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Sam Bush Interview: Bluegrass at Base Village

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Sam BushSam Bush
Bluegrass at Base Village: Sam Bush discusses Aspen, Bluegrass, The Summer of Love, and being a Kentucky Colonel.

Bill Monroe, the late mandolin-pickin’ granddaddy of modern bluegrass, once described his beloved genre as “Scotch bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound. It's plain music that tells a good story. It's played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you. Bluegrass is music that matters."

Bluegrass matters because – much like jazz – it is deeply rooted in the nitty-gritty of the American experience. It’s a genre of colloquial homespun lyrics, plucky melodies, and tight, breakneck acoustic riff. Bluegrass has a certain rustic nostalgia and rural romanticism, serving as an apropos soundtrack for a sequestered high alpine town like Aspen. Dust back the pages of Aspen’s history a century or so and it is easy to envision the scene: motley and haggard silver miners sitting around a fire, drinking whiskey, and strumming at a weathered banjo while crooning a Stephan Foster song after a long day in the craggy underbelly of Smuggler Mountain.

In addition to a healthy offering of local bluegrass bands, many national acts pick, pluck, and fiddle their way through Aspen throughout the year, including Sam Bush. On January 14th at the Belly Up, Sam Bush and his band played to an enthusiastic crowd. Bush will be returning to Aspen for a free throw down on the snow at Base Village in Snowmass. I managed to get Bush on the phone from his suburban Nashville home to discuss bluegrass, his musical career, and playing Aspen.

“It was ragin’!” Bush noted with a genteel Kentucky draw, referring to his previous gig during the prime of ski season. The first time Sam Bush came to Aspen was around 1972. “Snow was piled up 10 feet high. It was a great time of year to be in Aspen. I never saw anything like it.” Since then, he has popped up in the town multiple times, including collaborations with Lyle Lovett at the Wheeler Opera House.

“Playing with Lyle lets you know just how good I look in a suit!” Bush joked, referring to Lovett’s habit of dressing formally for concerts. In August, Bush did a seven show, Texas-only tour with the legendary singer/songwriter, who has taught him the importance of consistency in musical phrasing. Bush added, “The larger the band, the less you need to play.”

Bush has been perennially pioneering new frontiers on the sweeping bluegrass soundscape since he won his first Junior National Fiddle contest at the age of 15. During high school Bush admits, “I was a sponge for music. I played drums in the marching band, electric guitar in a rock band, and fiddled bluegrass. I was juggling genres before I was barely old enough to drive.”

At 17, Bush was featured on the Grand Ole Opry, won his 3rd National Fiddle contest, and then drove overnight with a car full of buddies from Weiser, Idaho to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. The year was 1967, when an estimated 100,000 people descended on the counter-culture enclave for the Summer of Love. “Outside there was this crowd almost a half-mile. And you could see it was a band playing, but you couldn’t hear anything. Finally someone said, ‘That’s the Grateful Dead, man.’ ”

It is easy to hear why Sam Bush would be influenced by the likes of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, as well as Kentucky bluegrass legends Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatts. Bush delicately picks at an electric-mandolin and saws on the fiddle in a feathery frenzy. He is a musical ringmaster flirting between airy, freeform improvisations and tight, structured riffs. The harmonious result is technically progressive, rhythmically complex, and fundamentally rooted in a thick slice of authentic Americana - like a highly-caffeinated Chopin waltz with an unhinged bluegrass attitude. This sonic recipe gives Bush cross-generational appeal, heightened by fan-friendly covers like Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” Little Feat’s “Sailing Shoes,” and John Hartford standards that creep into his set lists. As a founding member in New Grass Revival with banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, Bush helped fuel an improv-centric resurgence in bluegrass. He has been titled the “King of Newgrass,” and it is easy to understand why. His band, with Bush at the helm, has a certain rolling buoyancy, like a steamboat running full throttle on a carefree sunny day.

Spring for Sam Bush means the busy festival season is just around the corner. Bush noted, “Merlefest in April down in North Carolina really kicks off the festival season for us.” This year will mark Sam’s 35th consecutive performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in mid-June, where he is known as “Mr. Telluride.” The festival is a celebrated annually as a stomping ground for acoustic music legends, as well as a showcase for talented up-and-comers. Bush testified, “I treat all festivals and gigs equally.” Yet, he noted, “Playing Telluride can be demanding because of the town’s isolation in the mountains. These are demanding elements for both the audience and pickers. It is just majestic. Like Aspen, these are parts of the world that only a very few get to see.”

Sam BushSam Bush

“I’m lucky to be a musician and see so many parts of the United States.” Bush’s schedule affirms he will hopscotch across the country for projects and collaborations. After the show in Aspen, he has three gigs lined up with the Colorado front-range-based Yonder Mountain String Band in the Pacific Northwest, piggybacking on their live East Coast collaborations in thee autumn of 2006. In early April, Bush will sit in with the tenor saxophonist Bill Evans at the iconic Iridium Jazz Club in mid-town Manhattan. An album and tour with guitarist Jerry Douglas and bassist Edgar Meyer is in the works, implying the acoustic music super group may even be headed back to the Western Slope for an Aspen summer concert series. Back in Nashville, he is hard at work on a forthcoming solo album. Look for it to be released in late summer 2009.

Bush was born and raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He was made a bona fide Kentucky colonel while he was still in high school, “sometime between 1968/1969,” while playing in a rock band called “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” A friend’s mom was friendly with the governor at the time. “I always make sure whatever mandolin case I have with me on the road has a Kentucky Colonel sticker on it.” Last year, the Kentucky State Senate honored Bush for his contributions and conservation of bluegrass music. He performed in the Senate’s chamber. “The experience was overwhelming.”

Despite the accolades, albums, hundreds of multi-genre musical collaborations, and scores of honors, Bush promises he still takes things “one gig at a time.” Music lovers will have a reason to celebrate the longer days of spring with a funky and free hill country hoedown at the base of beautiful Snowmass. Sam Bush is ready and looks forward to it. “Playing Aspen and all these little mountain towns are always a real treat for us.”

Event Details

Who: Sam Bush
What: Free concert for the Bud Light Hi Fi Concert Series
Where: Base Village, Snowmass, CO
When: March 22, 2009 - Show begins at 4pm
Why: Because it is spring!

Photo credits: David McClister