“It’s amazing how someone can play so far above your head, but it’s so perfectly right that everybody gets it.” —Alison Krauss, speaking about Sam Bush
There are many master musicians in the world of bluegrass, but Sam Bush consistently tops most lists. This is true of players, critics and fans alike. The decidedly unconventional Kentucky native is widely known as the “bad boy of bluegrass,” although these days you won’t catch him drinking on the job. As Bush explains, “The joy of playing music is the joy for me.”
He discovered music at the tender age of 11, when he became intent on learning a variety of instruments, including mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, guitar and drums. As a teenager with more than adequate pickin’ skills, Bush made pilgrimages from Bowling Green to Lexington, where he would sporadically apprentice at club shows under the legendary J.D. Crowe. Crowe was forced to hide the obviously underage Bush in the kitchen, for example, and then bring him out to sit in with the band at the right time.
In 1970, after completing high school and having already made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry, Bush relocated to Louisville and joined his first significant band, Bluegrass Alliance. The name of the band’s second album, Newgrass, was subsequently appropriated to define an entire musical movement. “Newgrass” as a movement is important historically because it combines traditional aspects of bluegrass with lengthy Allman Brothers-style improvisational jams, while embracing more general aspects of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
Bush remembers, with mixed emotions, how Bluegrass Alliance was received. Traditionalists were slow to embrace them and progressives sometimes offered enthusiasm that was actually counterproductive.
“We were repeatedly billed by certain folks as ‘the Grateful Dead of bluegrass,’” he said, “and eventually we had to ask them not to do that.”
Before long, Bush had befriended the man he now refers to as “Louisville’s unsung hero,” songwriter Tim Krekel. Krekel, as Bush explains it, was involved at the time with a band called Dusty, and the two were running in similar circles. Their bond developed in part because both shared common musical obsessions in their youth, particularly with late-night — or as Krekel calls it in song, “all night” — radio programs. Bush fondly recalls picking up stations out of Nashville such as WSM (the world famous country station) and WLAC (a great R&B channel).
While still living in Kentucky, Bush formed another band, the enormously popular and still-influential New Grass Revival. Always on the cutting edge, the final line-up of NGR featured a young Bela Fleck on banjo. Eventually, Bush and his wife Lynn, a Louisville girl and another source of joy in his life, ended up in Nashville, where he became something of a high-demand free agent.
Bush’s resumé as a recording artist and performer is both long and impressive. In the studio he has worked with everyone from Solomon Burke to Garth Brooks, and he’s been affirmed with a variety of prestigious awards, including several Grammys.
“There are still plenty of musicians I would love to collaborate with, but I’m not so sure that people like Eric Clapton need a mandolin player,” he said. Bush tries not to think about it too much, however, because something great always seems to come along.
To call Bush an eclectic musician is an understatement. In terms of song selection for his albums and concerts, he’s all over the map. His starting point is usually to ask some basic questions, most importantly: “What does the song make you feel, if anything?” Thus, he’s known to juxtapose the likes of Bob Marley with Bill Monroe. Anything with feeling is fair game.
His wife’s family is still based here, so Bush is a relatively frequent visitor to Louisville. He returns this week for a Derby Eve show at Headliners, sharing the bill with his old buddy Krekel. Over the years these two kindred spirits have enjoyed a working relationship and maintained their close friendship. In fact, Bush, who is always looking for a great song to cover, wants to hear Krekel’s latest demos for just such a reason. Krekel’s latest includes a uniquely River City cut called “They Buried Wilson Pickett In My Back Yard.” Here’s to hoping for just such an alliance.
BY KEVIN M. WILSON