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Beyond Bluegrass Mandolin by John McGann

The Sam Bush Interview

By Mandolin Cafe
April 11, 2010 - 7:00 pm

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Sam Bush with Sam Bush with "Hoss," his 1937 Gibson F5 mandolin, serial #95155.

Sam Bush is a beloved musical force.

Labels more narrow don't cover all the feelings and memories fans possess about Sam's fiery stage performances, expressive instrumental chops, honest singing and heart-true songwriting.

Kentucky legislators recently recognized Sam as the Father of Newgrass Music. He earned the title by leading incarnations of the Newgrass Revival and unapologetically blending music styles on stage and in recordings.

Sam once told me that he'd reluctantly accepted the Father of Newgrass mantle, even though other mandolin-playing greats such as Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne and Frank Wakefield blazed trails ahead of him. That's the thing. He's a high flier but one devoted to keeping things real.

We first think of Sam Bush as an acoustic musician, which is true. Yet he's long used electric amps on stage and he plays pure rock on a Fender electric mandolin. Sam is one of the greatest F5 mandolin players ever. But he's also a fine fiddler, guitarist and slide blues player on a resophonic mandolin.

I remember numerous times during the past three decades saying "wow," after hearing Sam improvise folk, jazz and rock licks into a spirit-touching solo. Stuck in my brain is the time a friend and I looked at each other and chuckled after he whipped out an extremely original lick while backing up an Emmy Lou Harris vocal with the Nash Ramblers in the 1990s.

But I also can't forget the Walnut Valley Music Festival in Winfield, Kan., about 1976 when newgrass felt so new and we stomped and clapped the Revival back on stage for an encore after a scorching 20-minute jam. We all braced for more.

Then they unleashed a perfect, high harmony and lonesome bluegrass version of Bill Monroe's "I'm Going Back to Old Kentucky," which reaffirmed that music's beauty.

Sam plays it all well and he's still seeking out new sounds. He's looking ahead to another 30 years on stage and in studio, and we love him for it.

 — Bill Graham

Bill Graham is a freelance writer and musician rambling about western Missouri.

Listen while you read

Sam Bush and Del McCoury perform Midnight On The Stormy Deep, from Sam's newest recording, Circles Around Me.

NOTE: download a free MP3 of the track above by going to sambush.com, scrolling to the bottom of the page and entering the coupon code mandolincafe in the "Redeem" section, then submit and follow the instructions provided. At the end of the process a download link will be sent to your email address.

Question from Scott Holt: How has being a fiddler changed your approach to playing mandolin?

Sam Bush: I use both instruments with their strengths in mind. Mandolin—no sustain and attack of the right hand, for rhythm. Fiddle—use sustain of the bow and the ability to slide the non-fretted notes, like singing.

Question from fishtownmike: Sam, I'm interested in your opinion on your signature line of Gibson strings, which are not the standard bronze wound, but a nickel alloy wrap. What are the advantages you feel they offer over standard strings?

Sam Bush: It's just plain fact that I can make any string dead quickly. The mona-steel strings stay "live" for me longer than the bronze. I've used Gibson Mona-Steel since I was a kid, so I'm used to them, and love the gauges (.11, .14, .25, .41), and they sound great on both Hoss and my Sam Bush model F-5s.

Question from Darryl Wolfe: I've always admired your ability to "lag" the beat preventing that "rushed" feel to your music. Can you explain how you developed that? Was it a conscious effort? Just the way things turned out?

Sam Bush's new recording Circles Around Me, 2009. Click to purchase at sambush.com. Sam Bush's new recording Circles Around Me, 2009. Click to purchase at sambush.com.

Sam Bush: I think, for me, it's more of a natural "feel thing." Playing drums in my high school marching band helped me learn to sub-divide the beats and syncopation. As a senior in high school, I took violin lessons and part of my training was a "college freshman rhythm course" that was SO valuable, such as learning to play 3 beats against 4.

Question from Perry: One of my favorite instructional materials and favorite learning formats is the book/CD you put out on Homespun titled "Sam Bush Teaches Mandolin Repertoire and Technique." In this day of DVDs is there ever a chance of putting out a book/CD package again?

Sam Bush: I'm hoping to do another Homespun course this year. Happy Traum and I keep playing phone tag. I'm not sure what the format will be, but I have always found visuals (video/DVD) helpful when I can watch the right/left hand movements.

Question from SternART: Can you share a good Jethro story with us? I'm very pleased that you have custody of his custom red mandolin. There's some real mojo in that instrument.

