Interview with Sam Bush

Interview with Sam Bush

©2012 by Bronson Herrmuth
www.bronsonsmusic.com

3
time Grammy winner and multi instrumentalist, Sam Bush, has been writing songs, playing music, and releasing albums for more than 40 years. He’s played live and/or recorded with a who’s who list of great artists in multiple genres, and he’s referred to world wide as the “King of Newgrass” music. Released on Sugar Hill Records, his latest album is called, Circles Around Me, and in 2009, Sam received a Lifetime Achievement for Instrumentalist Award from the Americana Music Association. The following is taken from a phone interview in May, 2011.

Bronson: The first time I heard your music Sam, I was up in Iowa and I was just a teenager, and it was 1971, and it was “Poor Richards Almanac”, and you changed my life.

Sam Bush: “Poor Richards Almanac”, wow. Were we just traveling through or something?

Bronson: No, I didn’t hear the band, I heard the record.

Sam Bush: Oh I see. Well I guess that record came out in 1970, so it would have been recorded somewhere around the Easter weekend of 1969, I think. Yeah, just some joyful noise. Alan Munde and I, (& Wayne Stuart) trying to play some fiddle tunes on bluegrass instruments. We were greatly influenced by Texas fiddle styles, but of course obviously as well you know, bluegrass.

Bronson: Then you roll the clock up a little bit and I joined the Navy, and I was on an aircraft carrier, and I got a cassette tape sent to me of a band called New Grass Revival.

Sam Bush: There you go. Well, New Grass, when you first heard “Poor Richards Almanac”, later in that year, in 1971, New Grass Revival was formed out of the band called Bluegrass Alliance. So the 4 of us,
Courtney Johnson on banjo, Curtis Burch, with a u, on guitar and dobro, Ebo Walker was our bass player, and of course, I played the mandolin and the fiddle. Really, when we were starting New Grass Revival, we had discovered, of course we loved bluegrass, but we were always influenced by people like The Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jessie, and The Dillards, and the Country Gentleman. We had discovered through listening to various rock ‘n roll and jazz, what have you, the fun of long extended jamming so we tried to start doing that when we were first going. So we recorded our first album in 1972, and I guess it came out in very early 1973 or late ’72, on StarDay Records from here in Nashville.

Bronson: So now we’re sitting here in 2011, 42 years later Sam.

Sam Bush: It’s hard to believe isn’t it? (laughing)

Bronson: You’ve had such an incredible career. I’ve known of you, like I said, pretty much my whole musical life. I’ve actually played a lot of your songs with my band (The Ozone Ramblers) and it’s an honor to talk to you. I’ve always wondered, you started playing music at such an early age. Your parents must have really been supportive?

Sam Bush: They were. We grew up on basically a
cattle and tobacco farm outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky, and yeah my
dad was very much a music fan as was my mother, so my mom played the
guitar and my dad played the fiddle some, so music was always encouraged
around our house and played. If you see the old movie, Coal Miner’s
Daughter, the way they’re sitting around listening to the radio to the
Grand Ole Opry every Friday and Saturday night, that’s what we did. My
dad and mom were really instrumental in creating a love for music in my
sisters and I, so I started playing the mandolin when I was about 11,
and I started playing fiddle at about age 13. Before I started playing
mandolin, my 2 sisters, Clara and Janet, had already started singing
folk music. You know, learning Peter, Paul and
Mary songs, stuff like that, New Christie Minstrel songs, so I started
playing with my sisters when I first started going and then by age 13, I
started playing fiddle in the first bluegrass band I was in, called The
Grayson County Boys. Of course I was way younger than everyone else,
everyone else was my dads age. (laughing) Then somewhere along the line I
started playing electric guitar in high school and so I was always
doing a variety of things. I would play electric guitar in the high
school rock band, sometimes bass, but usually guitar, and then I would
be playing mandolin and fiddle in bluegrass bands, so I would literally
be the only guy old enough to drive in the rock band, but then in the
bluegrass bands, I would be by far the youngest guy in the band all the
time. That’s all changed now (laughing). I’m never the youngest guy in
the band anymore.

Bronson: (laughing) You know I’ve always loved
your songwriting. One of my favorite songs of
all time is “Like A Child In The Rain”. That song just rolls all over
me. You’re known as such a great instrumentalist and music guy but your
songwriting. I just love your songwriting. How old were you when you
first discovered songwriting?

