans of all walks of life. This reach includes much of the bluegrass purist crowd, while continuing to  thrive in more progressive scenes, earning the attention of a younger, broader Americana audience. Some have even compared Bush to the great Bill Monroe, naming him the “father of newgrass” prompting this response “…if Bill was the father of bluegrass then I could be the mother because Monroe would say: ‘here comes that mother now’!”

Paired with the incredible breath of fresh air Teddy Abrams brings to the Louisville Orchestra, this virtual concert with Sam Bush is bound to deliver a one-two punch, celebrating the American folk music tradition, and the diverse catalog of Sam Bush, a man who’s spent a lifetime turning that tradition on its head.

Tickets for this virtual concert are available online, which people anywhere in the world can enjoy from home.

Here is Aaron’s full radio interview with Sam.