New Grass Revival, circa 1976. L-R: Courtney Johnson, Curtis Burch, Sam Bush, John Cowan. Photo credit: Jim McGuire. New Grass Revival, circa 1976. L-R: Courtney Johnson, Curtis Burch, Sam Bush, John Cowan. Photo credit: Jim McGuire.

Sam Bush: New Grass Revival (me, John, Curtis, Courtney) was playing the same festival in Red River, New Mexico in 1976. Jethro is on stage, we're in the audience listening when he shouts out, "Hey Bush, you ever wear a garter belt?" All faces turn to me, I don't know what he's talking about... blank! Then comes his punch, "I do, ever since my wife found one in my glove compartment. You'll get used to it." He was always doing that stuff to me... And I loved every minute of him.

Question from Mandolin Cafe: We had several members asking you baseball questions. Care to give us your general rundown on the 2010 season and the Cardinals' chances?

Sam Bush: We're only in early spring training, so I don't have an informed opinion regarding all the other teams. However, I DO like the Cardinals chances of winning the National League Central. And, let's just say, the whole shebang! World Series bound!

Related Questions from Mike Marshall and Dennis Ladd:

From Mike Marshall - The chop!? How the hell!!? And, thank you...

From Dennis - Could you talk a little about "thwack" versus chop? Is that a concept that developed from playing in your Nashville music mafia?

Sam Bush: Gator! and Dennis, I'm not sure I know the difference between the "thwack" and the chop. It's part Bill Monroe, John Duffey, Bob Marley, Django Reinhardt, and being a huge fan of many drummers. Most notably, Stuart Copeland (the Police).

Short Trip Home. Sam Bush, Mike Marshall Edgar Meyer and Joshua Bell, 1999. Click to puchase from amazon.com. Short Trip Home. Sam Bush, Mike Marshall Edgar Meyer and Joshua Bell, 1999. Click to puchase from amazon.com.

Question from Ken_P: Your playing on Bela Fleck's bluegrass albums is what got me to start on mandolin in the first place. Thank you! Even though I don't play bluegrass as much anymore, I'd still love to be able to play rhythm like you do. One of my favorite albums that you worked on is Short Trip Home, with Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall, and Joshua Bell. What was that experience like, learning how to adapt your sound to that kind of music? It sounds like such a natural mix once you listen to it, but it must have taken a lot of work to get it sounding right.

Sam Bush: Edgar Meyer is a true genius in the way he can write for different instruments. It was very challenging to play, but at least I got to play my main instrument—mandolin. Mike Marshall had to play guitar! It was also a stretch for me to have to read music, again. Joshua Bell plays by reading, we three can play by ear. I learned that when one person needs to read, we all need to read.

Question from Joe Parker: Sam, hi! Inquiring minds want to know. You have a full head of hair, all your teeth; you never seem to gain any weight or age much for that matter. You play the mandolin, you sing, you're a snazzy dresser and add glitz and glamour to just about every project you've been a part of. How do you keep it all in perspective and what other facets of your life provide the balance for a guy who seemingly has it all? It would be nice to know that perhaps you do yard work, help your wife with the laundry, or between gigs you will occasionally have to stop for milk, bread, or panty hose. I suppose I am a little envious of all that talent but I would like to know that you have a life beyond show business.

Sam Bush: Lynn, my wife, would very much appreciate if I had a talent for anything besides music [insert laugh track here]. I am a fine cabana boy when the need arises, better at cooking, an award-winning laundry folder, and I can execute a triple with the best of them: bank, post office, grocery! I'm an avid sports watcher and consider myself the luckiest man in the world that I'm married to a beautiful lady who is my marriage partner, business partner, and incredible sports fan (and jock) as well.

Sam Bush Band - Ridin That Bluegrass Train

Question from Don Stiernberg (aka little Donnie Steinbrenner):

Dear Sam, I would extend the usual Jethro style greeting, but this is a family show!

Seriously, thanks for coming to play the University of Chicago Folk Festival with NGR back in the '70s. If not for you, I'd probably be in another line of work. When I had hair, I grew it long and got a long-sleeve T-shirt in pursuit of the look AND the sound. When Jethro asked at my first lesson what I wanted to learn, I said, "I'd like to play like Sam Bush."

Sam Bush performs after being honored on March 17, 2008 with a resolution from the Commonwealth of Kentucky for his contributions to New Grass music. Click to read full story. Sam Bush performs after being honored on March 17, 2008 with a resolution from the Commonwealth of Kentucky for his contributions to New Grass music. Click to read full story.

