Doers: Sam Bush talks to Telluride Inside… and Out

Doers: Sam Bush talks to Telluride Inside… and Out

[click “Play” to listen to Sam’s conversation with Susan]

In Telluride, he is royalty, but please, hold the drum rolls and cornets. The instrument of choice for Sam the Man, King of Telluride, is the diminutive mandolin. Throughout his 30+ year career, by ignoring orthodoxy, Sam Bush did as much as anyone since Bill Monroe to put his instrument on the map. The way he dug in, plucked and strummed, and never mind what he played, added new power and syncopation to the mandolin’s percussive chops. Sam’s harmonic vocabulary continues to cross musical boundaries, fusing the instrument’s more traditional sounds with jazz, rock, blues, funk, and whatever other sounds entered his busy head.

Sam Bush is a trailblazer and Doer #367.

(Don’t know about “Doers”? I created the column in February 1993 when the Daily Planet opened for business. When I left the Planet in 2008 to create the online magazine, Telluride Inside… and Out, I brought the popular column profiling local, and honorary local luminaries such as Sam Bush with me.)

The 37th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival opens for business on Thursday June 17. Once again, Sam Bush & Friends will be everywhere you want to be. Sam grew up with Planet Bluegrass: the history of the Festival from tie-dyed funky to world-class hip is the history of the performer; and the musician, like the event, shows no signs of losing ground.

One of Sam’s earliest bands, and perhaps his most famous, the genre-bending New Grass Revival, visited town for the first time in 1975, at the 2nd annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

“I remember J.B. and Helen Matteotti, John “Picker” Herndon, Kooster McAllister, and Fred Shellman, the Festival’s organizers. They were all as excited as little kids about their event and about us.

“Telluride Bluegrass Festival founders had first seen NGR at the National Picking Contest in Winfield, Kansas, and it became their dream to have our band at their event.

“Once in Telluride, ‘hospitable’ would be a light term for how they treated us. They would have given us the shirts off their backs. Instead, they gave us their smiles and their hearts. Their loving spirit spilled out into the audience.”

Sam Bush & Co. were long-haired hippie guys trying to play our special brand of music.

“At other bluegrass festivals, promoters threw us up on stage at one o’clock in the morning and the older folks in lawn chairs would pack up when we came on. But Telluride was different. I don’t recall ever being treated so warmly. There may have been just over 1,000 people in the crowd, who let us know how much they liked our kind of weird. The weirder we were, the more they danced and cheered.”

The early days of Telluride Bluegrass were also the early days of the ski resort.

“Telluride seemed up for anything. Since then, I’ve grown up with the Bluegrass Festival. I’ve watched it grow and change as I have grown and changed. But one thing remains the same: In Telluride, the crowd is still up for anything.”

Sam’s trademark instrumental virtuosity coupled with heartfelt vocals, articulate arrangements and a raconteur’s tongue-in-cheek sensibility won the day for him and his bandmates. And some things never change: now in his late 50s, Sam Bush is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist, who does not seem old enough to be a legend. And he’s not (old enough). But he is a performer honored for his lasting contributions to the industry by the Americana Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association.

“It’s overwhelming and humbling,” Bush says of his lifetime achievement award from the AMA. “It goes along with the title cut of my new album, Circles Around Me, which basically says: How in the hell did we get this far? In my brain I’m still 17, but I look in the mirror and I’m 57.”

Sam Bush, King of Telluride, is the new Bill Monroe, the one who emerging legends such as Chris Thile, Wayne Benson, Shawn Lane, Matt Flinner, Ronnie McCoury, and Mike Marshall look up to. The one who, with his New Grass Revival, planted the seeds for bands such as Leftover Salmon, Nickel Creek, and Yonder Mountain String Band to name just a few successors.

Sam Bush has played with just about everyone worth playing with, from Emmylou Harris (he joined her Nash Ramblers in 1989 just after New Grass Revival tanked) and Bela Fleck to Charlie Haden, Lyle Lovett, and Garth Brooks, not to mention his heroes: Monroe, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. As a session musician, Sam has been featured on recordings by artists as diverse as Alabama, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss and Neil Diamond. Although he is best known for jaw-dropping skills on the mandolin, Sam the Man is also a Grammy Award-winning vocalist.

