Photo courtesy of Paradigm Talent Agency
When Sam Bush started his career in the early seventies, he was an unlikely candidate for bluegrass royalty. Accompanied by a band of scruffy, long-haired pickers, his irreverent takes on bluegrass were met with scorn and outright enmity by many of the older fans. But the elder statesmen of the time were surprisingly open to what Bush was doing, and in time, older fans grew to appreciate his dedication and talent.
A new generation grew up revering Bush for his innovative ideas, incorporating the works of Bob Marley into his sets (“One Love” and “Coming in from the Cold” make regular appearances) and even touring with the Wailers after Marley's death. Bush also embraced jazz, playing and recording with Ornette Coleman bassist Charlie Haden.
Today Bush is considered an elder statesman of bluegrass, and the mandolinist's home state of Kentucky officially dubbed him “the father of Newgrass.”
Bush's latest release, Storyman
, is a musical scrapbook of his escapades and musings on life in general, all cowritten with friends including Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark. Bush spoke to the INDY
from a tour stop in New York City before he performs at the Carolina Theatre in Durham tomorrow night. Tickets are still available here.
: You aren't performing at IBMA in Raleigh this year. I thought you could get ex-communicated or declared backslid if you did something like that.
Well, I don't think I could get kicked out. As it turns out, my band is playing that Saturday in Columbia, Missouri, then we continue on a weeklong trip that takes us northeast. As it turned out, we were already booked. For the last few years, I've also been booked at the Red Hat Amphitheater in coordination with the IBMA Festival, so I've been there the last three years. All festivals need to rotate their talent, we can't all be there this year. But I love IBMA, I love bluegrass. I'm sorry I'm not gonna be there to congratulate Sierra Hull on the mandolin award, I hope.
Even though its been seven years since your last record, you said it wasn't from a lack of something to do, because you'd been on other folks' records. Who have you been hanging with on record for nearly a decade?
Well, I've been playing on a lot of other records in the last seven years, I wouldn't know. I know I was–basically been busy with my band, lot of that time in the past five or six years been spent writing with my friends. That was the goal of this CD, and for the first time, I cowrote all the songs on the record. On the one before this, Circles Around Me
, I had that goal in mind at first, but then it was obvious to me it was the right time to get Del McCoury for a couple of duets and explore a few old songs I really enjoyed when I was a kid, such as “Diamond Joe,” and “You Left Me Alone,” Country Gentlemen tunes and stuff like that. But this time around, writing the tunes took me a while, and there were quite a few other songs besides the ones we used. I'm well aware that people love to buy songs one at a time, and that's cool, but I like to listen to a whole record. Sometimes it might take me two or three listens before I can really figure out whether I'm enjoying that project or not. I'm hoping people can enjoy it that way, too.
Even though you and Guy Clark (who passed away in May at age seventy-four, due to cancer) have been friends for years, you said it was intimidating to sit down and write with him. Obviously you overcame that for "Carcinoma Blues," and not only that, but approached such a personal subject as both of your battles with cancer. How did you approach him about that and how did you come to terms with talking about your own experience?
Well, it sure can be, and I think it just comes from me. It's nothing Guy put out; he was a very giving and loving person and encouraging to other songwriters. I think that was my perception of what high esteem I hold Guy in, and his talent and his writing talent. So yeah, it was intimidating for me at first to sit down and even tell Guy of a lyric I had in mind, because I respect him so much. Back about 2008, we wrote “The Carcinoma Blues."
It was a few weeks later when he called me and said, "Hey, me and Verlon Thompson have a song about String Bean and a still and we need a real hillbilly to write this (“The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle"
) with us," so I joined them for that. Ended up doing “The Ballard of Stringbean and Estelle” on the Circles Around Me
record. This one laid around for a few years, wasn't sure if it should be sung or if I should record it. Got back with Guy about a year ago and we reviewed the song, and Guy's overview of the song was, "Add these two words right here on this verse, and it's complete." So once Guy said it, I felt like it was OK to record.
It must have been tough for you—your dad was dying of cancer when you wrote that song.
He was, and I had just been through my second one, in 2007, so yeah—it was written by a couple of guys who were going through it at the time. Guy, I would ask him from time to time how he was doing, and he'd tell me, 'Aw, I just tell 'em to give me the chemo, I don't even ask anymore.” I'm sure that wasn't really the case, but that's what he told his friends. He was somethin'.
