After 50 years in the business, mandolinist Sam Bush still considers himself a student of music
What: Sam Bush
When: 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday, March 6-8
Where: Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St.
Cost: Friday’s tickets range from $39-$59, and Saturday and Sunday tickets are $45-$65
Multi-Grammy-winning mandolinist Sam Bush considers himself a student of music, although he’s been playing professionally since the early 1960s.
Bush, who will perform three nights starting Friday at the Egyptian Theatre, first learned about music through his father while growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
“My dad played the fiddle, and he’d have all of these fiddle records by the great Grand Ole Opry fiddle player, Tommy Jackson,” Bush said. “Tommy was the one of the guys who wrote the book on how you play country fiddle on songs like how he would play on Ray Price records.”
Back then, fiddle players weren’t listed on some of the albums they played on, according to Bush.
“So Tommy decided he would make his own instrumental albums,” Bush said.
While listening to these records, Bush would often hear the sound of the mandolin playing along with Tommy, often in unison.
“I grew to love the sound of the mandolin, and darned if I didn’t end up playing both instruments,” he said.
Bush would dive into other records by Bob Osborne of the Osborne Brothers, Jesse McReynolds of Jim and Jesse, and the “Father or Bluegrass,” Bill Monroe.
“When I first saw Bill Monroe play the mandolin on TV, I was sold,” Bush said.
Throughout his career, Bush would pay attention to other musicians such as Doc Watson and reggae icon Bob Marley.
“Doc Watson led by example, and I would think back to the time when I had the opportunity to play with him when I was really young,” Bush said. “When you played with him, you really had to be on your toes, because it was an exercise about learning how to perform.”
One of the things Watson taught Bush was not to overplay.
“Young people want to play a lot of notes, and I was one of those people back then,” Bush said. “So I really had to up my game to keep up with Doc.”
When Bush first listened to Bob Marley, he immediately heard a connection between reggae and bluegrass.
“Through the way my crazy brain worked I noticed Bob’s rhythm guitar playing,” Bush said. “It sounded almost like how Bill Monroe played mandolin rhythm.”
So Bush did what any experimental musician would do: He introduced Bob Marley songs into his setlist.
“It wasn’t spurred by the idea of introducing my audience to Bob Marley,” he said. “It was just hearing that music made me want to play differently and try different things.”
Sometimes those different things Bush wanted to try meant collaborating with his peers, such as banjoist Bela Fleck, dobro player Jerry Douglass, fiddle player Mark O’Connor and string bassist Edgar Meyer in a group called Strength in Numbers in the early 1970s.
“When you find yourself playing alongside people like that, it’s not a competitive thing, but a communication thing,” Bush said. “We had realized we were all one in our communication with each other and it was time to collaborate.”
Bush, who still plays with those musicians in different projects, enjoyed his time working with them in the group.
“You’re only as good as the weakest link in the band, and in that way, we were all pretty much equal, and we would spur each other on,” he said. “When one of us would play something, the others would think of something else and do it together.”
That type of musical connection exists in Bush’s own band that features drummer Chris Brown, guitarist Stephen “Mojo” Mougin, bassist Todd Parks and new banjoist Wes Corbett.
“I am inspired by the band I play with, and with Wes, we have a new voice,” he said. “He’s already playing things that make us smile and want to collaborate with.”
Although Bush has been performing music professionally for more than 50 years, he still doesn’t see himself as someone who has influenced younger musicians such as the Punch Brothers, Steep Canyon Rangers and Greensky Bluegrass.
“If anything, I think of us as contemporaries,” he said. “We play the same festivals, and when we do, I tend to think of them more as my playing friends.”
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