By Kevin Alan Lamb
A wall of sound pulsates from the stage as a blaze of string instruments emit in layered waves; telling a story that continues to age, while intent on evolving with coming days. Each young Padawan studies their hero’s ways, loving music so much he dedicates his entire life learning to play, embracing guidance of both the humble and great ones along the way. Falling in love with his trade, earning a living with his wage; over a lifetime, the student becomes the sage. Each night he is grateful to take the stage, and turn the page on the story of a Revival, with the strum of his mandolin seeing to his soul’s survival.
At a young age Sam Bush and his wife Lynne learned that each day is a gift, they are immensely loved, and not to sweat the small stuff. A true student of his art, Sam Bush’s influence on music is most accurately measured by the impact his passion and compassion made on the lives of those who ingrained a flame for music within him at an early age, combined with those his presence and legacy continue to shape and shine.
Drawn to the rhythm guitar of Bob Marley, Sam Bush discovered it wasn’t that unlike mandolin playing, and started paying attention to how the bass and the drums were totally different than other music. Bob’s rhythm reminded him the way Bill Monroe chops rhythm on the mandolin, until it suddenly hit him “This sounds like bluegrass!”
Sam learned a quick and lasting life lesson when playing with his hero, Doc Watson, who always lead by example—You can spend your energy trying to impress people, or you could settle down, and pay attention how to better fit in with Doc.
In their eyes, New Grass Revival continued the work of The Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, Country Gentlemen, and The Dillards, and were the first band hired to play Telluride Bluegrass Festival— who didn’t live in Colorado.
Revival: The Sam Bush Story invites you to take a journey through space, time, and music, woven together by the loving notes that empower great meaning into the existence of the universe. It is a story that reminds us to be kind, grateful, and happy for the success of others, while painting a historic and rhythmic masterpiece of the interconnectivity within music strum by strings, along with the faith and hope such joyful noise brings.
Hold on tight, here is my conversation with a legend, who would never mention that he is, but reminds us all that—everything is possible.
KAL: In Revival, Paul Hoffman wanted to ask you about the story of the day you came up with the name New Grass Revival?
Sam Bush: We were in a band, well – “It all got started” [laughing]. New Grass Revival was an offshoot of the band Bluegrass Alliance. We had a falling out with the fiddle player we had, we wanted him to leave the band and he told us “You can’t fire me I own the name” and he did. He had copyrighted the name Bluegrass Alliance so we had to say “Well okay, since we can’t fire you we all quit.” So all four of us quit and now we were looking for a name for our band. The band at the time was Ebo Walker on bass, Curtis Burch guitar, Courtney Johnson banjo, and me, so first we just called it Walker Bush Johnson and Burch, well that sounded like…
KAL: A lumber yard. [laughing]
Sam Bush: [Laughing] There you go! It sounded like a failed business. Back then other bands were always searching for something that was a play on the word bluegrass or what have you, well The Bluegrass Alliance back before I joined the band, when Dan Krary was still on guitar, they called their second album New Grass, and apparently Ebol the bass player thought that was a good title, and it was appropriate, it was a new kind of bluegrass. Not the first time that phrase has been used. First we ever heard of it by a banjo player named Walter Hensley who put out a record called Pickin On New Grass which was a play on the title of a country song by Kenny Price called “Walking On New Grass.” So new grass, that word had been used a few times but the very band that we came from used it as their second album title. So that new grass word was always around and I think I was the one who came up with New Grass Revival.
Of course the word revival was probably from loving Creedence Revival, but really the meaning of it to us at the time was that we just felt like that was an appropriate title because we’re fans of the people who had departed from traditional bluegrass such as The Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, Country Gentlemen, The Dillards. We were fans of the people who already had done a new progressive form of bluegrass. Jim & Jesse did a whole album of Chuck Berry songs in the mid-60’s, Berry Pickin’ in the Country, and The Osborne Brothers were incredibly progressive, and The Dillards, when they came out with Wheatstraw Suite, now you have bluegrass instruments that used orchestration on the record. John Hartford was an influence on us— John was making records using horns, strings, and rock drums.
We were influenced by the great instrumental record made in Nashville by these session players called Area Code 615, Bobby Thompson was on banjo on that. Our slant to it is that we’re putting more of a rock and roll influence with these bluegrass instruments, so we sorta felt like we were reviving something that had already been started, so that’s the significance of the word revival. Really, we just felt like we were the next step, being influenced by the greats who had already departed from bluegrass.
KAL: Sierra Hull talked about how we want our heroes to meet expectations, and the time you gave to jam with her when you met. Can you recall similar such experiences meeting any of your heroes?
