A Conversation with Sam Bush: Bluegrass Icon plays Ives Center, Looks Back on Career as a Musical Innovator

By: Joseph Oliveri

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sambush.com

 

DANBURY-Being credited with starting a whole new sub-genre of music might come with some perks, but for Sam Bush, being referred to as the “Father of Newgrass” is overdoing it.

“I certainly don’t call myself the father of anything other than a girl named Jessica,” Bush admonishes, chuckling.

Despite his humility, it is hard to overstate both the impact of his innovations, and his versatility as a mandolin player. Formed in 1971, his group, Newgrass Revival, was among one of the first bluegrass bands to incorporate explicitly non-traditional material. Bush remains adamant about sharing the limelight, though.

“We were one of the groups that brought on this type of different bluegrass,” he explains during a phone interview on Thursday, September 20th. “We haven’t set out to change anything. We’re just playing it the way we feel it.”

NGR’s catalogue blended rock, reggae, funk, and pop country influences into a unique sound that galvanized the progressive movement in bluegrass, to the ire of more staunch traditionalists, and into the embrace of the counterculture of the period. Since it disbanded it 1989, Bush, now 66, has both led and been a member of various musical projects, from the progressive instrumental outfit Strength in Numbers, to collaborating with luminaries such as Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Leon Russell, to name just a few.

Those are not the only accolades, either; he is a 3-time Grammy winner, and multiple International Bluegrass Music Association award recipient. For the past decade or so, a rigorous touring schedule with his live solo band has been the bread-and-butter of his professional life.

“My reward is the time we spend on stage,” when I ask if his raucous concerts and travel time ever wear on him.

“I’ve always been fortunate that music overtakes me, so to speak. My mind, fortunately, can go to the music and away from anything else. Sure, it’s tiresome, but I get to play music while I’m out here,” he emphasizes.

Having been a road musician since his teens, Bush is no stranger to packed schedules and physically taxing performances, but as a two-time cancer survivor, he is deft to admit the ride has had its bumps along the way.

“I learned a long time ago, I’m not sweating the small stuff,” he explains.

Bush’s latest studio record, 2016’s Storyman marked yet another milestone. It is the first album where every tack has been co-written by him. Many of the songs, like the opener “Play By Your Own Rules” and “Everything Is Possible,” evidently come from a place of experience and wisdom, but Bush notes he means to share positive vibes, not pontificate.

“I see some acts, and they voice a complaint or a gripe over the mic, and I say, ‘That’s not us.’”

But he is intent on dispensing some advice. Citing his friendship with the eccentric bluegrass icon John Hartford, whose tastes were notoriously eclectic, he says “Keep your mind open, learn from different things. Keep an open mind.”

“There’s always new and exciting things coming out,” Bush reminds me.

 

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