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FloydFest 2004 Photo Credit: Ty Brady
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FloydFest 2004 Photo Credit: Ty Brady
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FloydFest 2004 Photo Credit: Ty Brady
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FloydFest 2004 Photo Credit: Ty Brady
The Grammy-winning mandolin player was one of the founding members of New Grass Revival in the early 1970s.
Sam Bush: “...poisonous snakes, and that’s how booking agents were born!…”
Cara Ellen Modisett: Really?
SB: I don’t know where that came from. I was just trying to give you a level, Cara!
CEM: Especially in music that’s so difficult to define, it must be hard to market yourself and get others to market you the right way. Is it a challenge?
SB: I don’t think it’s any more of a challenge for us than it is for anyone else in the industry right now. It’s a challenge for the consumer, for the audience that comes… it’s a challenge for everyone right now ‘cause it’s kind of expensive to go out and sell. Sure, it’s a challenge to get marketed. In our case, it’s interesting because in some ways it’s easier for us to work than it is for a person who’s only had one record in the top … whereas we’ve been building a fan base for 30 years.
CEM: New grass wasn’t a new concept with the New Grass Revival. How do you define it before New Grass Revival, and how would you define it now?
SB: Well, there was already a new kind of bluegrass, you know, way before New Grass Revival…You had bands like the Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, the Dillards, the Country Gentlemen, the Greenbrier Boys, um… the Charles River Valley Boys, perhaps. There were people who were doing new kinds of bluegrass... I’m sorry, Cara, I gotta..
[interrupted by phone call]
[cont.] Before we had New Grass Revival, or other kind bands like us got goin’, there already was a new kind of bluegrass, and I would be speaking of the Country Gentlemen, the Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys, the Dillards, the Greenbrier Boys – and these are bands that I specifically listened to.
The Charles River Valley Boys from up in the northeast – they were pretty much an old time kind of band, but they did an album called “Beatle Country” … on in about 1964, 5, and it was influential on young bluegrassers because it was a whole record of all Beatles songs.
Jim & Jesse did probably I bet the first acoustic music record ever of all Chuck Berry songs, called “Berry Pickin’ Time in the Country.” So there was all kindsa new bluegrass. We’d be hearing those kinda things in the ’60s as well as listening to Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley – or not Ralph Stanley, but the Stanley Brothers. And Reno and Smiley.
So there was all this new bluegrass by the somewhat-young guys like the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse, so bands, when we came along – “we” being New Grass Revival – in 1971, we were already influenced by guys that really had stretched the boundaries and made a new kind of bluegrass.
I think it was Ebo Walker who was the original bass player in New Grass Revival who came up with the phrase “new grass,” although I first heard it from a banjo player who made a record, Walter Hensley, and it was kind of a play on words of a country music song called “Walkin’ on New Grass” - his album title was “Pickin’ on New Grass.” And, once again, he was stretchin’ the boundaries there, too.
And so by the time New Grass Revival came along I think that the new kind of bluegrass had already been established. We just kinda followed along, us and bands like the New Deal String Band from North Carolina, and Country Cooking from the northeast. I think we were pretty instrumental in getting a lot of this new kind of bluegrass – we just called ourselves New Grass Revival, and before you know it the word “new grass” became kind of a generic term for new bluegrass.
CEM: Do you remember the moment – was there a moment? – when New Grass Revival was born?
SB: Actually, the four members of New Grass Revival, we were part of a band called the Blue Grass Alliance, which is a five-piece band. We came to a parting of the ways with our fiddle player, and wanted him to leave the band, only to find out that he owned the name, the Blue Grass Alliance. So we couldn’t really do that, so we said – let [me] put it this way – we all four quit. And so [laughs] that’s kind of one of those oddball little band infighting things that happen.
So the four of us, we did want to keep playing together, and we did want to play a little more progressively than our fiddle player wanted to play… our first road trip was Thanksgiving weekend, 1971, down to Lakeland, Florida.
