WHEN SUPERSTAR MANDOLINIST SAM BUSH helped form the trendsetting acoustic string quartet New Grass Revival in 1971, the progressive attitude of its members and the bluegrass-inspired music they made (which incorporated plenty of non-traditional instruments and extended improvisational passages) rubbed a lot of hardcore bluegrass aficionados the wrong way.
“It’s interesting,” recalls Bush. “Because amongst the traditional musicians we always got along really well. But there were certain audience members at 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!”
Unbeknownst to those naysayers, what Bush and his cohorts were doing may have seemed like heresy to purists weaned on the strict definition of this American roots music genre, but in reality, New Grass Revival was —in a sense— slapping a fresh coat of paint on a style of country that had up till then been routinely ignored by the majority of the record buying public.
Ironically, the man often charged with trying to demolish or degrade bluegrass was in fact one of its biggest champions.
“We were and I still am a tremendous fan of traditional bluegrass,” Bush offers. “I still listen to it and have lots on my iPod — as well as plenty of other things. What we were hoping to do, and I believe we succeeded, was to lead folks back to the original folks like Ralph Stanley or Bill Monroe. If they liked our versions, they could go back and search out the earlier ones.”
Though New Grass Revival officially disbanded in 1989 —after helping to cement the reputations of such esteemed pickers as Bela Fleck, Curtis Burch and John Cowan— Bush has continued on as a wildly popular solo artist and band leader. The native of Bowling Green, Kentucky has since gone on to play or record with a dizzying list of acclaimed artists, from Shel Silverstein to Shania Twain. He’s released seven LPs under his own name, and recently unveiled his first-ever live DVD.
On The Road finds Bush and company tearing through an entire concert, and gives ample reason why of all his albums, his biggest selling CD was recorded live on stage. That’s where Bush and his versatile, dexterous sidemen shine brightest. According to the band leader, he’s put a great deal of effort into finding players who have the chops and musical vocabulary to tackle traditional bluegrass, but the imagination and desire to move beyond those confines.
“The group that’s coming with me on this tour is phenomenal. On both electric and upright bass, I’ve got the great Byron House. Our drummer is Chris Brown, who brings a jazz sensibility. Our banjo player is Scott Vestal, who plays the five-string as well as banjo synthesizer, which gives us keyboard sounds as well. Stephen Mougin, plays acoustic and electric guitar. He’s a very good mandolinist, but there’s no need for that! (laughs) He can really bust ass at bluegrass or whatever you throw at him.”
“So, we’ll bring vocals, instrumentals, reggae, bluegrass and jazz-rock. I’ve always been interested in a variety of music, so we try to display that. It’s just a fun, positive energy show. ‘Cause, you know, we want the audience to forget about everything else while we’re playing. We just entertain through music, though. We’re not well-versed in dance steps. (laughs)”
Bush calls Savannah one of his favorite places to play, and traces his love affair with our city back to one of the first road trips he ever made as a musician.
“In 1971, when I was 19, my band The Bluegrass Alliance used to play the downstairs of the Boar’s Head restaurant, which they called The Other End. And 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. (laughs)
“That was back when you’d get booked for two weeks at a time. We’d stay at the beach and have lunch at Mrs. Wilkes’ every day. It was affordable and they’d give you all you could eat, which was what we needed. It was a great experience.”
For a complete transcript of my chat with Sam Bush, click here.
Sam Bush & Band play the Lucas Theatre 8 pm Saturday. Old-school country act The Charlie Pate Trio opens. Tickets $40-$15 at www.lucastheatre.com (or 525-5050).