Sam Bush: I’m not really sure, lets
see. I was co-writing with a guy named Steven Brines back then and
Steven was from up in Lexington, and we would literally write by mail.
In other words, he would send me the lyrics and then I would put music
to his lyrics, and then I’d make a copy of a tape in my kitchen and send
it back to him, and that’s how we wrote songs together. Sometimes we
sat down and collaborated, but I was collaborating with Steven Brines
back then so probably at about age 19. I was making up instrumentals
before songs, and still tend to do that maybe a little more, but with
Steven I started to learning to love to try to fit lyrics in, and how do
you do that. Steven was a big Kris Kristofferson fan
so a lot of our songs kinda had that slant to them. Then over the years
I’ve learned to really enjoy collaborating. John Pennell, I’ve
collaborated with. The most I’ve collaborated with is Jeff Black, who I
think is just one of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever met, and a guy
from Louisville, Alan Rhody, I’ve collaborated with him. I’ve always
been writing, but yes, I guess I tend to think of myself first as an
instrumentalist and singer, but I’ve learned to enjoy the process,
especially of collaboration.

Bronson: You’ve played with so many
huge stars and in lots of genres. You can play with anybody, anything
they want to play, no doubt in my mind. So how did you come to hook up
with Leon Russell?
Sam Bush: Well that all occurred back in early
1973. New Grass Revival, we’d just completed our first road trip from a
couple of weeks with John Hartford, and we were thrilled about that. I
got home and my old friend Butch Robbins, Butch was living
in Nashville, Butch is a great banjo player, and he had gotten the job
of playing 5 string dobro on the first Hank Wilson’s Back record with
Leon, making his country records. So there was discussion about Leon was
looking for a country band to back him, and he was like the worlds
Billboard certified number one earner that year in rock n’ roll. Twenty
six thousand a night, it was insane. So Leon was discussing maybe
getting a Nashville country band to back him, and to open for himself as
Hank Wilson, and then of course to come out later with the great Leon
Russell and the Shelter People rock ‘n roll show. So Butch suggested us.
Butch and I were pals and we’d played together on a Kenny Baker record a
few years before that and become friends, and Butch suggested New Grass
Revival. We literally got home at like 4:00am off the road, from being
out in Nebraska and South Dakota and Iowa and Minneapolis and places
like that, with John Hartford, and later that
day we found ourselves in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at Leon Russell’s house, and
that was just really an amazing thing to go through (laughing).

Bronson: Wowww.

Sam Bush: Because he was such a musical hero of ours already, we did one of
his songs on our first album, “Prince Of Peace”, so at any rate, there
weren’t really good pick up systems on instruments back then so Leon
decided he didn’t want to go out and open for himself after all,
standing there with just an acoustic guitar, but he asked us if we
wanted to open the show, so we found ourselves opening for the world’s
biggest rock show in America for 2 and 1/2 months.

Bronson: Mannn.

Sam Bush: It was just an amazing time, an amazing ride. So we did that, but
of course as soon as the tour was over we went back to our normal
lives, where we played 2 weeks at 6 nights a week at Arnie’s Pizza King
in Lafayette, IN. (laughing) So we were well aware of what was going on,
but years later,
somewhere around August of ’79, we were playing in Tulsa, Oklahoma,
with John Hartford as a matter of fact, opening for John Hartford, and
Leon rode by and saw our name on the theatre. He stopped and came in the
soundcheck and sat in with us that night, and then we immediately
started doing some recording with him and we jammed all the time. It
ended up with us, New Grass Revival, being his band for 2 years. It was a
wonderful time. It was like being in the greatest 50’s rock band with
bluegrass instruments. It was just really fun and we learned an awful
lot from Leon.

Bronson: Emmylou Harris, you two have been friends a long time.

Sam Bush: Well we would have met in Washington, DC, gosh, this was before
Emmylou had her first record deal. She was playing around DC and
everybody was aware of how wonderful this person sang, and then once
again that led to years later, New Grass Revival would sometimes open
shows for Emmylou and the Hot Band, and
then when Emmylou heard that New Grass Revival was breaking up, at the
suggestion of John Starling, she called me up and asked if I was
interested in playing in an acoustic band with her. That led to 5 years
in the Nash Ramblers, and those were 5 very joyful years and I learned
an awful lot from Emmy. She’s a great band leader and obviously a
wonderful musician. People tend to overlook what a great rhythm guitar
player she is and that’s not always an easy thing to be. She’s got great
timing and I’m fortunate to know her and to have played with her.