Sam Bush’s seventh solo album (sixth on Sugar Hill), Circles Around Me, is a look back over his shoulder to sounds he has loved throughout his life: bluegrass and unapologetically newgrass. After all the years messing with people’s heads, including his own, Sam Bush has come full circle.

Sam Bush’s personalized TV station, SBTV, got kicked off by Sam’s thoughts about the title track, Circles Around Me, co-written by Sam and Nashville-based performer/songwriter Jeff Black. The series then follows a song-by-song format, in which Sam tells the story behind each tune, including his collaborations with bluegrass legends Del McCoury, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, and, thanks to the discovery of an old demo, New Grass Revival co-founder Courtney Johnson (posthumously). Sam also talks about the vast contributions of his eponymous group of world-renowned musicians, the Sam Bush Band.

With Sam Bush’s profile, Telluride Inside… and Out is proud to announce the beginning of an ongoing series of posts – expect at least one a week on Sam Bush Tuesday – to include episodes from SBTV, the evolving “Ask Sam” series, and news-breaking video clips from on the road.

Sam Bush was hardwired to do the voodoo that he does: his entire family was musical. Sam’s mother’s father was a fiddler. His mom played rhythm guitar. His dad still plays fiddle and mandolin. Sam’s sister Clara was a guitar player and when she and his other sister Janet played folk duets at barn dances and square dances, the young prodigy played strings right alongside. Sam’s dad taught his offspring about harmony and both parents jammed with their kids. By the time Sam graduated high school, he had already earned three national junior fiddle championships and a reputation for being a hot young mandolin player.

Once he hit the big time, Sam Bush never looked back, and never looked at the guy next door: he dressed like he dressed, played what he played. For Sam, it was, and is all about the show. Once on stage, the music takes over. Then Sam takes over and there is just no stopping him.

To learn more about his life from the horse’s mouth, click the “play” button and listen to Sam’s podcast. Then click “play” and watch the first in the Sam Bush video series on Telluride Inside… and Out.

DOERS: Sam Bush, King of Telluride

By Susan Viebrock

Time in Town: Visiting Telluride since 1975
Age/Place of Birth: Born 4/13/52, Bowling Green, Kentucky
Marital Status: Married to Lynn for 25 happy years
Philosophy of Life: Don’t ask anyone to do anything you would not want to do yourself. And, wear glasses if you need them
Favorite Books: “The Blind Side” (and no, I have not seen the movie), “Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” the biography of Bill Monroe
Favorite Movies:  “Bull Durham,” “The Godfather” trilogy
Favorite Music/ Musicians: Music played from the heart/ Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Del McCoury – and everyone I have ever jammed with and will jam with
Favorite Animals: No question, dogs
My Last Meal Would Be: Sushi
Tragic Flaw /If I Could Change One Thing About Myself: Procrastination
Favorite Hangout/Retreat: Emerald coast of downtown Destin, Florida
A Really Perfect Day: At the Gulf, back porch beach house, cooler filled with Apalachicola oysters
Most Influenced By: Jethro Burns, Lynn Bush, Charley Bush, each for his or her own special gifts
Favorite Childhood Memory: Receiving my first mandolin at age 11
Friends in School Thought I Was: Geeky class clown
Growing Up I Wanted To Be: A musician
If I Could Be Something/Someone Else: Major league baseball player
Person I’d Like to Meet the Most: Babe Ruth
Actor Who Would Play Me: Denzel Washington
When I Grow Up I Want to Be: I’m a musician. Can’t do that growing up thing
I Would (Almost) Never: Jump onstage and jam uninvited
What I Can’t Bear to Throw Out: Old parts to musical instruments
Last Purchase: Jeff Beck CD Emotion and Comotion
Greatest Indulgence: MLB package on our digital cable
Most Prized Possession: My 1937 Gibson F5 mandolin named “Hoss”
Weirdest Artifact I Ever Collected: Jethro’s tie made for him by a prison inmate
Favorite/Least Favorite Word/Phrase: Whahasay/That being said….
Fitness Routine:  Sporadic
Proudest Accomplishment: Twenty-five years of marriage to Lynn
Wildest Dream: Thirty-six consecutive years at Telluride Bluegrass
Biggest Challenge: Improving as a player, singer and writer
Bottom Line: Check out

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