Sam Bush: Well, I think the one I most think of when meeting a hero that they lead by example was Doc Watson, just Doc. He said very little but all he had to do was lay the flat pick on the strings, if you were following Doc on your solo [laughing], then the master just played, what are you gonna do? And really I was fortunate, in 1974 New Grass Revival, even before John Cowan joined, we had quite a few run of dates where we opened for Doc and Merle, and Merle’s band Frosty Morn was also on the gig, so we went all through California and what have you and just struck up a great acquaintance with Doc and Merle, which lead to me and Courtney Johnson getting to record on Doc’s album called Memories. It was probably the first song we must have recorded, and I think I was trying really hard to impress Doc, which is always… if you’re trying to impress anyone, don’t do that! [laughing] Right!? At any rate, I must have thrown in some sort of inappropriate thing in the first song, or a lot of notes maybe, and I just remember Doc said, I don’t remember the exact phrase but it was something to the effect of “Son, you might want to save some of them notes we’re going to be recording all day.”
In other words, you don’t have to put everything you know in every song, so I just took that as a wham of a quick lesson—”I’ve gotta settle down and pay attention to how better I can fit in with Doc,” and it was a great life lesson in a snapshot.
KAL: That’s beautiful. Can you walk us through your relationship with Bob Marley’s Music, and the influence it had helping you find your rhythm chop?
Sam Bush: Well, boy I just missed ever seeing Bob Marley about four times, I missed him by one day. Once we were working in a studio in Tulsa, Leon Russell owned and they were telling us “You just missed The Wailers, they were just here,” and I go “What are The Wailers?” And they said “They play reggae.” I asked “What’s that?” They replied “Well it’s Jamaican rock and roll.”
So I just kept missing them. The first Wailers record I heard was Natty Dread (1974) and the first thing that attracted me to the sound of everything was the chop of the rhythm guitar which was played by Bob. So Bob Marley’s guitar playing is what attracted me to reggae first, then I started paying more attention to how the bass and the drums were totally different than other music, and of course the great songs, then I loved the singing too, and of course the lead guitar playing on the early records of Al Anderson, but it was the rhythm chop—and the way my crazy brain works, the rhythm chop reminded me so much of the way Bill Monroe chops rhythm on the mandolin so it really made a mark on me. It was crazy the way all of a sudden “This sounds like bluegrass” [laughing].
The rhythm guitar of Bob attracted me to reggae. The chop of the guitar, and it really isn’t that unlike mandolin playing, and of course it influenced me because I’ve had the advantage of learning how Bill Monroe chopped rhythm, how John Duffey did it, Bob Osborne, then I had this reggae chop to think of—that coupled with maybe the fact that I had to learn to play drums, or I should say I played drum in marching band [laughing]. I had to learn certain rudiments of snare drum. I started on bass drum and graduated to snare. I could only play one drum at a time, so I learned rhythmically so maybe some of that applied. And loving the rhythm of Bob Marley and when I heard the band The Police I loved Stewart Copeland’s drumming, which is really influenced by Carlton Barrett, The Wailers drummer. I started trying to figure out the way Steward played his high hat, and try to make an upstroke that kind of makes high hat sounds, chopping the backbeat of my mandolin, so in that way I’m influenced by reggae and drummers.
KAL: You are the king of Telluride, a very nice distinction, and found your audience in wide open spaces with open attitudes. Who are some of the first people you think about when you hear Telluride?
Sam Bush: Oh golly, well I guess I think back to some of my good pals where we had so many great experiences there— Steve Goodman, one of the first ones I think of is Steve Goodman. We had so much fun in Telluride and Goodman was also a favorite of the promoter Fred Chilvers, Fred loved Stevie. Thinking of collaboration in Telluride, John Hartford for instance, when the Newgrass boys first went there we were the first band they hired that didn’t live in Colorado, so we start telling our palls “you gotta see this place, you won’t believe it.” Within the next couple of years Peter Rowan started coming, John Hartford, Bryan Bowers, so really Bryan, Peter, John, and Steve Goodman and the New Grass Revival.
We were at this club where we played at Telluride, and then when Hot Rize formed, oh and by the way I met Tim O’Brien at the first Telluride Festival because he was in the Ophelia Swing Band, he was the fiddle player. So I met Tim, and Dad Sadowski, who is known as Faster Mustard, he was the MC there. Dan played the guitar and Tim the fiddle in the Ophelia Swing Band, so that was cool and I first met Tim as a swing fiddler. So I think of Tim O’Brien who I met the very first year. Very fond memories. This year will be my 45th consecutive, and of course I’m fortunate that I get to jam with people there, and just this last year I had a life snapshot moment when I found myself standing center stage trading solos on mandolin with Derek Trucks, of Tedeschi Trucks, stepping on stage with them… you’ve never heard such a force of music, ever. Then there was a new act I got to record with earlier in the year, and to our delight they came to Telluride, it’s a husband and wife team, called The War And Treaty.
