"At first, I think traditionalists in bluegrass were afraid that everyone was going to play like us and that there wouldn't be the continuation of the traditional sounds," Bush notes from his home in Nashville. He's just in from touring in Lyle Lovett's band. "The kind of jazz that influenced us then was John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I had been a fan of violinist Jerry Goodman and I knew of McLaughlin. When Bela Fleck joined New Grass Revival (in 1981), he brought a real love of jazz into the band. He turned us on to more traditional kinds of jazz and I turned him on to fusion jazz."
New Grass Revival was a seminal band whose stature has continued to grow since its 1989 demise. A band that was equally comfortable playing beside Bill Monroe or opening for the Grateful Dead, NGR decided to call it quits when Fleck announced that after eight years as its banjo player, he was leaving to form his Flecktones. Ironically, NGR was at its commercial peak with a single, "Calling Baton Rouge." Garth Brooks would later reunite the band in the studio to help him cover the song for himself.
Indeed, if you've listened to country music in the past 10 years, you've heard Sam Bush. A highly sought-after studio and touring musician, he boasts a list of credits including, among others, Alabama, K.T. Oslin, Steve Earle, Suzy Bogguss, Dolly Parton, Don Williams, Tony Rice, Kathy Mattea, Guy Clark and Trisha Yearwood.
Sam Bush started out his musical odyssey as a young man in Kentucky.
"My dad's a fiddler," he explains. "Charlie Bush from Bowling Green. He played fiddle and mandolin. He's a farmer. My mother would play guitar and had two sisters that sang, so music was around the house. I started on the mandolin at about age 11. At about 13, I got interested in the fiddle. By the time I was 15, the fiddle was my main focus."
Bush's focus was prodigious. He won the National Junior Fiddling Championship three years running before he was 18. Bluegrass doyen Monroe tried to steer him away from any interest in mandolin playing, Monroe's own instrument.
"He always encouraged me to play the fiddle," Bush relates with a laugh. "When I was a kid, we used to go up to Bean Blossom, Ind. on Sunday afternoon to hear Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, so he knew of me since I was a little boy. He walked by once when I was about 16, playing the mandolin in a jam, and he said, 'Now I want you to stay with that fiddle. We haven't got enough good young fiddlers coming up these days.' And I said to myself, 'Yes, I'm staying on the mandolin. This is good.'"
After NGR, Bush added his precise, percussive comping and lightning riffs to Emmylou Harris's Nash Ramblers. He played with her for five years until Harris disbanded the group to move on to other projects. Two former Nash Ramblers now play in the Sam Bush Band: drummer Larry Atamanuik and guitarist Jon Randall Stewart. They're joined by bassist Bryon House.
"Larry and John and I have been knocking around together since 1990 when we all ended up joining Emmylou's Nash Ramblers," Bush notes. "Byron and I actually went to the same high school in Bowling Green. In the last 10 years, he's really been getting a lot of session work. Bryon and I have been playing in the same rock 'n' roll jam band, Duckbutter, for 20 years now."
Along the way, Bush became an icon for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. As a member of NGR and as a solo artist, Bush has managed to play the annual event 26 consecutive times, missing only its inaugural year. His latest album, Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride, is a series of live cuts from the festival over the past 10 years, featuring his band and guests like Fleck, fellow NGR alum John Cowan and dobroist extraordinaire Jerry Douglas.
"It's interesting that although I've been doing this for 30 years, it's only been in the last four or five years that I've been getting out under my own name," he says. "This year the accent is on my own band. It's fun to get out there and romp and stomp again doing this kind of stuff."
He's looking forward to returning to Tucson's Temple of Music and Art. His last gig there was in Linda Ronstadt's band for her 1999 Mother's Day benefit.
"I played at the Temple with the Flecktones once, too," Bush says. "I just talked to Bela on the phone yesterday. He called to see if I was going to see Jeff Beck play in Nashville and I couldn't go because I was working."