By Kevin Wilson
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 that 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.”
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.
His wife’s family is still based here, so Bush is a relatively frequent visitor to Louisville. But this summer a road trip will be required to see Bush reunite with Bela Fleck to form the core of the Bluegrass All-Stars, one of the high-profile headliners, at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.
The festival runs June 12-15 and is well worth the drive. For more information, including a complete schedule, visit www.bonnaroo.com.