You could call Sam Bush a musical multi-tasker. A festival fanatic perhaps. A man who never lacks a muse or inspiration. Or, to put it more succinctly, someone who simply loves what he does.
How else to explain his constant desire to be up onstage and performing with friends and colleagues, whether it’s folks he’s just met or those he’s known since the start of his 45-plus year career? Take, for example, his onslaught of activity during a single day at this year’s MerleFest. Saturday afternoon found him onstage for eight entirely different sets — his own and those of others. Indeed, at age 65, Bush displays the boundless energy exhibited by someone less than half his age, and while it may have taken its toll, it’s a record he’s proud to share.
“Now I can say that I did that once,” he muses while speaking on the phone from his home in Nashville. “Eight sets in one day, even for me, was a bit much. Me, Béla (Fleck), Jerry (Douglas) and Bryan Sutton have been doing things together for a couple of years now, so before I knew it, the day was really full. I came away pretty exhausted. I got sick actually. I got a pretty bad cold after that. But, I was in a hard working space for the month of April, so I just did a lot of different things.”
Never mind the entire month. The amount of effort and endeavor that Bush shared on those MerleFest stages over the course of just four days was enough to make anyone feel winded simply by watching him.
Of course, no one’s forcing him to exert himself any more than he desires. It’s simply part of his musical DNA.
“I’m a fan of other bands too,” Bush insists. “As I gear up to go to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, I’m gearing up for bands that I want to hear, even those I’m not playing with. I enjoy the chance to hear them too.”
Merlefest marked another accomplishment, however dubious it initially appeared. While walking on stage to guest with the Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Martin introduced him with an exasperated sigh, reflecting the fact that there had been no shortage of Sam Bush sightings already during the day.
“I never thought I’d be another Steve Martin punchline,” Bush laughs. “When we both were introducing at the IBMA awards a few years ago, I actually got to be Steve’s front man.”
Lest there be any mistake, Bush doesn’t neglect his Sam Bush band — Scott Vestal (banjo), Stephen Mougin (guitar), Todd Parks (bass) and Chris Brown (drums) — as their steady touring will attest. Yet there’s still something about the frenzy of a festival that makes him addicted to its allure. He’s performed at every MerleFest since its inception 31 years ago, and this year will mark his 44th appearance at Telluride, having only missed the one held the year of its initial inception.
“The ability to continue Telluride all these yeas is an incredible accomplishment, and to get to be included, that is something special,” he insists. “There’s only two festivals I’ve gotten to go to consistently so far, and those are Telluride and MerleFest. I like going to them because we get to hang and go see different shows on different days. I get to be at MerleFest for four days, so I can spread out the sets. Telluride is different because there is only one stage and no video screens, so it’s kind of an old time festival in that way. Without all those stages to run to, so I can just sort of hang and see all my friends play.”
Of course, there’s not always that option. A variety of stages forces multiple decisions.
“I remember a couple of years ago, I was at MerleFest, and I couldn’t decide if I needed to go see Mark O’Connor or Jorma Kaukonen,” he laments. “They were playing at the same time and I wanted to hear both!”
Bush explains that his affinity for the festival scene can be traced back to his teen years. “I went to arguably the first bluegrass festival in 1965 in Roanoke when I was 13,” he recalls. “I sat there and dreamed that this is what I want to do with my life. So its no surprise that I still go to festivals and enjoy playing in them. I was always in the audience learning at workshops. I found out early in life that workshops are a place to learn things, watch how hands move, what they did, the way their chords sound. Right off the bat, I made friends for life, met great musicians, and formed a brotherhood that we joined while watching other people play. I met David Grisman, Tony Trischka… and it became a comradery of togetherness that we and the fans feel. I know that feeling, and I still love that festival spirit.”
Bush’s love of music doesn’t end there either. He reveres the old masters and the musicians that came before, but he’s wise enough not to take himself or his efforts all that seriously.
“It’s only music, and as the Beatles said, its nothing to get hung about. I know mistakes will be made onstage. I’ve never been onstage where I didn’t make one, but I just enjoy the pursuit. I think sometimes people have even more fun if they know you just made a mistake.”
That said, Bush’s efforts in the seminal bluegrass band New Grass Revival served an essential role in the initial crossover from roots to rock, well before the term Americana became such an emphatic part of the musical lexicon. Along with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, they played a small but significant role in helping to meld a stylistic synergy.
“In many ways yes we did,” Bush agrees. “We had the respect of other musicians. They knew we were going for it. We got on Capitol Records and went for the country airplay, and in that way we did get recognition. No, we didn’t become a hit band overnight, or have top ten records, but we always felt successful because we played music of our own choice, and had our choice of how we made our records. It was often perceived that we were told what kind of records to make once we were on Capitol, but that was not the case at all. We knew it was up to us if we were to blend in, but that said, we had an audience and we could go around and make a living. I did that for 18 years in that band. So in that way, we were successful, and we were successful because we could play music and make a living.”
Although the group broke up a decade after they formed, several of its members — Bush, Fleck, John Cowan and Pat Flynn in particular — would go on to achieve individual success later. Still, any time they find themselves sharing a bill at one of the aforementioned festival, its likely they will reconvene for a jam as well.
That begs the question of whether the band might ever reform, given the fact that they regularly reconnect as individuals on stage and in the studio.
“No, not really,” Bush replies when the prospect is posed. “That’s the way we get along. We realize now more than ever before, that in our last nine years, we had four band leaders in the band at the same time. We’re all comfortable being those leaders individually now. I talked to Béla a few days ago, and he and I have only gotten closer since the band broke up. We’re play together at Telluride in the house band. So we still get to do things together. John and I get to play in a few different circumstances. But, I like having my band and I’m comfortable making the decisions, right or wrong. I think we all are.”