Sam Bush didn’t feel like he had been avoiding the recording studio when he realized that it had been almost seven years since he had a new album out. Speaking with him yesterday about his latest release, Storyman, he laughed and said, “I’ve been playing on a lot of records – they just haven’t been mine!”
That’s a great example of how this iconic newgrass star views himself and his music. Always serious about the sound – and the groove – the 64 year old mandolinist, fiddler, and vocalist isn’t overly impressed with himself, or his position as the godfather of a style that he pioneered in the 1970s with New Grass Revival.
Unlike many of the top-selling artists in the alternative bluegrass universe – sometimes known as jamgrass, hippiegrass, or other equally descriptive terms – Bush had a career in straightup bluegrass before making much of a stylish diversion. Even New Grass Revival wasn’t so far off the well beaten path as many modern grass outfits, and subsequent guest efforts with artists like Tony Rice and Béla Fleck have proven repeatedly that he can lay down the grass on demand.
But his own Sam Bush Band has never been tied too closely to any genre. Consisting of seasoned musical pros Scott Vestal on banjo, Stephen Mougin on guitar, Todd Parks on bass, and Chris Brown on drums, they are as likely to rock out as pick some grass, pulling off both, and anything in between, with equal levels of authenticity and aplomb. He draws large crowds wherever they go and can entertain an audience who never heard of Bill Monroe as quickly as one raised at Galax, Weiser, or Winfield.
On Storyman, we get a look at another side of this storied showman, that of the man who writes the songs. Every track here is one he has co-written with either his bandmates or his friends. Releasing an album of all original material was something he had kicked around for quite some time, but never took the plunge until now.
We came to the topic when I asked how he knew it was time for a new record.
“It was time five years ago! In the past several years I’ve enjoyed the experience of co-writing with friends. I’ve been good friends with some great songwriters for years, but I didn’t have the confidence to approach them about writing. It was a bit intimidating to think about sitting down to write with Guy Clark.
But more recently I’ve been doing it, and it’s been a great thing. I had a couple dozen that I liked, but a lot were really rock and roll songs. Eventually I saw that I had these 11 that went together well as acoustic tunes. Though I’m aware that people mainly buy individual tracks these days, I still like to buy an album where the songs all fit together. Sonically these just work together.”
And Storyman was born, a title chosen because so many of the songs had started with a story he wanted to tell.
Transcendental Meditation Blues for example, written with Jeff Black, tells of the long bus rides he took every week as a youth to spend time with his girlfriend (now wife), Lynn. It’s an easy-going, mid-tempo bluegrass song perfectly delivered by Sam’s crack band, and his plaintive, so-familiar voice.
He and Guy Clark wrote Carcinoma Blues from the perspective of two guys who know a little something about the Big C. But they wanted to relate how the disease affects the people on the sidelines, who care for the one going through it.
“We wrote that a few years ago. I had this idea of writing a song in the style of Jimmie Rodgers’ TB Blues.
Guy has had his public cancer battles, and I had recently gone through a little bout with it myself. We didn’t want to be preachy about it, just two guys who had some experience who had thought about how hard the uncertainty of it is on loved ones.”
Another track certain to generate a response is Handmics Killed Country Music, one he wrote with longtime friend and collaborator, Emmylou Harris, who sings with him on the cut. It’s the sort of country song we never hear anymore, a nice shuffle with twin fiddles, but as you listen you realize that what the song is about is how all the country stars used to be guitar players, a trait seen less and less these days.
“I had the handmics title in my brain for some time, and I had talked to several songwriters about it. Emmylou was the one who said yeah… ‘no one plays guitar anymore!’
Think about those Time/Life commercials for the classic country collections. You just stare at the great guitars they all had which were part of their look, and it isn’t part of the scene anymore.
But this is meant as a lighthearted song; no one’s killed country music. I think there’s a thriving country scene in Nashville, but it’s not the same.
I wanted to do this one as a country shuffle, and I wanted that ’60s piano sound, so I called Pig Robbins. When I asked him his first response was, ‘I haven’t played a country shuffle in 20 years!’ “
Many of the tracks are much more upbeat, like Play By Your Own Rules, a song about staying positive written with Mougin and performed in a New Grass style, and Everything Is Possible, a classic Sam Bush acoustic reggae song he wrote with Deborah Holland, another look on the bright side sung as a duet with Holland.
Bowling Green celebrates both Sam’s family’s farming life and the great fiddle tunes, which are interspersed amongst the verses in a song written with Jon Randall Stewart. You can imagine this being a great number live on stage as the song goes out with a spirited rendition of Whiskey Before Breakfast.
And there are a pair of instrumentals. Greenbrier is a bluegrass tune he and Vestal came up with. Bush said that as they were writing it they were thinking about maybe one day hearing it played by campground jammers off in the distance at a festival. It has a jammy bridge, but is a pretty straightforward tune as Bush and Vestal go.
It’s Not What You Think is a Sam Bush Band composition for fiddle, and it has a decidedly modern jazz/funk/grass vibe. He described the situation when all the guys came over to his house to write it.
“I had started on a tune, but it was too Mahavishnu for me. We probably spent over four hours working on it, but it was one of those days where the phone kept ringing, somebody was coming to the door, and I had repairmen working in the house. But every time I came back into the room the tune had gotten better!”
It does start out with a fairly notey theme, which eventually goes through a jam phase before ending up in a new grass romp.
Sam pulls out the slide dobro-mando for Lefty’s Song, one penned with his old NGR co-writer Steve Brines. Sam says it’s a true story about a man Steve knew some years ago. It’s set off beautifully with harmony vocals from Alison Krauss. And he gets down with some acoustic blues, on a Chicago-style song he wrote with John Pennell called Where’s My Love. Low-tuned banjo from Vestal really makes this one go.
The album ends with I Just Want To Feel Something, a paean to the groove that has always been the hallmark of Sam Bush’s music this past 40 years, another Jon Randall Stewart cowrite.
Bush said that they have shot a music video for Play By Your Own Rules, but he isn’t sure how soon it will be released. But he’s ready to get out and do the promo and publicity spots that Sugar Hill will set up for the album. Let’s hope we see him on TV, plugging away.
Looking back after 40 plus years doing this, he says the passion is as strong as it was at the beginning.
“I love playing more than ever. As I age I appreciate being able to do it even more. When I was young I took it for granted, as we all do as kids.
I realized today that I had just passed the 40 year anniversary of a terrible auto accident I was in back in ’76. It smashed up my car and broke my mandolin case, but it didn’t damage the mandolin. I never thought about stopping the touring, though. That old mandolin still sounds great, and I love playing it every chance I get.”
Long live Sam Bush and all the great music he’s brought us!