KAL: Ohhhhh I love The War And Treaty, Michael and Tanya, they’re my buddies!
That’s the first time Lynne and I ever woke up for a 11 AM set on Sunday morning at Telluride, let’s put it that way. They just turned the whole town wide open on Sunday morning it was great.
KAL: You have a very positive perspective towards getting cancer (twice). You say it helped you find mortality at a very young age; can you can speak more on the impact that life experience had on you, and what crossed your mind every night on tour after that?
Sam Bush: Well yeah sure, it was a freakout at age 30, so Lynne and I had to learn more about mortality at a younger age than anyone else at that time. What’s crazy, as we speak Kevin, right now we’re in our early 60’s and of course we’ve seen quite a few people go through what we would have gone through now 30 something years ago. When I was able to get back playing in the band I was just ravenous to play ya know? [laughing] I just didn’t feel like it for a couple months there, but really it just helped Lynne and I reprioritize at a younger age… don’t sweat the small stuff.
There were a few things that happened, yeah I was sick and we didn’t know what was going to happen for a while, but one of the gratifying things that came out of it was, and us just being broke, having no money, that so many friends came together and threw benefits for me and financially of course they pulled us out of the well, but spirituality and emotionally it was such an uplifting experience to know that your friends were there for you and would help you. That’s one of the things about our form of music, maybe the acoustic side of music where we just love to sit in a circle and play together. We developed bonds with each other and I even met people who we became friends because I knew them. For instance, a young mandolin player at the time from Las Vegas named Butch Baldassari threw a benefit and sent me some money, and Butch and I became really good pals over the years. Of course he moved to Nashville and started the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble. Some people I hadn’t even met yet you know, like Dan Fogelberg heard there was a benefit and he came to play on it.
It was pretty overwhelming at the time and then when I was able to get back in the New Grass band and go back out on the road I felt like I had joined The Beatles. It was just the greatest thing to get to play again because yeah, it was taken away and it can be, at any time, so I don’t take that for granted. Now I’m a two time cancer survivor and I’ll actually be doing some stuff on the 18th in Louisville for the Cancer Society, ya know their research has helped keep me up and running as long as I have. But yeah, Lynne and I found out at an early age that every day is a gift.
KAL: Tell me about the time Bill Monroe unexpectedly called you in the hospital?
Sam Bush: I had the second surgery—we weren’t really sure I needed it, but on that second surgery they found a tumor they didn’t even know I had. So after the second surgery, it was pretty major, I had this big tube down my throat, I couldn’t really talk. Then the phone rang and I heard Lynne saying “Well thank you Mr. Monroe I’ll sure tell him,” and I just looked up. I was on morphine, of course I was, but I said “Is that Bill Monroe?” [muffled voice] “Let me talk to Bill Monroe.”
I got the phone and Bill just told me, “I want you to know I’ve had that old stuff myself and I’ll do whatever I can to help you, I’ll help you out however I can.”
So that was pretty emotional, because Bill, it had been a strange, he thought we were a little nutty with long hair, we always got along, it wasn’t a music thing very much.
KAL: Your former band member told Bill that you were selling drugs…
Sam Bush: This is true. Bill was unfortunately told a lie but he was smart enough to see through it later. It was ironically the same year in 1982 playing the Kentucky Fried Chicken Bluegrass Festival up in Louisville, the KFC Festival, we loved it! We got to play at festivals that had no mud and indoor plumbing, it was great. At that festival of course, Bill Monroe played a heavy role, Bluegrass Revival did too, and at that particular festival David Grisman was there and young Mike Marshal was playing with him. Claire Kenner was her name, Claire Lampkin was in charge of the festival and she asked Bill if he would get up some of the young mandolin players to play with him, and he said “Sure!”
He really did like Dave Grisman a lot so Bill got David and I and Mike Marshal up. So it was really that day that the hatchet started to get buried on any bad feelings, and of course me and Mike and David were thrilled and it was only a few months after that, Bill called me at the hospital. The festival opened that door and Bill came on in.
KAL: In Revival you mention you fell out of love music, most likely because of the business of music. Tell us how your time with Emmylou and sitting in with The Flecktones helped you find your way back?
