The following is the complete text of my phone conversation with legendary mandolinist Sam Bush, in advance of his upcoming Lucas Theatre performance:
You're often referred to as one of — if not the sole founder of the Newgrass genre. I'm curious how you feel about having that mantle placed on your shoulders.
Sam Bush: Well, I think at first it was sort of an uncomfortable feeling, because we felt that with the New Grass Revival, we were merely bringing back a kind of bluegrass that had already been established in the '60s by folks like The Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jessie. Now, cut to 30 years later, and I've finally grown comfortable with it, because I suppose I did help to start a new type of acoustic music. Unfortunately, we named our band New Grass Revival (laughs), so that's what they call this kind of stuff nowadays. It's crazy, because the only reason people ever called it bluegrass in the first place was because Bill Monroe named his band The Bluegrass Boys on account of their home state of Kentucky!
When you initially started off in that direction back in the early '70s, do you specifically recall any particular resistance you encountered among the bluegrass establishment to mixing the streams, as it were?
Sam Bush: It's interesting, because amongst the traditional musicians we always got along really well. But there were certain traditional audience members and specific festivals that would go out of their way a lot of times to make the statement, "That ain't bluegrass!" And we'd just have to say, well, that’s right. We know it's not! It should be pointed out that we were and I personally still am a tremendous fan of traditional bluegrass music. I still listen to it and have lots on my iPod — as well as plenty of other things.We were and still are trying to play it like we felt it. That kind of led us into those progressive sounds. At the same time, what we were hoping, and I believe we succeeded at, was to do a bluegrass style song by someone like Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley, which would lead folks back to the original. If they like our version, they can go back and search out the earlier versions. Just like when I listened to Clapton play "Hideaway" with John Mayall on that classic album. It made me want to learn more about Freddy King. In that way, I feel like we've turned on a lot of people to lots of great bluegrass.
Are you at all surprised with the current state of bluegrass and bluegrass-inspired music that exists in 2008, or is the current scene representative of what you hoped might transpire when you started to move away from the strict, traditional confines of the genre?
Sam Bush: There was nothing I could have envisioned for the future, but it seems to have been a fairly standard progression. You know, the next generation of musicians keep coming along, and I think it's really a healthy time now when you can still see Doc Watson and Ralph Stanley along with Nickel Creek and The Del McCoury Band and me and my band (laughs). It's a great era for acoustic music.
I'm personally thrilled about the Americana market, because it covers so many areas. It gives us a wider and broader appeal. But on the other hand, I'm not that surprised. I've been busy the whole time! (laughs) And fortunately so! Gosh, there's just so much good music to hear now, absolutely.
What do you see as the next big shift to come in the world of bluegrass, or is that too hard to predict?
Sam Bush: Well, it is really hard to predict, but three of the biggest times of popularity that bluegrass style music and instruments have ever enjoyed came from movies. The first was when I was a kid, and Bonnie & Clyde turned the world onto Flatt & Scruggs with "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." The next was Deliverance and "Duelling Banjos" was actually a radio hit. The last time was when I was actually one of the folks who received a Grammy for the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. So, it's not lost on me that sometimes good movies give exposure to music that is not just straight down the path.
Films often use tunes that do not revolve around current trends to make their points. It's neat that the honesty of this type of music helps us to enjoy the movie. I don't know what the next big movement in bluegrass will be, but I wonder if there won't be another movie that will use acoustic music in a way that will also touch people.
You have performed or recorded with a pretty phenomenal list of musicians, from Shel Silverstien to Shania Twain. Of all the sessions and live dates you've done as a sideman or collaborator, is there any artist that was so much fun to work with that you'd jump at the opportunity to do it again without hesitation?
Sam Bush: And don't forget Neil Diamond! (laughs) Well, it is interesting that you mentioned Shel. I played on his record called The Great Conch Train Robbery. I remember the engineer coming out into the room to adjust his mic, and Shel just looked at him and said, "It doesn't matter where you put the mic. It's gonna sound the same." (laughs) I had the privilege to play with John Prine on Bruised Orange. That was a once in a lifetime experience and such a classic record to me. He's surely one of the greatest American songwriters we have. I also have such great memories of and would love to be able to play with John Hartford again. Still, the thrill of working with Doc Watson is unique and I would do that again anytime as well.
