There was only one prize-winning teenager carrying stones big enough to say thanks, but no thanks to Roy Acuff. Only one son of Kentucky finding a light of inspiration from Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys and catching a fire from Bob Marley and The Wailers. Only one progressive hippie allying with like-minded conspirators, rolling out the New Grass revolution, and then leaving the genre’s torch-bearing band behind as it reached its commercial peak.
There is only one consensus pick of peers and predecessors, of the traditionalists, the rebels, and the next gen devotees. Music’s ultimate inside outsider. Or is it outside insider? There is only one Sam Bush.
Shunned by some traditionalists, New Grass Revival played bluegrass fests slotted in late-night sets for the “long-hairs and hippies.” Quickly becoming a favorite of rock audiences, they garnered the attention of Leon Russell, one of the era’s most popular artists. Russell hired New Grass as his supporting act on a massive tour in 1973 that put the band nightly in front of tens of thousands.
Bush was the newgrass commando, incorporating a variety of genres into the repertoire. He discovered a sibling similarity with the reggae rhythms of Marley and The Wailers, and, accordingly, developed an ear-turning original style of mandolin playing. The group issued five albums in their first seven years, and in 1979 became Russell’s backing band. By 1981, Johnson and Burch left the group, replaced by banjoist Bela Fleck and guitarist Pat Flynn.
A three-record contract with Capitol Records and a conscious turn to the country market took the Revival to new commercial heights. Bush survived a life-threatening bout with cancer, and returned to the group that’d become more popular than ever. They released chart-climbing singles, made videos, earned Grammy nominations, and, at their zenith, called it quits.
Bush worked the next five years with Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers, then a stint with Lyle Lovett. He took home three-straight IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year awards, 1990-92, (and a fourth in 2007). In 1995 he reunited with Fleck, now a burgeoning superstar, and toured with the Flecktones, reigniting his penchant for improvisation. Then, finally, after a quarter-century of making music with New Grass Revival and collaborating with other bands, Sam Bush went solo.
He’s released seven albums and a live DVD over the past two decades. In 2009, the Americana Music Association awarded Bush the Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist. Punch Brothers, Steep Canyon Rangers, and Greensky Bluegrass are just a few present-day bluegrass vanguards among so many musicians he’s influenced. His performances are annual highlights of the festival circuit, with Bush’s joyous perennial appearances at the town’s famed bluegrass fest earning him the title, “King of Telluride.”
“With this band I have now I am free to try anything. Looking back at the last 50 years of playing newgrass, with the elements of jazz improvisation and rock-&-roll, jamming, playing with New Grass Revival, Leon, and Emmylou; it’s a culmination of all of that,” says Bush. “I can unapologetically stand onstage and feel I’m representing those songs well.”