Award-winning bluegrass mandolinist Sam Bush loves all kinds of styles
February 24, 2015
Sam Bush loves bluegrass music.
The multi-Grammy Award-winning mandolinist said one reason is because the music comes from the heart.
"It’s a sincere music that doesn’t revolve around the trends of radio airplay or television performances," Bush said during a phone call from Nashville, Tennessee. "It revolves around what we play and sing."
Bush and his band will show Park City why they love this music during a performance at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, Feb. 28.
"I love Park City," Bush said. "I’m glad to be going back."
The band — Bush, drummer Chris Brown, banjoist Scott Vestal, guitarist and singer Stephen Mougin and bassist Todd Parks — will play music from Bush’s four-decade music career.
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"It amazes me to think that I graduated from high school in 1970 and within a couple of months was playing music for a living," he said. "Come August, I will be a professional musician for 45 years."
The mandolinist’s road to music was instilled in him when he was growing up on a tobacco and cattle farm in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
"Our parents were huge music fans and my mom played guitar and my dad played some fiddle and mandolin," Bush said. "We would listen to the Grand Ol’ Opry on the radio Friday and Saturday nights and, being only 60 miles from Nashville, had the advantage of watching Nashville TV stations, when my dad climbed on the roof and set the antenna right."
The goal of Bush’s parents was to give their children options.
"They didn’t want us to work as hard as them," Bush said. "They wanted us off the farm, and I was the only one that chose music as profession."
Bush was attracted to the mandolin and fiddle after watching bluegrass legends Bill Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, Bob Osborne of the Osborne Brothers and the Dillards, but was also fascinated by rock and roll.
"I also grew up and saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Jefferson Airplane and Eric Clapton in Cream and I saw the Everly Brothers," he said. "So I picked up guitar and played electric guitar and bass in high school rock bands."
Bush’s heart, however, was still in love with bluegrass because that’s what most of the mandolin players performed.
"One time my family went to the Grand Ol’ Opry and met Roy Acuff and his great sideman on the dobro, Bashful Brother Oswald," Bush said. "My dad became good friends with them and one night, Mr. Acuff threw me on the Opry stage when I was 16."
Being a music lover, Bush would experiment with other genres and play them in the bluegrass style.
The reggae of Bob Marley and Wailers was one of those genres.
"I remember when I first heard the Wailers," Bush chuckled. "We were trying out for Leon Russell’s label Shelter back in 1974 and we played in a studio in Tulsa and someone told us we just missed the Wailers.
"I didn’t know who they were or what reggae was," he said.
But when Bush heard the song "Natty Dread," the first thing he noticed was the rhythm guitar.
"It sounded a lot like how Bill Monroe made the mandolin chop on the backbeat," Bush said. "Then I discovered how the bass and drums work and realized Bob’s great songs were not just for Jamaica, but universal for the whole world."
In the past 45 years, Bush has performed with everyone from Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett to Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas.
One of the most surprising collaborations was with the band Kiss.
"When I had Newgrass Revival in the 1980s, this young guy from Oklahoma named Garth Brooks opened for us," Bush said. "A few years later, after he made it huge in country music, Garth was asked to sing ‘Hard Luck Woman’ on the Kiss tribute album, ‘Kiss My Ass.’
"Kiss played the music, but I was called in to overdub the mandolin," Bush said. "I wasn’t able to meet the band because they had recorded their instruments earlier, but I may be the only mandolinist to play on a Kiss record. I don’t know."
In the past couple of years, Bush has worked with other artists including the Black Crowes and the Augusta Ballet in Georgia.
"It’s pretty interesting," he said. "I’ve been blessed in that way. I love the variety in music, so getting to play with all kinds of musicians is interesting to me."
In doing so, Bush has caught the attention of his musical peers and has received many accolades and awards including multiple International Bluegrass Association awards and Grammy Awards.
"I don’t pretend that I play just bluegrass for a living but I am being nominated alongside these guys who do," he said. "So, to be included in those groups is very gratifying because I believe bluegrass can be the most technically challenging music to play."
The three Grammy Awards have all been for different projects.
One of them, Country Vocal Group of the Year, was for his work with Emmylou Harris on her album "Live at the Ryman."
"That was neat because it was purely live," Bush said. "There was no fixing it and that’s the way we played it. It was also the year the Milli Vanilli got caught not singing their songs."
The second Grammy was for Pop Instrumental Group for sessions Bush sat in with Bela Fleck and the last was Record of the Year for playing on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack.
"Those are three totally different categories," Bush said. "It’s interesting to see how Grammys work."
In 2010, the Kentucky state legislation named Bush the Father of Newgrass.
"I admit I was uncomfortable with that title for a while because I didn’t start a new way to play bluegrass," he confessed. "I was influenced by people such as the Osborne Brothers and John Duffy and those guys.
"We grew up hearing these musicians taking bluegrass instruments and playing new kinds of music," he said. "So when we formed [the band] Newgrass Revival, it was a revival of the newgrass style."
Still, the motion was appreciated, Bush said.
"I was honored on the Kentucky State Senate floor and for a kid that grew up on a tobacco and cattle farm in Kentucky, it was still a big deal," he said.
The Park City Institute will present bluegrass great Sam Bush at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Saturday, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $69 and are available by calling 435-655-3114 or by visiting http://www.ecclescenter.org.
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