Sam Bush: Let me clarify. I had become fed up with the business of music and all of the responsibility, that was it—being the responsible party for the band. It was a four piece democratic band but I was the spokesman, in that way I had maybe a little more responsibility. I dealt with the booking agents and the managers. In that way I just couldn’t take any more responsibility, all I did was business, I never seemed to go to jam sessions for fun, I wasn’t writing any tunes, and I just wasn’t practicing. So when the New Grass Revival ended I didn’t have a plan. The only plan I was really thinking of was that I want to quit traveling—I had been traveling for a living since I was 18 and I’d like to stop.
Well, gotta call from a really nice person named Emmylou who wanted to start a – after so many years of her singing over The Hot Band, her electric band, she was looking for a more acoustic sound so she could sing quieter. Actually she asked if I wanted to start a band together, I said “No, but I’ll play in yours!” [laughing] “I just can’t have any responsibility, I can’t make any decisions.”
She just took all the decisions off my plate and all I had to do was figure out which T-Shirt to wear that night. But really, it was just a great situation because Emmylou wanted all of us to contribute to arrangements and the direction of the band. We recorded our live record Emmylou Harris and The Nash Ramblers live at Ryman, and I can see where she let different ones of us suggest songs you know, so I had suggested “All The Time” by Bill. So for the five years I was in her band I didn’t have any business to do, in no time, the first year I was I was listening to music all the time. I was writing tunes again, and she taught me more about singing and different ways to get more out of my voice. I also learned from Emmy, and I think this was really important, in the New Grass Revival we could be a little rough on each other ya know? A four piece partnership, and with Emmy there’d just be times where if it felt like I wasn’t playing good on stage with her, maybe she wasn’t happy with herself, and I just noticed how forgiving she was if anything went wrong she was just, the opinion was “Welp, we’ll try it again tomorrow won’t we?”
I learned forgiveness for myself and other musicians from Emmy. That helped me so much to realize that we’re all professionals, we’re all adults, we’re all doing our best, there’s nothing to disagree over. We all know when it sounds good and when we need to try again tomorrow, so that’s what I learned from her.
KAL: Would you say that you have that same role in the Sam Bush Band, where the business is being handled by someone else or?
Sam Bush: Well, the difference being—from that situation and now is I have one partner, her name is Lynne, we’ve been married 34 years, she’s wonderful – hey! I got it great, I’m married to a beautiful woman that’s a great accountant, she loves sport and hates to shop.
I’m telling you! At any rate, Lynne and I are in charge of our business and we’re partners in that, but really with the band I have, with the five of us on stage it’s okay, I’m happy making the set list, if I hand it to them everyone says “great” and they’re happy with it. New Grass Revival, it could take a half hour to make a set list. That was the good and the weird of the whole band, we succeeded as partners and that was the great part about it. It’s just a different situation, and yes I do a lot of business now too but just recently getting personal managers again for the first time in many years, I’m already seeing the ease of some of the business pressures taken off of Lynne and I.
For instance, I’ve had time to go “Alright we’re gonna record this song as an electric tune,” because we have an electric side to the band, so it’s a rock and roll song Jeff Black and I wrote and I’m totally sincere in this title, the title is “Stop The Violence.” I know I’m a musician and I’m not suppose to have an opinion but I’m just sick and tired of the violence and violent society. Jeff and I wrote this song 10 years ago and it’s unfortunately more relevant now than when we wrote it, seemingly, and I just heard a terrible stat Thursday on the news— I heard the phrase “This is the worst mass shooting in America in 12 days, 12 days… That just made me sick, you know? Yeah I’m liberal, I own guns, funny no one came to get mine in the last 20 years to take them away from me. Jeff Black and I just hope for a less violent world and that’s what this song is for. It’s not political – some people might take it that way – it’s not. It’s about wanting to not see people violently hurt. So! [Kicks it into high gear] At any rate we’re gonna record this rock song, I originally recorded this rock song and I gave it to Jeff and asked him if he could put words over it, it needs something, “Well what do you want to say?” Jeff asked.
“Stop the violence, that’s all.”
So we’re gonna do that and maybe make a YouTube video for a single and then in January-February get back in the studio with the Sam Bush Band. I know what I want to do and it will be a pretty acoustic record, so you know, I’m happily making plans, it’s great.
KAL: What do you remember most vividly from Dec 31, 1989, your final show with The New Grass Revival?
Sam Bush: I remember it [laughing]. I made a point to remember it. I was backstage at a Grateful Dead show so I made a point to damn sure not drink anything I didn’t open myself. I’m serious – we were warned day of, many times [laughing] “You know you are backstage at a Dead show, don’t drink anything you didn’t open.”