CEM: Was your all’s desire to expand the reason why – the primary reason why – you left?
SB: Actually, our first reason for wanting to split up was just basically we weren’t getting along. But part of that not getting along was wanting to experiment with a little more music, and I’m a fiddle player too so we knew we could cover that base as well.
CEM: What sound did you want? Did you have a specific thing you were after?
SB: You know, at the time, I think – I don’t know – I can honestly say we didn’t have a plan. We just jammed a lot. And by jamming a lot, I mean we would play two or three hours after our gigs. I’m sorry, I have to – my wife’s calling back again –
[interruption – Bush’s wife is on the phone from the bank – his explanation:]
The neighborhood we live in and say, about a 10-mile radius, there’s been someone kinda waitin’ and watchin’ houses… he’s basically going in the house and stealing people’s purses. And you know, how people first come in the door and lay your purse on the table close to the door. And somebody’s been doing this for like months, and we live in a really easygoin’ neighborhood but it even makes me lock the door when I go walk the dog now, where I didn’t use to – and they think they’ve caught him in the bank... this is real news! ... It’s affecting things around here. It’s interesting!
There’s a guy detained in the back room of the bank and she can see him – they asked her why she was there and she said, “Well, we’re leaving on a trip tomorrow and I’ve got to buy gas for a bus.” She’s our accountant and our band manager.
[continued discussion about purse snatcher, then back on track…]
You know when we first got together, we had nothing specific in mind except we loved to jam together, and we’d jam before the jobs, and of course play our shows, and back then a lot of bar work, a lot of playing in clubs, and then we’d get done at one a.m. and we’d go over to somebody’s house and jam ’til three or four in the morning! And out of this jamming, we kinda started these long, extended solos and jams, which was not new to music, but it was new to acoustic style bluegrass kinda music. So in other words, jazz and rock and roll had been long doing this.
And so, we’d listened to enough of that to influence us a little bit to try that on our bluegrass instruments and stuff, and so about the only thing we really tried to do differently – that we made a conscious attempt to try to do – was that we were doing rock and roll songs with bluegrass style instruments, you know. Like on our first album, for instance, “Great Balls of Fire” kinda kicks it off, “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis, and so over the years our form of new grass started turning into original songs that we had written, and trying to make our own music and not just copying other people’s songs.
CEM: A lot of people have adopted the term “new grass” since you – are they all original?
SB: Oh, no, no, and if anything, new grass now is sort of a way of singing that may not be the same old-time way as [for instance,] Del McCoury, his true bluegrass sings, but even Del McCoury is experimenting with new kinds of songs. Del’s a prime example. One of his songs that’s getting bluegrass airplay is a song by Richard Thompson, the great British sort of – Celtic rocker, I guess. So in that way, our influences – if anything, I don’t know if we’ve influenced people to play like us, but we’ve just influenced them to try other things, I believe.
CEM: What about traditional bluegrass – where did you first hear it and what did you love about it?
SB: Well, I first would have heard traditional bluegrass because I grew up outside Bowling Green, Kentucky, which is only 55 miles north of Nashville. So, a couple of the Nashville television stations we could get. I grew up on a farm and my parents played music, so the music was in the house. But we’d get the Grand Ole Opry stars, some of ’em did their own TV shows – Flatt & Scruggs specifically had a Saturday afternoon show, and we would see Bill Monroe on certain shows, and once again Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers.
I started playing the mandolin, I started basically just playing fiddle tunes on the mandolin, and then I became aware of bluegrass … I started playing mandolin at age 11, so that would have been in ’63, so about ’64 or ’5 I started paying attention to bluegrass. Really what it was [was] the love of the mandolin… that’s pretty much what led me to bluegrass, and it’s an obvious place to go because… almost every band had a mandolin player. Except Flatt & Scruggs. But specifically I immediately fell in love with the music of Bill Monroe.
CEM: Were you ever able to meet him?