Let's talk for a minute about the song you wrote with Emmylou, “Hand Mics Killed Country Music.” Sturgill Simpson wrote a post on Facebook criticizing the ACM over its Merle Haggard Award, saying "If the ACM wants to actually celebrate the legacy and music of Merle Haggard, they should drop all the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit they've been pumping down rural America's throat for the last 30 years and start dedicating their programs to more actual Country Music” He also quoted Haggard, saying he was confused by the genre's direction: “They're talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature. I don't find no substance.”
Our song, “Hand Mics,” I had that notion for little while and really I mean for it to be lighthearted. I think we can all look and see that there's a thriving country music industry, and great country singers doing it. Emmy and I really think that music sort of changed somewhat when people quit playing their guitars and started using hand mics. Even though he's not mentioned in the song, Elvis Presley, when he quit playing guitar in recordings, they didn't sound like they sounded anymore. His rhythm was part of that sound. Hank Williams's rhythm guitar was part of those records. Sonny James was a great guitar player. We realized we always paid attention to the kinds of guitars people played. You were identified with it. The Everly Brothers had matching what became Everly Brothers models. The Wilburn Brothers matching J-200s. Don Gibson's Super 400 Gibson. Porter Wagoner's J-200. Lester Flatt, Martin D-28. Ernest Tubb, Epiphone. It's just a lighthearted look at that because we still like the guitars; we love to see 'em.
You said recently that you had never cut a country song before. That seems incredible with your knowledge and study of all kinds of music and the fact that you live in Nashville.
Well, I've played on a lot of them, and that's part of living in Nashville. You get opportunities to play on country records, and so for me it's always been a challenge: Can I fit in with that kind of music? Of course, I can, because I grew up close to Nashville. I've been a fan of country music and bluegrass and folk music all my life. But in terms of this song, Emmylou and I wrote this one to be a country shuffle. I had never recorded that type of song, and actually hadn't recorded on any of my records with a pedal steel guitar.
So, in thinking of recording this country shuffle song, I didn't feel I was well versed in that style except on the fiddle, and I knew how to do that stuff on the fiddle, so I called the great piano player Pig Robbins, one of the architects of Nashville music. I called Pig and got his answering machine and told him I'd like to do a country shuffle and would appreciate his help in cutting the song—not just overdubbing, but cutting the song with us, and felt he could help guide us. Pig called back within about ten minutes and he said “Country shuffle! I haven't played on one of those in twenty years.” I said, "Come on!" When he was there, I asked him if he would also overdub on “Carcinoma Blues” and it made that tune swing a little better after he played on it. It was great.
On the first song on the record, “Play By Your Own Rules,” the melody sounds like an old English madrigal. It's a great juxtaposition with the forward-thinking, push-ahead lyrics. Where did you get your idea for the melody on that?
Well, we think of it more as a fiddle tune melody, but I can see where that melody sounds like it maybe came from another country. We were looking for that kind of melody to drive this tune, and then we wanted to make a positive statement with that song, and many of them are on this recording. We were looking for a positive statement—simply, control your destiny.
Your home state of Kentucky has officially named you "the father of newgrass.” Back in the days when you were playing in Camp Springs with the New Grass Revival, did you feel part of a movement, or was it just a few young guys trying to incorporate some music they loved from their generation into some older music that they loved?
Well, no, we didn't feel like we were part of a movement. And when I say we, it was bands like us, New Grass Revival, but before we were playing, the New Deal String Band from Chapel Hill
was already doing this when I was a senior in high school. So New Deal Sting Band, Newgrass Revival, and later a band from the Northeast, Breakfast Special
, that had Tony Trischka and Andy Statman in it. Carlton Haney was the promoter that would include the young people in the progressive bluegrass, and Carlton enjoyed the fact that we were all trying to make our own kind of music with bluegrass instruments. It's funny. We would play in the afternoon on these festivals and then later at night would do two sets— we'd never get on before midnight, the way festivals tend to run behind through the day. And I did ask him once, "Carlton, can we play a little earlier?" And he said, 'Well, you could, but that's when your people are awake.”
So many a festival, New Grass Revival and Breakfast Special would just band together and play both bands in a big jam onstage and have a great time. But we really didn't feel like we were part of a movement, because all of us who were enjoying the progressive bluegrass, we would be the ones running from the campgrounds to come up and hear Ralph Stanley play. Or, at Camp Springs one year, everybody was really jazzed because Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys were there. So we loved bluegrass and we were still just looking up to the people we learned from.