"Father of Newgrass" Sam Bush: "Evolution Has To Happen In Any Form of Music"
In March of 2010, Sam Bush was granted the title "Father of Newgrass" by the Kentucky state government. That's kind of a big deal. Bush is as revered and accomplished a player as can be found in music where "grass" is in its title.
Whether it's traditional bluegrass, newgrass or the more amped-up mutations of acoustic music, Bush has done just about it all, and he's done it as well as just about anyone. Bush and his band will be in town tomorrow night for a show at the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge in Ft. Worth, so we jumped at the chance to talk all things musically grassy.
As with any other form of form of American roots music, there have been many styles of bluegrass spring forth over the years. With that in mind, how do you define bluegrass music?
Well, to boil it down to one definition, I'll call bluegrass music the music that Bill Monroe started when the 1946 edition of his band, the Bluegrass Boys, came to fruition with young guys like Lester Flatts and Earl Scruggs. The way they played the three finger roll banjo to complement Monroe's music is what I think of as the model for great bluegrass, and that model is still followed today by many bands. When we play songs from back in those days, we follow that model. So, what we think of bluegrass now is what Bill Monroe started back in 1946.
So, how do you define newgrass?
Contemporary music played with traditional bluegrass instruments. We write our own tunes, which are much different that the ones that were written in the '40s and '50s. There's different subject matter to deal with now, and newgrass is also influenced by rock, country, jazz and even reggae. There are many off-shoots of bluegrass and even the guys that began with Bill Monroe went off to do play different styles than they did with him once they left his band. By the time the '60s rolled around and I was paying close attention to bluegrass, there were plenty of styles for me to be enthused about.
It sounds like bluegrass has had to evolve to survive and stay relevant.
Absolutely. Evolution has to happen in any form of music. Both the community of artists and the audience must accept the younger talent and the new and younger audiences who are enthusiastic about this type of music. When the audience gets younger, there is growth. That's something I've noticed a lot since I began playing professionally when I was 18 years old. Some newer bands now have even been influence by outfits I've been in before and that's very rewarding and I'm their biggest cheerleader.
The Station Inn in Nashville is a special venue for bluegrass music. Why is that small club such a prominent fixture for the bluegrass scene?
It has helped give the bluegrass musicians a sense of community in Nashville where so much else is going on besides bluegrass. There's that sense of community because so many friends jam together there and always have. On nights where you're not performing, you can go down there and jam or you can cheer on your friends. Over the years, there's been so many incredible impromptu jam sessions. It's just a great place.
I also feel like there's a sense of community at bluegrass festivals that isn't present at many rock festivals.
We're all pals inside of the acoustic community. We're not competing with each other, and we know that we're in this thing together. There's a great camaraderie at places like Telluride.
You seem to play many sets at that festival every year. What jam sessions come to mind the quickest when you think back over the years in Telluride?
The one that stands out to me right now, especially since he just passed earlier this year, is when I played fiddle and jammed with Doc Watson. That session ended up on the [1992 collection of live recordings] Tellulive album I produced. Anytime I've been able to jam with Little Feat has been a big deal, too. At the 2005 festival, I got to jam with one of my heroes, the jazz-rock violin player Jean-Luc Ponty. I've been listening to him since I was 16, so that was larger than life for me.
It's been a few years since your last record [2009's Circles Around Me]. Do you have something coming out soon?
I've got a few songs in the can and now, I'm basically working and focusing on writing. Even with the baseball playoffs going on, I've got a writing session scheduled for later with a friend of mine. I have enough for a project now, but I want to keep it writing more and hopefully recording it by January at the latest. It's like I've been traveling around the last couple of years touring behind the last album, and all of a sudden, I'm like "Whoops, I haven't made a new record in a while." I could easily put out a couple of things next year.