This is Part II of the interviews we recorded at The 8th annual Festy Experience last month in Arrington, Virginia. We encourage you to read Part I with Emi Sunshine first, which can be found here, and includes an introduction to some of the themes we asked each artist about.
Sam Bush had just gotten off stage from a guest appearance with the host band, The Infamous Stringdusters, which featured a tribute to the recently passed Tom Petty in the form of “American Girl.” Bush has long been thought of as a pioneer of progressive bluegrass, since the days that his band New Grass Revival broke down preconceived barriers wherever they went.
Let’s talk about the energy you bring to the Dusters. They already have some of the best chemistry I’ve seen from any band, and you match that, plus bring the component of the mandolin. How do you like playing with those guys at The Festy, their own event?
I love playing with them, and we’ve done it quite a few times. They’ve hired me to come out and play with them from time to time–we did a Halloween kind of show last year in Denver–and they’re just a prime example of… they’re all great players and then when the when the five of them play together, they make a sound no one else can. And that’s because, for me, the difference in them and some other groups is that the Dusters, you know they can do any bluegrass kind of song they want to, and they’ve taken the bluegrass format and made their own music. And sure they’re influenced by the New Grass Revival, and David Grisman’s group and different things, but they make it their own music. One thing I really love about them is they do subscribe to the idea that they’re up there to put on a show, and with them– what we do, we’re all up there to put on a show.– but it is the energy and the positive feeling of the interplay with the audience. They’ve learned to tap into that and the audience loves them.
One thing special about this modern bluegrass scene is how much the different artists and their fans lift each other up. Coming from the days of NGR and John Hartford, what does this look like to you now?
Well it’s become it’s become a bigger business. That’s a great sign of the times. But I think one of the things we have to keep in mind is that it’s grown because the musicians are serious about this and that We are all trying to improve musically. And that’s the most positive thing about it that the music is growing. And you’ve got young bands like you know the punch brothers, the stringdusters, sierra hull is doing it now. And let’s not overlook the importance of Alison Krauss and union station where a lot of young women could look at Allison and go ‘well maybe I can do that too.’ And they are. And this year at IBMA Molly Tuttle won the [guitar player of the year award]. You know that’s that’s major. and Sierra won the mandolin again. So it ain’t just the good old boys club anymore, and that’s a very very good thing.
Absolutely. I really admired how The Festy released the lineup this year, with a phase 1 that was all men, and there weren’t a whole lot of people talking about that, then phase 2 was all women, hopefully serving as a bit of a wake up call for many…
Well that’s our goal. I don’t like to hear people say ‘gee, Molly Tuttle is the best female guitar player.’ No, I want to hear them say ‘Molly Tuttle kicks ass on the guitar’ and I think we’re rapidly approaching that area where someday it won’t even be a subject, it’s just ‘Are you a great musician or not?’ Well she is.
So I was talking to EmiSunshine today, and one of the first influences she mentioned (as many artists do) was Sam Bush. Now apart from traditional bluegrass influences, who inspired you to push the boundaries of the music?
The bands that were already pushing the boundaries in the 60s– The Osbourne Brothers, Jim and Jesse & The Virginia Boys, The Country Gentlemen, The Dillards, and The Greenbriar Boys — They all pushed the boundaries. There was a great record that came out in the mid-60s called ‘Beatle Country’ by the Charles River Valley Boys. Well, Joe Val was the mandolin player in the band and I later became friends with Joe and come to find out they only ever play that way on that record. They were pretty much a traditional band but they made this whole record of Beatles songs- I urge everyone to seek out Beatle country on Electric Records.
And so I was most influenced by people who had sort of already departed from the sounds of Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs and of course Flatt and Scruggs made their own progressive departure when they left Bill Monroe’s band. So you can just sort of see it progressing and progressing. I mean just think of the world of Flatt and Scruggs for instance. OK Earl Lester broke up and started playing with sons The Earl Scruggs Review. He was recording with all kinds of people– Earl was playing with the Birds, he was playing with Joan Baez, his sons Gary and Randy, and they recorded with Doc Watson. Let’s not overlook the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band making “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” They turned on a Rock ‘n’ Roll style audience to Merle Travis, Mother Maybelle, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements and Norman Blake.
So it’s all been a stepping up, then for instance Lester Flatt, when they broke up he got his own band. Look who came out of his band, Marty Stewart. So it’s been a constant progression and there’s something about lovin’ bluegrass, that makes me take great pride in these great musicians that came from bluegrass. Well Marty doesn’t have a bluegrass band now but he can play it when he wants to and he can play the hell out of his Telecaster when he wants to. So it’s neat how this progression comes along.