I'm wondering how you transmit new material to the cats in your band--do you use charts, recordings, or are things just worked out by ear or on stage? Similarly, what happens with projects like Strength in Numbers, Short Trip Home, Soulgrass, etc.? It would seem that on more involved stuff it would help to have something to look at, but perhaps unnecessary given the rare air talent levels.

Sam Bush: When I write a tune, I usually make a demo playing all the instruments myself. I then play the demos for my band (or whoever I'm working with) and they contribute their ideas and it becomes an arrangement. The contributions to the song we refine throughout rehearsals and/or sound checks. With Strength In Numbers band (Jerry, Mark, Bela, Edgar, and me): We all arranged together as we went... Short Trip Home record (Joshua, Mike, Edgar, and Moi): Edgar had the arrangements written, including places marked "improv." Bill Evans (sax) and Soulgrass: Bill arranges and I make charts because there is SO much to remember.

Question from Wesley: Assuming you own an iPod, what would we find in it that would surprise us? What music are you listening to outside of the string music/Americana bag for inspiration?

Sam Bush: On the iPod: Bob & Tom, Marilyn Manson, David Allen Grier, Devo, The O'Jays, Paul Anka's Rock Swings, and The Ramones. Just an example of the extremes...

In the great big music world: John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins & Les Paul, The Band, The Police, Hall & Oates, assorted comedy including Crank Yankers and the National Lampoon Radio Hour, The Beatles, Little Feat, and Norman Blake.

Question from fusionacustica: Two questions: would you ever consider retiring "Hoss" from the road, and will there ever be a New Grass Revival reunion, tour and CD/DVD?

"Hoss," Sam Bush's 1937 Gibson F5 mandolin, serial #95155. Photo credit: Bill Graham. Click to enlarge.

Sam Bush: Hoss could be retired from the road some day, but he's doing just fine for now! Hoss (since he came to me in 1973) is on the fourth fingerboard. This one, installed by David Harvey of Gibson, is the same board that goes on the Gibson Sam Bush model mandos. It feels terrific and plays in tune better than any I've ever had. I've stopped taking Hoss to the mountains in winter. The wood is old and dry and always needs repair afterwards (he goes to the spa). I have a few SB models for these times and one in particular, Little Joe (circa 2000) that could become the heir apparent.

AAAHHH, the NGR question: It's been 20 years since we played together and the separation has been quite successful. I'm having a ball with my band, my music, and my time; but I'm old enough to have learned to never say never. No plans anytime soon.

Question from Jim Murton: If you could assemble a "supergroup" of musicians living or dead to play with, who would you choose?

Sam Bush: Supergroup? I am fortunate to play in my supergroup every performance with my band: Byron House, Chris Brown, Scott Vestal, and Stephen Mougin. I have had the opportunity to have played with many of my heroes: Vassar Clements, Jean-Luc Ponty, Clarence White, Bill Monroe, Jethro Burns, Earl Scruggs, Josh Graves, Jerry Douglas, Lester Flatt, Roy Huskey, Dave Holland, Stephan Grappelli, Django Reinhardt, Edgar Meyer, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck to name a few. Have picked with most of these, others I'm still waiting.

Question from chasray: On Peaks of Telluride you do a version of "Same Ol' River" that has Jerry Douglas jumping in there. I think I heard or read somewhere that he wasn't even supposed to play with you on that. It seems like a special moment—a pleasant surprise. What has happened lately on stage that you remember as a special moment or pleasant surprise? By the way, there is no way you can really know how appreciated you are.

"Hoss." Photo credit: Bill Graham. Click to enlarge.

Sam Bush: Jerry's always a pleasant surprise, whether planned or as, in your question, we didn't know he was out there.

Special moments, I have had SO many! I am a fortunate man. To name a few: Playing with Bill Evans & Soulgrass with Dennis Chambers on drums. Performing with Levon Helm at the Ryman in Nashville. Recording on Joshua Bell's new record (CD, whatever). Having a sometime touring trio with Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer. Every time Scott Vestal plays a solo! And, I'm looking forward to the next surprise that comes my way.

Question from JimRichter: In my opinion, you're one of the few mandolinists who truly has carved his own signature sound. You're as instantly recognizable on mandolin as Neil Young is on guitar. Same could be said of the members of any incarnation of the Revival. Courtney is still the gold standard for me of what a banjoist should be. Your signature sound, energy, and genre jumping was what got me playing music so many years ago.

