A Chat with the Father of Newgrass, Sam Bush
Grammy award-winning artist Sam Bush will bring his musical melding of bluegrass, reggae, folk and blues to The Grand Opera House Feb. 8th!
The Father of Newgrass. The King of Telluride. These are all name attached to Grammy award winning artist Sam Bush. His musical melding of bluegrass, reggae, folk and blues has been entertaining audiences for decades. He took a little time to talk to us about his legendary career playing besides legends like Emmylou Harris and how his love for reggae music is tied to the iconic bluegrass musician Bill Monroe.
Thank you for taking some time today with us Sam. Like I said, you are a Grammy Award winner, you’ve be called the Father of Newgrass and the Americana music movement that is gaining steam right now. Have you noticed an uptick in the ears paying attention to the bluegrass sound and its contribution to the music?
SB- You know, the Americana Association, of course, raises the visibility, and really what it kind of does is, it brings listeners back to more acoustic instruments. I’m wondering if it all kinda got started way back when MTV did an Unplugged series. I’ve heard, you know, people play acoustically, and you could actually maybe appreciate the songs a little bit or so, and when, and of course Americana music is inclusive of bluegrass and bluegrass music styles.
When people say new grass to you, what does that, what does that mean to you?
Well, a band obviously I was part of for a long time called Newgrass Revival, and really people just kind of started calling our music Newgrass, and we were one of quite a few bands. I mean there was a band that we were friends with that used to play Atlanta called Red, White and Blue (Grass) that, you know, they were pressing the envelope, and so was a band called the New Deal String Band from North Carolina, and up in the Northeast you had Breakfast Special and Country Cooking. We all look like a bunch of hippies compared to, you know, the rest of the bluegrass entertainers. But we just started trying to make our own music while loving the traditions of bluegrass, while loving Bill Monroe’s music and Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers. But with that in mind, all those guys, they came from an older style of music and made bluegrass a contemporary sound at the time in the forties and fifties. And so, you know, we’re just with the newgrass kind of movement where we basically, we started out doing rock. We would take rock and roll songs. Now, I’m talking in the early seventies and we would take rock and roll songs and sort of make a bluegrass song out of it. And then over the years that sort of evolved into writing our own material. Even just the way that people wrote songs when bluegrass first started, it was more of a rural people’s music and talked of rural subjects. And so, by the time those of us that came along in the seventies, I’m one of the few, me and Del McCoury, we were one of the few farm boys that we know that grew up on farms. So, really the subject matter was bound to change, and the writing is really accurate these days. And of course the young musicians that are coming up or just, it’s just the next step in, in great musicianship coming along and bluegrass.
You grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky and you grew up on a tobacco farm. Now, give me a picture of what a summer day looks like for you as a kid on a tobacco farm.
Well, I’d get up earlier than I wanted it to. I mean when the tobacco is a small, you know, less than knee-high, my job would be literally to ride the horse while my dad had the rough job of keeping that plow pushed into ground all day, you know, a long, hot summer day. That’s what you did. And then when it got a little too big for the horses to go through, then you’re out there working in the tobacco patch with a hoe in your hand. You just got to keep the weeds cleaned. And then you know, as the tobacco grows, there’s different pieces of work you gotta do. When the flower tops on top, you literally got to get out with a knife and cut the top off each plant so the leaves will spread. And on a long hot summer day when it gets about August, and it’s pushing a hundred degrees, the vapors coming off tobacco will literally take your breath away in the field. You don’t need to smoke, you can’t even breathe in the field. So, I guess working on a tobacco patch would be a deterrent to anyone that wanted to smoke it.
Your sound is really unique because you incorporate everything from every genre of music, from blues to reggae to folk and bluegrass and all of that. Was there anyone else that helped shape your musical identity?
I think some of that would revolve around, you know, playing different instruments. So yeah, as a mandolin player, Bill Monroe was my main inspiration as was Jethro Burns. Not a lot of people know about him. He was from the comedy duo called Homer and Jethro and not a lot of people knew that Jethro was an incredible world-class jazz mandolin player. So, I was listening to Jethro and learning jazzy kind of licks. I was influenced by everyone from The Grand Ole Opry fiddler Tommy Jackson to the great Kenny Baker. And when I was a kid reading Downbeat magazine, I got turned on to the great Jean-Luc Ponty and Stephane Grappelli in the world of jazz violin. So, you know, there’s all kinds of influences. And of course I’ve always been a guitar player as well. So, you know, I love to play electric guitar. I would spend hours copying Eric Clapton and Freddie King. They’re my favorites. And then on the acoustic guitar, I’d always listened to Norman Blake and Doc Watson. So, all of that just kind of brings you into different kinds of music. I will never forget the day, a buddy of mine laid this Bob Marley record on me, Natty Dread. He said, “This is a new kind of music, and you need to learn about it.” And I was immediately knocked over by the sound of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and the first thing that attracted me was actually Bob’s rhythm guitar playing because it reminded me of the way Bill Monroe played rhythm on the mandolin with the rhythm chop style. So I listened to Bob and loved the guitar, and then I started listening more to the singing, and the songs in his message, and what he was saying, and the way the rhythm section, and bass, and drums work so differently in reggae music is wonderful.
Now along with your accomplished solo career, you’ve been a side man for some of the most legendary artists like Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris. Talk about the relationship that you and Emmylou have.
Our band Newgrass Revival, of course, played on many shows over the years and opened up for Emmylou and The Hot Band over the years. And so we made that acquaintance, and when our band was ending in 1989 and she heard about it and called me asking if I’d be interested. She was trying to put together a more acoustic band than her Hot Band use to play. It was one of the most joyful times in my life and just playing with her, and she taught me more about singing and controlling your voice better. And really just watching how she ran the band was really an educational thing because she’s a very giving and forgiving musician. You make a mistake, she’d just kind of go, “ Well, we’ll do it again tomorrow. Everything will be great.” And of course if you make her as a friend, you gotta a friend for life. She’s a good friend of my wife and I.
The energy that you and your band exude on stage has been said to be infectious. Talk about the atmosphere and the environment that you’d like to create for your fans when they come to your shows.
We are entertainers through our music. And so if we’re clicking on all cylinders, and we’ve got a pretty good batting average about doing that– but if we’re clicking and feeling good right off the bat, then within moments, you know, there’s like a circle of energy that starts to take place in the room. It’s a positive energy, and we want to bring that joy to you. I’m the kind of person that if I go to a sporting event or a music show, and I think about anything else I should be doing, then I’m not entertained enough. So that’s our goal. We want to take you away for an hour and a half, two hours where we were all just having fun in that room together. So, it’s fun for me to help the audience to just not worry about that for a couple of hours and enjoy the music.