SB: Oh yes! Oh yes! Actually, I met Bill Monroe in, say, 1964, when my dad and I came down and we managed to get backstage at the Grand Old Opry here in Nashville, and there’s a person – why, this very weekend we’re gonna be jamming together at MerleFest – Peter Rowan.
So I met Peter, he was Bill Monroe’s guitar player, so he was a very young Peter Rowan. And so yeah, we would go to Bill Monroe shows. It was great to hear the Bluegrass Boys and back before there was a festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana, there was a Sunday afternoon – it was called the Brown County Jamboree. (Bean Blossom is in Brown County, Indiana.)
So we would go to the Brown County Jamboree and you’d hear an afternoon show, a matinee, and then they would play a nighttime, ’bout 7 p.m., show. And it was a good – oh gosh, four hours from Bowling Green to go up there – but we’d make our pilgrimage up to hear Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys at Bean Blossom every once in a while on Sundays.
Mr. Monroe would sometimes let me play the fiddle – not exactly with him, but it was playing with the Bluegrass Boys, ’cause they would sort of come out and do a little warmup set for about a half an hour, and then Bill would come out.
So I would play the fiddle, and, oh, if we cut to the chase of about 1968 or so, I was jamming on the mandolin with a couple of the Bluegrass Boys. At this point, it was Byron Berline on the fiddle and Roland White on guitar, and I was playin’ Roland’s mandolin, and Bill Monroe walked by and looked down at me and said, “Now I want you to stay with that fiddle – we need more good young fiddlers!” And so that’s when I knew that I should keep playin’ mandolin. [laughs]
CEM: What was he like as a person, beyond the music?
SB: Well, to be honest, I can’t say that Bill Monroe and I were close, ’cause I simply didn’t – we never knew each other that well. But we did know each other. Bill could be a tough bandleader, so I hear, but he was totally dedicated to the furtherance of his music, specifically bluegrass.
…In the ’60s, for instance, when there was a folk boom, well all of a sudden Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers and probably the Country Gentlemen – they called their music folk music. Well, Bill Monroe would never call his music folk music or country music, ’cause he’s always felt like it was – it was – I think it’s almost an accidental thing that it’s called bluegrass, because the name of his band was the Bluegrass Boys. He was from Kentucky. But it was a name that stuck.
So over the years he didn’t really care for us in New Grass Revival, with our long hair and stuff, but really over the years he softened up… actually, there were certain festivals he was part of promoting that he later hired us for, in the late ’80s. And not to mention in 1982, I was sick, I was sick with cancer, and Bill Monroe was one of many people who came to my rescue and played on benefits for me. So Bill played on a benefit here in Nashville and I remember when he called me in the hospital and said he’d like to help.
So, if anything, over the years, we did get to know each other a little bit, and later on, when I played with Emmylou Harris after New Grass Revival broke up, we would run into Bill occasionally. He really liked Emmylou and so we started gettin’ along pretty good.
And I gotta say, a true highlight for me was once when Emmylou – our band was called Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers – we were together 1990 through about the spring of ‘95. We recorded a live record here at the famous Ryman Auditorium and actually for that record … Emmy and all the boys got a Grammy for it…it was for a live record as well as for a video that was shown on the national network at that time.
We did it three nights, so three nights we would play our set and videotape as well as record it on multitrack recordings. So Bill would come – he was a dancer as a young man, so he would come and dance with Emmylou while I would play a Bill Monroe tune called “Scotland.” And so I think the third night we were doing the show, the last night, they needed to change a reel of tape out in the audio recording truck, and someone said, “why don’t you and Bill play a duet together, just the two of you?”
Well, there I was standing on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, and I realized – all of a sudden it just hit me that you know, there I was, getting to play with Bill Monroe on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium and that’s something I could only dream about in 1964 when I first went down there and first saw Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys at the Ryman Auditorium at the Grand Ole Opry. So you know, it was a great moment – all of a sudden I realized a dream had come true, somethin’ I’d never dreamed could happen, was happening.
So we got to where we knew each other pretty well.