If you could, please talk about what steps you took to define/refine your own style (in terms of rhythm, use of octaves, blues and rock influences, etc.) and if at any time you might have felt limited by it.

As the others have said, thanks for participating.

Sam Bush: Thank you, all of you.

By listening to, and my interest in so many other instruments and pickers such as Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Wes Montgomery, Leon Russell, Bob Marley, Ian Anderson, Jean-Luc Ponty, John McGlaughlin, and so many others. Just being open to and interested in all kinds of music.

Sam Bush Gear Facts:

Sam's instruments, circa 2008. Photo credit: Bill Graham. Click to enlarge. Sam's instruments, circa 2008. Photo credit: Bill Graham. Click to enlarge.

Main instruments: 1937 Gibson F-5 (Hoss), 2000 Gibson Sam Bush model (Little Joe), 1938 National metal body mandolin, 2009 custom Fender Electric mandolin (copy of my older one), my old red fiddle/circa early 1900s, 1976 Cat's Eyes guitar.

Fiddle - Barcus Berry Bridge.

National slide mandolin - Highlander

Acoustic guitar - Highlander

Strings: Gibson Sam Bush strings

Picks: Plastic .96

Pickups: Mandolin - Barcus Berry Hot Dot (made in the '70s)

Instrument cases: Form fitted F-12 style mando case, Calton mando and guitar cases, custom Anvil for the Fender electric mando and the National slide.

Microphone preferences (stage and studio): Mando - Countryman Isomax II mounted on mando. Shure Beta 58 (vocal). Shure 57 (mando, if playing acoustic). Studio - Neuman's KM 84 or KM 184.

A Select Sam Bush Discography

Sam Bush - Laps In Seven, 2006. Click to purchase at sambush.com. Sam Bush - Laps In Seven, 2006. Click to purchase at sambush.com.

Solo Projects

Circles Around Me (2009)
On The Road - DVD (1996)
Laps In Seven (2006)
King Of My World (2004)
Ice Caps - Peaks of Telluride (2000)
Howlin' At The Moon (1998)
Glamour & Grits (1996)
Late As Usual (1985)

With New Grass Revival

The Best of New Grass Revival (1994)
New Grass Revival (1994)
When The Storm Is Over/Fly Through The Country (re-issue 1991)
New Grass Anthology (1990)
Friday Night in America (1989)
Hold to a Dream (1987)
New Grass Revival (1986)
On the Boulevard (1984)
Live (1984)
Commonwealth (1981)
Barren County (1979)
Too Late to Turn Back Now (1977)
When the Storm Is Over (1977)
Fly Through The Country (1975)
New Grass Revival (1972)

Select Projects

Sam Bush & David Grisman - Hold On, We're Strummin' (2003)
Short Trip Home - with Mike Marshall, Edgar Meyer and Joshua Bell (1999)
The Telluride Sessions - Strength In Numbers (1989)
Sam Bush & Alan Munde - Together Again For The First Time (1977)

Additional Information

Sam's web site
Sam Bush - A Perpetual Motion Musician at Play
Sam's mandolin from the Mandolin Archive
Bluegrass Alliance MySpace Tribute

Sam Bush with Bluegrass Alliance, 1971

The Bluegrass Alliance - 1971 (live performance featuring Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker & Lonnie Peerce).

© Mandolin Cafe

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Reader Comments

GTG
April 13, 2010 12:19 AM
Marylin Manson? The Ramones? Oh my! Here's to musical open-mindedness.

Thanks, Scott, for another great interview from a musical hero. Love that 'One Tin Soldier' version from '71 too.
grassrootphilosopher
April 13, 2010 03:54 AM
What a nice interview. Like with the Don Stiernberg interview it shows that musicians are "average" people.

What I missed though is a comment of how Sam Bush's sound evolved over the years. But heck, when you play on innumerable records you may just forget about what devellopment the playing style had.

Since Peter Rowan's bluegrass band comes to England this year (Didmarton bluegrass festival) and Hot Rize playes the prestigeous Tönder Folk Festival I am looking forward to be able to experience Sam Bush in Europe. When's the time, when? I would surely take a couple of days off, do a bit of driving ..., just like in '99 when J.D. Crowe came to Zürich (CH).
Scott Tichenor
April 13, 2010 06:27 AM
Happy Birthday to Sam today, April 13.
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