‘Father of Newgrass’ reflects on storied career, and bluegrass up-and-comers

Sam Bush, left, plays with the Infamous Stringdusters during the 2017 Wide Open Bluegrass Jam. He was just announced for the 2018 Wide Open Jam, Sept. 29 at Red Hat Amphitheater, hosted by Leftover Salmon.
Sam Bush, left, plays with the Infamous Stringdusters during the 2017 Wide Open Bluegrass Jam. He was just announced for the 2018 Wide Open Jam, Sept. 29 at Red Hat Amphitheater, hosted by Leftover Salmon. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

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Sam Bush is among the most celebrated musicians of his generation.

The Bowling Green, Ky., native is considered the “Father of Newgrass” and the founder of the rock-jazz-bluegrass fusion music named for Newgrass Revival, the progressive combo he founded and led from 1972 to 1989.

Bush, 66, was 15 when he won the first of three consecutive first-place trophies in the Junior Division of the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest. It was a sign of things to come.

His post-Newgrass Revival career includes serving as bandleader for Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers; performing at Telluride, IBMA and Merlefest; recording and performing with Doc Watson, Dolly Parton and others; and leading his acclaimed Sam Bush Band.

Bush has earned three Grammy Awards; was named IBMA’s Mandolin Player of the Year four times; and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 from the Americana Music Association.

Bush will perform Aug. 11 at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro with opening act the Hank and Pattie Duo. On the eve of his appearance in a video featuring the legendary Loretta Lynn, he talked with The News & Observer about his musical influences, his career and the state of art of mandolin in the hands of today’s generation of young pickers.

Q: You began learning mandolin at age 11. What was it that attracted you to that eight-string icon of bluegrass?

A: “My dad played the fiddle and some mandolin. So fiddle and mandolin were in the house. My father loved to listen to fiddle albums by the great Grand Ole Opry fiddler, Tommy Jackson. On many Tommy Jackson records there was a mandolin playing in unison along with the melody. I loved the sound of mandolin and fiddle playing in unison.

“Many years later in Nashville, I was playing on a session, and on guitar was the great guitarist Ray Edenton. He played on many of those records. I asked who played mandolin. He said, ‘(Guitar great) Hank Garland.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know he played mandolin.’ He said, ‘Well, he didn’t. He was just such a great musician that Tommy taught him the tunes on mandolin right before they recorded them.

“So, there you go — my style is based around copying a person who didn’t actually play the mandolin. (laughs)

Q: You were 13 when you attended the first bluegrass festival at Fincastle, near Roanoke, Va., in 1965. How did you happen to learn about the festival and attend at such a young age?

A: “I saw an ad in Sing Out! Magazine. I went with (my guitar teacher) Wayne Stewart. We drove up about 10 or 11 in the morning. There must have been 10 different jam sessions going on. Talk about heaven. That day I met (mandolinist) David Grisman. I had a Gibson A-50 mandolin. I had never gotten to hold a Gibson A-5, like Bill Monroe played.

“I was sitting in a circle playing with people, and the way I remember, this mandolin lowered down in front of me. I heard this voice say, ‘Hey, man. Play a good one.’ It was David Grisman lowering one of the greatest mandolins I would ever hold. I didn’t know mandolins could sound like that. At that festival they had a mandolin workshop. I was sitting in the audience getting instructed by Bill Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, Ronnie Reno, David Grisman. I learned so much at that festival.

Q: In 1970, you came to North Carolina to attend the festival at Union Grove. North Carolina’s New Deal String Band consisted of young, long-haired musicians blending bluegrass with rock and folk music, much like Newgrass Revival would do within a few years. What do you recall about seeing that band?

A: “I was a senior in high school. They were the first bluegrass hippies I met. They were having a great jam session. I remember bassist (Bob White) ‘Quail’ had a rubber chicken hanging off the headstock and they were having a ball. They were doing ‘No Expectations’ by the Rolling Stones — different material than I’d heard other people doing. I loved Frank Greathouse’s mandolin playing. Leroy Savage was a great high singer. It was just a big kick for me seeing people play bluegrass instruments with more ideas, not just the old bluegrass songs.

Q: You founded the Revival in ’72, and the next year the band was backing the great Leon Russell on tour. In the 1980s, you joined Leon again. How did that collaboration come about?

A: “It started in 1973 when Leon had recorded his country album, ‘Hank Wilson’s Back.’ Leon was the No. 1 Billboard attraction. He had an idea to open the show for himself as a country entertainer named Hank Wilson. I got a call at 4:30 in the morning. Twelve hours later we were sitting in Leon Russell’s house in Tulsa. I thought we were terrible and figured he was going to send us home.

“All of a sudden he said, ‘I’m not ready to stand out there with an acoustic guitar. Why don’t you guys just open the tour?’ So we opened the biggest rock tour in America for 2 1/2 months. It was incredible. We flew on his private jet. The last night of the tour we partied on the Queen Mary. It was docked at Long Beach, Calif. We met George Harrison. The day after the tour we flew back to Louisville, got in our ‘63 Chevy wagon, drove to Lafayette, La., where we played six nights a week at Arnie’s Pizza King. Back to real life.

Q: Your generation learned from Bill Monroe and others you saw at festivals or listened to on records. Now, we have young musicians – Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle, for example – learning in conservatories or from lessons on the internet. What is your impression of these musicians, picking up where you and your friends left off?

A: “When Grisman and I were young and learning, there weren’t as many people to learn from. But growing up in the vicinity of Nashville television, I had the advantage of watching the hands work – watching Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne and Dean Webb. When you have a young generation – now they have the advantages of teaching videos.

“Sierra said once, ‘Maybe we didn’t listen to Monroe, but we hear Sam chopping rhythm.’ We’re all learning from each other. The mandolin is in incredibly good hands now. Sierra, to me, is kicking it hard right now. I’m proud of her kicking the Old Boys’ club. Bluegrass is becoming more inclusive.”

Q: You’ve been involved with IBMA since the beginning. What’s your impression of the move to Raleigh?

A: “The first time I came to Raleigh for IBMA, it was obvious that the town was doing way more for IBMA. The accommodation of the city and the way it’s an open festival downtown and you can walk to different stages, Raleigh just celebrates IBMA. In that way, it’s very successful and it’s obviously working. I really appreciate the way Raleigh does accommodate all the music.”


Who: Sam Bush with Hank and Patti Duo

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 11

Where: Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro.

Tickets: $30 in advance, $33 day-of.

Info: 919-967-9053 or catscradle.com

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