Bronson: So you’re known as the King of Telluride. What was your first year going to Telluride?

Sam Bush: Our first year, being New Grass Revival, we first went in 1975,
which was the second festival. Some of the promoters, which was
originally a band called the Fall Creek Band, they had seen us at the
Winfield, Kansas festival the fall before that, then they wanted to hire
us. They had their
festival in ’74, but we were the first band that they hired that wasn’t
from Colorado, that wasn’t local, just around Telluride and the
mountains community. Yeah, we went out there and we immediately made
friends with the promoters and people in the town. Of course it was a
very, very, small town back then. There wasn’t a paved road then, but as
soon as we started playing there we realized we had found an audience.
We’d been looking for this kind of audience that was really open to any
kind of music and maybe, I’ve always wondered, if it didn’t have to do
with the wide open spaces, just the open attitude that people had. Now
of course that festival has grown so much over the years. This year it’s
the 38th festival and it will be my 37th consecutive.

Bronson: Is that where Strength In Numbers came together was around Telluride?

Sam Bush: Well, in a way. Telluride is definitely a part of Strength In
Numbers history, but we really got started
here in Nashville because Edgar Meyer had hired the other 4 guys in
Strength In Numbers, to play on, well I guess his first record, and back
then there was the festival that went on here in Nashville. It was a
wonderful festival called the Summer Lights Festival with different
stages and what have you, and so Edgar put us together to play a set
with him, so we were originally called Edgar Meyer and Friends. We did
it more than once on Legislative Plaza Stage and then we started doing
it. We told the promoter at Telluride about it, so we started doing it
out there and for a while they called us The Telluride Allstars, and
then we realized the 5 of us wanted to make a record together for MCA
Masters Series. We actually had planned on calling ourselves Telluride,
but we found out another group already had that name so we thought
Strength In Numbers was appropriate for us.

Bronson: So you’ve been on Sugar Hill Records now quite a while. You’ve done 8
solo albums if I’m not mistaken, and 6 of them on Sugar Hill Records?

Sam Bush: (laughing) Bronson, you got me. I haven’t counted them. Yeah,
they’re all on Sugar Hill except for the very first one that was called,
Late As Usual, and that one was on Rounder Records, but that was done
way back when I was still in New Grass Revival. Yeah, I’ve been very
happy with Sugar Hill, they’ve treated me very well.

Bronson: Circles Around Me was your last album, right?

Sam Bush: Yes.

Bronson:
You know the fact that you did that track where you were able to
reunite with Courtney Johnson, that must have been quite a thrill?

Sam Bush: Well it really was and that’s thanks to Garth Fundis, who was one
of the producers of New Grass Revival and we’re very good pals. Garth
owns the Sound Emporium, and yeah I knew I wanted a fiddle and banjo
duet, but then Garth and I were talking and he said, “You know what? I
found some old tapes downstairs of a
couple of fiddle and banjo duets with you and Courtney.” Man I got so
excited, and then of course we had to go through, for lack of a better
term, what I call the “tape baking” process, to make sure the tape could
be played without disintegrating, ’cause you know, it hadn’t been
played since 1976 which is when we cut that duet, so we went through the
tape restoration process and transferred it to digital. Much to my
delight, well there were two tunes, one that I thought I played pretty
poorly on, and then the other one sounded good, brought a smile to my
face. It was really nice, hearing the nice little hop Courtney had to
his playing, getting to hear that again. It was like playing a tune that
you’d never heard before, only that many years later, since 1976, so
yeah, I was thrilled about that.

Bronson: In 2009, you were
awarded the Lifetime Achievement for Instrumentalist Award from the
Americana Music Association. What an honor.

Sam Bush:
Well it really is ’cause I feel like I’m still learning (laughing).
Hopefully that doesn’t mean I’m over. Always thanks to Jed Hilly and for
all the work he does for americana music. Americana gives us all a
market to be in and americana encompasses so my different styles, thats
what I love about it. It’s not limited to one style of music or songs.
It can include instrumentalists, it can include bluegrass or folk music,
rock n’ roll. Certain people have called Bruce Springsteen americana, I
just think it’s great for the music world to have americana music.