Tell me a bit about the shows you're doing currently. What can folks who attend the Savannah concert expect from this gig in terms of the material that'll be included in the set — is it mapped out in advance, or do you simply play it by ear?
Sam Bush: Well, obviously, we have a bank of songs that we know. I want to point out who's coming with me. On both electric and upright bass, I've got the great Byron House. Mr. House is making a house call! Our drummer is a guy named Chris Brown. He brings a jazz sensibility, but he's versed in any kind of music. Our banjo player is Scott Vestal. Scotty plays both the five-string banjo as well as the banjo synthesizer, which gives us keyboard sounds for our reggae-style tunes. Then there's our keyboard player. I love this guy. He's been with us for three years. His name's Stephen Mougin, and he's also an acoustic and electric guitarist. He's a very good mandolin player, but there's no need for him to do any of that in this band! (laughs) But once again, he can really bust ass at bluegrass or whatever you throw at him.
So, we'll bring vocals, instrumentals, reggae, bluegrass and jazz-rock. It's pretty interesting. I've always been interested in a variety of music and so we try to display that. It's just a fun, positive energy show. 'Cause, you know, we want the audience to forget about anything else they might need to be doing while we're playing. We just entertain through music, though. We're not well-versed in dance steps. (laughs)
I'm just excited to come back to Savannah. I started coming there in oh, gosh... 1971, I guess. That was when I was in the band before The New Grass Revival. We were called The Bluegrass Alliance. We used to play the Boar's Head restaurant. You know how they have that Boar's Head hanging there? Well, downstairs was their bar, which they called The Other End, and they had the actual other end of the boar on the wall. The ass was right there! (laughs) I guess I was 19 and you know, back then, that street by the river wasn’t exactly a tourist attraction!
Now, looking back, I'd probably be scared of a lot of the people we were hanging out with. Right down the street was a house band called Sweet William & The Stereos. Sweet William was a really big guy. They did R & B and rock & roll of the day and there were topless dancers there. Basically, the only people down there in those days were rock bands, strippers and hookers! (laughs)
Where did you stay when you were in Savannah back then?
Sam Bush: We'd stay out on Savannah Beach, which I guess they now call Tybee Island. We'd drive out there late at night after the shows and hang out on the beach all day. That was my first time ever seeing a beach. Then we'd eat at Mrs. Wilkes' every day for lunch. It was affordable and they'd give you all you could eat, which was what we needed. It was great. That was back when you'd get booked for two weeks at a time and play five or six nights a week at the same place.
I wish more places would go back to that system of residencies. It made for a completely different experience for the musicians and the fans, and allowed them to both get to know each other, and for their shows to evolve quickly.
Sam Bush: I wish places would turn back that way again. It was a neat way to play. You just beat it out over several nights and it really helped the band get better. We'd hang with folks really late at night on the beach at some of the after hours clubs out there. We met so many people like us that just enjoyed playing music, and we'd all hang out and jam. Of course, I was only 19 at the time and it was one of my first times out on the road, so I was making the most of the experience.
And, I'm sure you’re familiar with luthier Randy Wood, who's made his home here for years now.
Sam Bush: Yeah. Well, my old mandolin that I play was named "Hoss" years ago by my friend Tony Rice years. That mandolin belonged to Norman Blake back when he was playing in a duo situation with John Hartford. It didn't sound that good until he had Randy remove the back and do what we call "shaving the braces." It then became a real force to be reckoned with, and when Norman traded it years later, I had the chance and acquired it.
Randy is truly one of —if not the greatest— mandolin builder in the world. He's such a low-key guy that I think people tend to overlook how talented he is. Back when I was in New Grass Revival, Curtis Burch was good friends with Randy and his wife Irene and so we’d stay with them in Nashville in the early '70s. I'm glad you reminded me of Randy. I gotta give him a call before I come down there.
Sam Bush & His Band play the Lucas Theatre at 8 pm Saturday. Rising old-school country act The Charlie Pate Trio open the show. Tickets range from $40 - $15 online at www.lucastheatre.com (or call 525-5050).