Looking back, what a way for that to be your last band gig. Originally we were set for December 16 in Nashville to be our last show, in 1989, and we knew it was just time for us to hang it up, if not for a while, then forever at that point. We’d been trying to get on… we knew people that worked with the sound company with The Dead, we’d been trying to get on that show for five years. Then, lo and behold The Dead heard we were breaking up [laughing] then they had Bill Graham reach out to us, and I’ll let you just sit on this—There were a few discussions until I could get the money up enough so that we didn’t lose money on the gig with Bill Graham. So I had to at least get him up to where we didn’t lose money on the gig [laughing]. Then, one of the most hilarious things happened to me—the first gig New Grass Revival ever had our band was mispronounced, and the last gig we ever played our band name was mispronounced by Bill Graham himself [laughing].
KAL: [Laughing] Aww no what’d he call ya?
Sam Bush: Well, he must of thought he had it wrong right? ‘Cause he went [Deep voice] “Ladies and gentleman, from Nashville, the New Grass – Bluegrass Revival.” [laughing] And there’s a tape of it and I can just hear me and John Cowan go “Whaaaaaahaha” and that point the pressure was off, but in 1972 I think, Birch Monroe, Bill’s brother mispronounced our name [laughing]. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bluegrass Revival Boys!”
So, the first gig and the last we were mispronounced. But at first, we didn’t know if we wanted to play it ‘cause you know, you hear about Grateful Dead New Years Eve shows and we just didn’t want to be in the middle of a party where no one was listening to us, right? That was a concern. It meant something to us and we wanted it to mean something to other people too. Well it turned out great and people were really tuned in to us and we played a great 45 minute set. We played, then Bonnie Raitt played, then The Grateful Dead. We walked off stage and standing off side stage were Jerry Garcia, Jane Fonda, and Bill Walton. They gave us [laughing] a thumbs up.
So, it was a great way to go, it was a great way to end it. But yes, Lynne and I were probably the only sober people in the room that night—I wanted to remember everything. Every band should get to open for The Dead on their last show.
KAL: You talk about the worst thing that ever happened to you being the envy and negative thoughts you had towards other musicians who were achieving commercial success, then those very same musicians were there for you when you got sick, and threw your benefit shows. What advice do you have for other musicians who find themselves defeated by negative thoughts and envy along their way to success?
Sam Bush: Well, it’s not always easy but you just have to take your mind and your attitude to – why did you play music? What attracted you? I mean, what is it? And the love of the music, but it’s not always easy to remember that and you can get disillusioned. I had fallen into a trap, it was about ‘81-‘82, and we, the New Grass Revival had spent two years with Leon Russell, our visibility was raised, and I just couldn’t understand why the rest of the world wasn’t catching on to us, you know? It seemed like a pretty easy-logical sound to us. So I found myself being envious of other people’s position in the world of show business—not their music, we were never envious of other people’s music, I knew we had good music. Maybe it was affecting my attitude a little bit because I felt we deserved it to but it was quite humbling when yes – in the fall of ‘82 I was diagnosed with cancer and lo and behold some of the very people I’d become envious of were the very ones who were the first ones to say “What do you need? We’ll throw benefits, we’ll help you out, we’ll bring you groceries, and that was quite humbling. It shouldn’t have taken being that sick to realize that your friends would help you, but it really drove it home. “Come on man, if you can’t be happy for your friends then you’re a very small person.”
What I learned was that I’m happy for my friends, “Good luck to ya!” If you can’t stand and applaud them, then come on, get with it here. I had this leg kicked out from me for a little while and it helped me realize that were there to help each other, so hopefully I’ve been able to give back some to them too.
KAL: What’s the last song you want to hear before you die?
Sam Bush: Lynne’s voice. Her laughter is one of the prettiest sounds I ever hear.
KAL: Final question, if you had a mantra, some people have a lyric tattooed on them, but what would be a lyric that helped you navigate tough times and good times?
Sam Bush: Boy, what would that be? Really, just kind of thinking of a song that Deborah Holland and I wrote for the most recent CD, everything is possible. The only limits are the ones I put on myself—everything is possible. Hell, I might even get to play a tune with Eric Clapton someday, everything is possible [laughing].
Just in case you were listening for one, This is a Good Sound, and it’s time we have a little re-vi-val!
I’m tired about hearin’ how my life is all wrong, Oh yeah
I’m gonna take this feelin and I’m gonna put it in this song, right now
Ain’t no doubt about it
I’m gonna sing and shout about it now
Cause we’re gonna have a revival
Gonna have a revival
Everybody to the revival