CEM: Are you listening to music in the background?
SB: No, I’m watching the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers! [laughs]
CEM: It sounded like music... [brief discussion]
CEM: Well, who do you listen to these days?
SB: You know, I listen to all kindsa stuff – there isn’t any one kind of music I listen to – I truly enjoy so many kinds of music. Um, let’s see, well one, for instance, I love Keb Mo, sort of an R&B musician, for lack of a better term on my part. He’s a great singer, he’s a great songwriter, but his latest record he kind of did all songs from the ’60s, like “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. And not just the ’60s, but songs about peace is kinda what he did. So I love Keb Mo.
The other day in the bus I was listening to John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I’m listening to a couple tunes a lot that I’m gonna play with Jerry Douglas tomorrow night, that I’ve never played before! [laughs] that Jerry’s got comin’ on a new record pretty soon. So it’s pretty mixed bag kinda stuff that I listen to, but I like to think I keep an open mind with all kinds of music.
CEM: I’m noticing a trend that a lot of young players are returning to traditional bluegrass – why do you think that is?
SB: I think it’s an honest form of music that – it doesn’t rely on show business or trends – it’s not a trendy thing. It’s a music that once you start playin’ it you can play it all your life. You don’t look silly standin’ on stage playin’ bluegrass when you’re 60 years old when you used to be a punk rocker, you know? [laughs]
Basically, as much as anything, it’s that it’s an honest kind of music, and it takes dedication, and I think once you start gettin’ that bug and you get the feeling that bluegrass music – and new grass/bluegrass/what have you – gives you … ’cause you know, a lot of, especially Bill Monroe’s music, comes from the fact that it could be danced to. So as much as anything, people wanna keep doin’ it ’cause – this might be a simplistic answer – ’cause it feels good.
CEM: Do you think bluegrass will ever go mainstream, the way of pop and rock and roll?
SB: Well, in a certain way it has at various times, and it’s funny to me – not funny, but interesting to me that the three or four main times I can think of revolve around movies. For instance, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” became a very popular tune and was on the radio in the ’60s when it was in the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.” I went to the theater and saw “Bonnie and Clyde” and I knew immediately that was “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt & Scruggs, not knowing it was in the movie.
I think the next big splash, and once again it was on top 10 radio in country and rock and roll, a grizzly movie, but it cost – “Deliverance.” “Deliverance” featured “Dueling Banjos” and so that tune made a splash.
And as of late, as of the last few years, the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” although that’s not – well, the “Man of Constant Sorrow” I would certainly call bluegrass. The whole actual soundtrack is actually more old-time music and maybe music that was around – I mean the type of music that was around before there was Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and bluegrass.
So “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, once again, brought a song to the mainstream audience and the Grammy sweep that “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” … Once again, I’m the proud owner of three Grammys, and one of them is for playing on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And the reason I got the Grammy is ’cause it won Record of the Year, which is usually reserved for like a major pop artist, you know, I mean Sting gets Record of the Year, and stuff like that … I mean, that is an amazing feat. And that didn’t have anything to do with trends in music. It just, once again – I believe if the music is put out there, in a place where people can hear it over mainstream radio, they’re gonna like it.
CEM: Where is the next boundary in bluegrass and new grass? What hasn’t been done that you think will be?
SB: You know, I really don’t know the answer to that, because once again I’ve never really – to this day, everything isn’t always planned out, some things just sorta happen. So I’m sorry, I wish I had a good answer for that.
CEM: You’re about to leave for MerleFest. How many years have you been going to that, and why do you keep coming back?
SB: Well, I’ve been every year, and this is my 16th, if I’m not mistaken. When they first started it, I believe it was called the Eddie Merle Watson Memorial Festival. And so many of us started callin’ it MerleFest that they actually changed the name to MerleFest. But when it was first started, the first coupla years, it wasn’t long – it was only a couple years after Merle Watson died, and the festival – the musicians that played it then actually, probably almost everyone that played it, knew Doc and Merle personally, and we wanted to go to pay tribute to the Watson family.