Chris Pandolfi has a couple of essays related to the subject, and to paraphrase, he maintains that these “two worlds” don’t really exist separately, but that bluegrass by nature is a progressive form of music…
It is a very progressive form of music, because when Bill Monroe started his music– you listen to the string bands of that era and Bill Monroe’s music was hillbilly jazz. It was the first hillbilly jazz. And when Earl Scruggs joined the band on that banjo, bluegrass took a hell of a jump, and that made it what it is, the band with Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe.
Being from Kentucky, what do you love about always being able to come back and play in the Appalachian mountains?
Yes, well, I I have an incredible fondness for Virginia in my heart because I was fortunate to go to the Roanoke Bluegrass Festival, arguably the first multi-day bluegrass festival there ever was. Outside Roanoke in 1965 and that’s where I saw Bill Monroe, Clyde Moody his first guitar player was there Don Reno’s band was their, Red Smiley’s band was their, Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse, man you name it! In the second year The Osbourne Brothers and the Country Gentlemen were there and God, they just blew the roof off the place. But they would have these special performances on Sunday, where they would call it the bluegrass story. And that’s where it got pointed out to me and others in the audience that didn’t already know that it almost all came from Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, they showed that Carter Stanley played with Bill Monroe. Don Reno played with Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, they were all in this festival, and I got to see the Stanley Brothers. So this is the story that afternoon and it went from Clyde Moody all the way through, and it ended up with the current band Bill had at the end which at the time, a young guy in his early 20s named Peter Rowan was the guitar player. So I mean, I met Peter when I was a kid and we’re still pals. He’s a musical big brother to me and I’ve been fortunate to have many musical big brothers, to look up to, and we learn from them. Just look where Peter Rowan has gone since he left Bill Monroe, now he has all his own music. So I have I have great love coming to Virginia because going to Roanoke Bluegrass Festival totally changed my life and made me want to play bluegrass.
Speaking of your earlier days, a friend of mine is dying to hear about the way you hold your pick, and the accident that caused you to do so. Care to clarify the urban legend?
Early in the first couple of weeks of our band, when we actually first started calling our band New Grass Revival. I think the first one that I recall us calling ourselves that was at a theater in Elizabethton, Tennessee. It was supposed to be a dual bill with Eddie Adcock’s second generation band but they got snowed out and couldn’t make it. So what we did and we drove through the mountains of Carolina on the on our way to go to Florida– it was in Lakeland Florida– George Jones’ Country Music Park, it was a bluegrass festival so we’re on the way, and going up through snow and me and our bass player we were in his old 62 two-door Buick, and I was asleep in the back seat. He got out to take some snow and clean salt off the windshield. You know there were no squirters in the car then no cleaners, and I rolled around in my slumber and stuck my hand somehow in an awkward position and it was in the door when he shut it. He didn’t know it. And boy that’ll wake you up faster than a cup of coffee. And so it kind of mashed my thumb and first two fingers and I ended up playing with a thumb pick somehow , back by the first joint where the thumb joins the hand for about two months. Pretty hard. So I could actually play faster before that accident, but hey you know it’s all part of what makes you what you are. But I’m just very fortunate, that was kind of shocking. You know if you get your hand mashed and you couldn’t play… but we went on with it. That’s what happened, I got hung in the car door on the way to the second job. Yeah, I literally had to change the way I held the picks. I played rhythm still kind of that way, and then when I played lead I had to start bracing my hand, probably taken from watching how Doc Watson’s right hand works.
What’s next? Any new music you’re working on?
I have an idea for a record I’m going to start talking to people about it won’t be a self written or you know like the last one was. Yes I have some ideas. There’s a song we’re going to end with tonight that I want to cut soon that I don’t think would fit on any record I’m going to make. So it’s a song Jeff Black and I wrote, and simply the title of the song is ‘stop the violence.’ It’s rock n roll song. Anybody that says that our violent society doesn’t upset them or anybody that can’t say ‘stop the violence’ I guess we really don’t have a lot to say. It is not political, the song will say it. Our violent world is a bit out of hand. And of course things are better than they were 200 years ago, but on the other hand we didn’t have the capabilities to wipe ourselves out then. So you know with this freedom comes great responsibility, and I am personally really tired of the violent society, and I’ll do what I can musically speaking to help that go away.
We definitely have a responsibility with the freedom and love that we experience here, to take it back home with us..
Absolutely. I’ve often said that on stage at Telluride, it’s really easy while we’re here at festivals together we’re all banding together and feeling this love. It’s really easy to be peaceful and loving here. It is harder to take it on through our daily lives.
And we all have our problems and things we’re going to be going through. But yeah we can kind of remember the feeling we have on where we’re all together at these kind of events. I think that can be really. I know it’s good for me and it helps it helps me, because it’s a love atmosphere. That’s why were all here, we love music and we love each other, and that’s why we are here.
Written by Richard Oakley
Photos by Wiley Quixote