Bronson:
You’ve recorded so many records and played on so many sessions with
other artists, and then you’ve played so much live. Do you have a
preference for playing live or playing in the studio?

Sam Bush: I guess the most fun is to play live and to get the immediate, to hear the
audience reaction ’cause that sort of feeds us on, but we’re
entertainers through music. In other words, it
isn’t a dance show or a large production, and that’s the story really,
of americana style music. We entertain through our music, but really, I
kinda like playing live more just ’cause it’s spontaneous and if you
make a mistake it’s already gone by (laughing). You don’t have to go in
the control room and edit out mistakes, but basically I love getting to
play. I love making music more than not making music, so they’re both
fun for me because the studio is it’s own reward too. All in all, live
music, and it excites me of course to be at a show, to be sitting in the
audience as well, more then anything.

Bronson: I had a friend
that told me one time Sam, “If you make a mistake Bronson, just play the
same thing exactly like that again and they’ll think it’s part of the song.”

Sam Bush: Yeah (laughing). I might of done it on purpose. Some
of my most exciting moments as a listener of music perhaps, when I’m
listening for instance, to old Allman
Brothers jams, and Duane is exploring. Sometimes you wonder if he aimed
to hit that note but then he makes more out of it and makes it a whole
new phrase of something he might not have ever played before.

Bronson:
With all these great musicians you’ve been blessed to play with, is
there anybody you always wanted to play with that you haven’t yet?

Sam Bush: Oh there’s lots of people. Yeah, I have been fortunate to play
with a lot of my heros. Sure, I’d love to play with Eric Clapton
sometime. I was sitting in the audience watching Jeff Beck recently at
the Ryman. One of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, ever, and I’d love
to play with Jeff Beck. You know we play electric in our band also, so I
play the Fender electric mandolin sometimes and I would give anything
to stand there and hear it come right off his amp. Just recently, Sonny
Lambreth sat in with our band and he’s a real guitar hero to me. As you
can tell I’m a fan of guitar players as well.

Bronson: Do you have any advice for any musicians out
there? You know, you’ve done it, you came to Nashville. Do you have an
advise for somebody that’s trying to do something with their career as a
musician?

Sam Bush: Well you just have to be consistent and remember
why you started playing music, and hopefully you started playing music
for the simple reason that you love the sound of music. I think it’s
realistic, as you progress as a musician, to just remember that you’re
trying to improve as a player and singer, and if notoriety comes from
that fine, but keep your eye on your goal which is to improve as a
player and singer.

Bronson: March of 2010, legislation was passed
in the state of Kentucky, naming your home town, Bowling Green,
Kentucky, as the “Birthplace of Newgrass” and you, Sam Bush, as the
“Father of Newgrass”.

Sam Bush: Well that’s a nice honor from the
state of Kentucky. You know it’s interesting, I can’t think of
myself that way because I have heros that I believe were already
playing progressive style bluegrass, that had already deviated from the
style of Bill Monroe, and Flatt and Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers. Such
as, that I may have mentioned earlier, The Country Gentleman and
especially The Ozborne Brothers, and the Dillards. But John Duffey, with
The Country Gentleman, I always thought he was the father of new
bluegrass (laughing), so it’s a nice honor and one that I really
appreciate the Kentucky legislature doing.

Bronson: Do you have anything coming up? Any events, any recordings, anything you want to
talk about and get out there to the folks?

Sam Bush: Actually I’m in
the process of looking through some past musical performances, because
we’ve recorded a lot of them. That’s one thing I’m doing, I just want to
look at sort of a catalog of things to see what could also be released.
In the meantime I’m still writing along, hoping to get some
writing done this week with some friends and really, once I get more
tunes assembled, then I’ll know which direction we’re going to record in
next time.

Bronson: Sam, I really appreciate it. I know you are
busy and it’s an honor to talk to you. Like I said man, for over 40
years I’ve been one of your biggest fans, flying your flag. It’s funny
’cause I know you’ve played all over the world and I have too, and
everywhere I go they know Sam Bush.

Sam Bush: Well I’m fortunate in
that way. Maybe it’s the kind of thing where if you just keep at it,
(laughing) keep doing it long enough, everybody knows you’re serious and
you’re gonna hang around.

Bronson: Well I think you’re secure, I believe that. Sam, I appreciate it so much.

Sam Bush: Hey, thank you.

You can find out much more about Sam Bush on his web site at www.sambush.com

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