So for me, I still feel that way. When I’m there, I find myself thinkin’ about Merle a lot – we were friends… and I used to play with Doc and Merle. I’d go on the road with ’em when New Grass Revival wasn’t working and we were pals.
So for me it still means something that it is for the Watson family, but now of course it’s grown into an incredibly large festival, it’s been very successful, and one of the reasons to me that MerleFest is so successful is that it encompasses so many types of music. It is by no means just a bluegrass festival. As a matter of fact… bluegrass is only part of what’s at MerleFest. It’s obviously mostly acoustic music, for sure, but there’s a dance stage, there’s a children’s stage, there’s all kinds of workshops where you learn the instruments. It’s a great family atmosphere … it’s a festival you can safely take your children to.
Because there are some festivals you don’t want your children going to. It’s just too rowdy an audience, it’s just not that type of thing. But MerleFest is a great family event, and to be honest, one of the reasons I still love to go to MerleFest is it’s only about music – that’s all it’s about.
Once again, show business, or trends, or radio airplay, do not dictate the kind of acts that play at MerleFest.
CEM: How often do you get to the mountains?
SB: Well, I’m in and around ’em all the time, I mean the different ones – you got the Blue Ridge, and the Smokies we’re in and around, and of course we go up to the Rocky Mountains more than once a year, two or three times a year.
We’ll be going to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June, and this June will be my – it’s hard to believe, but it’ll be my 31st consecutive Telluride Bluegrass Festival. And they call that festival a bluegrass festival, but it’s really a wide open kind of festival where bluegrass music is included.
So I consider myself more of a hill person – I grew up outside Bowling Green on a farm and the rolling hills, and actually where I live, even though it’s in the suburbs now, it’s hills and valleys in this neighborhood. So I’m a hill person.
CEM: And this is a question I’m asking everyone – what is it about mountains, specifically the Appalachian mountains, and the mountain geography, that makes mountain music what it is?
SB: I assume it’s because there was where a lot of Scotch-Irish people settled who brought their traditions of fiddle music with them, and we’ve just all grown up around this type of music. You know, Bill Monroe’s music was a combination of Scotch-Irish fiddle music as well as rural blues and black blues as well, so I think it’s this area of the country seemed to you know, I don’t know – this is where all the fiddle tunes come from.
CEM: Really only one more question, unless there’s anything I haven’t touched on that you’d like to talk about – what’s your next project?
SB: My next project will be gettin’ back in the studio hopefully within the next coupla months, with my current band that features Byron House on bass, Chris Brown on drums. New to the band this year is Keith Sewell on guitar and vocals, great guitar player, and for the first time since 1990, I’m playin’ with a full-time banjo player now. We added a banjo in the band, great player named Scott Vestal, and Scott’s incredibly versatile. He can do the old time kinda bluegrass or he can just improvise on any kind of music.
He also plays guitar synthesizer, so that’s interesting when we do stuff, you know, that is reggae-type things, or stretchin’ that boundary, so he can make all kinds of different sounds with this – it’s actually got a five-string banjo neck on it, so he plays it like a banjo, but it sounds like a piano or Hammond organ or something. So that’s all exciting, but it’s really fun to have a banjo in the band again, because we’re actually finding that we’re playing a little more bluegrass within our set.
And so I’m very much lookin’ forward to getting back in the studio. Just this week I played on a tribute to Randy Newman that Sugar Hill’s putting out for a lady named Allison Moorer, and did that Monday, and yesterday I was in Texas playing for a kind of a cult hero, great singer/songwriter named Willis Allen Ramsey, from outside Austin. So I’m pretty fortunate – I guess I’m playin’ a lot of different kinds of music, but as far as my own project, the next thing I’m lookin’ forward to is making a new record with my band.
CEM: ...Have a great time at MerleFest!
SB: It’s going to be fun – I don’t care if it does rain! I’m prepared.