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Sam Bush - A Perpetual Motion Musician at Play

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
July 20, 2008 - 7:00 pm

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

Sam Bush is only a few steps away from his tour bus when deep reggae bass notes make him smile and break into a cakewalk dance step enroute to the stage.

There's no audience, he's alone, but for stage hands conducting a sound check and getting ready for a free outdoor concert in the park at Olathe, Kan., on a hot afternoon.

Bush is simply moved by musical joy.

It's the same type of joy he will pour out that night in a profound, nonstop newgrass, bluegrass, rockgrass and jazzgrass set lasting more than two hours.

Audience members would have been happy with the same old Sam.

Instead, they sat stunned as he burned through all types of material—old and new—with a band that is likely his tightest and hottest ensemble yet, one that takes his newgrass influences to new levels.

Which is a feat since Bush has been at this since the 1970s.

Yet he's still playing with fire and emotion, still creating.

"I just feel like I've got a long way to go myself," Bush said, sitting in his tour bus before the show. "I'm not where I want to be as a player."

Playing with great musicians feeds the fire, he says.

On this tour it's Byron House, bass; Chris Brown, drums; Scott Vestal, banjo, and Stephen Mougin, guitars.

And it's a tad more complicated than that description.

House on this night plays five-string bass, four-string fretless and a plugged in version of a standup acoustic bass.

Brown's drumming is always on the money, never in the way.

Vestal plays all styles of banjo on various instruments, including one plugged through a synthesizer that gives electric organ-type chords on new age and rockgrass tunes.

Mougin plays both acoustic and electric guitars in various tunings.

Bush plays acoustic mandolin, straight fiddle and phase-shifted fiddle, a National resonator mandolin set up with four strings for electric slide work, and electric four-string Fender mandolin that he absolutely seared a rock number with as if he was on a Tele.

As great as all the individual players are on stage, it's obvious they're following Bush's lead—his influence is guiding—even if he encourages them to jam out.

"I get to playing in so many different (musical) areas, it keeps me in need of practice and trying to stay sharp on these tunes," Bush said, "That's my goal, to try and stay sharp."

What a huge musical spirit he must have burning inside.

And there are still new paths.

Such as Bush helping one Bill move closer to another Bill, as in Evans to Monroe.

Saxophone great Bill Evans, a Miles Davis and John McLaughlin alum, has two Soulgrass recordings out. They offer bluegrass-influenced jazz that he's written and recorded with Bush and other acoustic legends. Bush has also appeared onstage with Evans.

"Bill explains it to me, he's enjoying learning a new language," Bush said. "I play Bill Monroe stuff for him and he loves it."

Bush doesn't consider himself a jazz player, but rather a guy unleashing newgrass licks in a jazz chord setting.

Such as a version of "Darling Cory" that Evans took from a Monroe record and added jazz chords and timing.

That's what he lives for, the music and the changes in that different players bring, the sounds that bounce back from people.

"If I can't play with other musicians," Bush said, "I can't think of anything new."

The talent he hears in young musicians wows him.

As for the music's future though, he doesn't know, it's a surprise.

"I've never planned a direction," Bush said. "It really boils down to the opportunities with the musicians you get to play with. You never know when you're going to meet a musician who's great that you're going to get to play with for a long time."

More for Bush fans:

Old Hoss, the '37 Gibson F5: "Hoss is still on the road. Last year David Harvey of Gibson put on the fourth fretboard since I've owned Hoss. I thought maybe he was done for, but he brought it back."

The Sam Bush model: he owns several and uses them onstage and in studio. However, nothing is as totally satisfying to him as Hoss.

Website: - good tour and other info.

What's next: "I've been writing a lot in the past year, singing songs and instrumentals. I've never put out an all original recording. But I've been writing a lot, and hopefully I'll go into the studio in January and record one for a spring release."

Stage show key: soundman Ryan Reynosa did a great job of mixing numerous instruments played in various styles in a loud outdoor setting.

Bush up close: "Sam is one of the most generous people I've ever worked for," said road manager Rob Stokes, "and generous in many ways."

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