Sam Bush offers the impression that he’s everywhere at once, one of the main reasons he’s gained a reputation as one of today’s most engaged artists. A consistent presence at countless concerts and festivals throughout all corners of the country, he’s been dubbed the King of Telluride, having appeared at that Colorado bluegrass gathering a remarkable 44 years in a row. The only one he missed was its initial offering.
Likewise, he’s never missed an appearance at Merlefest in its entire 31-year history. Ongoing appearances at the prestigious Americana, Strawberry and Suwannee music festivals have found him a regular there as well.
At an April press conference held backstage at Merlefest, Bush was asked whether he and Jim Lauderdale, another ardent festival multi-tasker, might be competing for the title once held by the late James Brown, who was famously known as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Barely missing a beat, and with a quizzical look across his face, he offered an incredulous one word reply.
Indeed, Bush’s ever-present grin onstage and off, his self-effacing sense of humor, and a seemingly determined desire to share the stage with other musicians whenever opportunity arises relies on an inexhaustible energy that can even surprise himself. Merlefest found him playing eight sets in a single day, a record he says that he wouldn’t want to repeat.
“Now I can say that I did that once,” he said with a chuckle. “Let’s face it — I‘m old enough to have a Medicare card, and so it was a bit much ... even for me. My friends were all playing on the same day, and so before I knew it, the day was really full. Hopefully, in the future I can figure out a way to play with all my friends without playing eight sets in a day. I came away pretty exhausted, but I enjoyed every note. And I feel fortunate for getting to do it.”
The next day at Merlefest, he guested with Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Introducing him, Martin offered a feigned sigh of resignation and irritated exasperation when he welcomed Bush back to the stage: “Here’s Sam Bush ... again!”
Later, asked about Martin’s remark, Bush chuckled knowingly. “I take great pride in being a Steve Martin punchline,” he said.
Indeed, Bush couldn’t be blamed for simply resting on his laurels. As one of the early exponents of the so-called “newgrass” revival, a populist movement that combines traditional bluegrass with contemporary credence, he co-founded the band New Grass Revival in the early ’70s, helping to affect a kind of roots-rock crossover similar in style to what the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band all attempted on their own.
While various members of the group — most notably Bush, Bela Fleck, John Cowan and Pat Flynn — would achieve solo success in years to come, the group dissolved a decade later. Still, any festival that finds Bush and his former bandmates sharing the bill likely will find them jamming onstage as well.
Early on, Bush began backing such iconic artists as Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Bela Fleck’s Flecktones, even as his freewheeling finesse on both fiddle and mandolin made him an integral part of Nashville’s studio scene. A three-time Grammy winner and awards recipient from the Americana Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association, he and his band — Scott Vestal (banjo), Stephen Mougin (guitar), Todd Parks (bass) and Chris Brown (drums) — have earned a reputation as one of the most energetic ensembles on the concert circuit today. Even people who aren’t normally bluegrass boosters have become devoted fans.
“We always considered ourselves to be the perfect entertainers to introduce people to a bluegrass-style thought,” Bush said. “We don’t play Old Time bluegrass, although we know how to. Many times throughout the years, I’ve heard people say, ‘You know, I didn’t think I liked this kind of music.’ I love it when I hear that. We also give other options with other kinds of music, so if you like what we do, you can dig into true bluegrass and see how the people that we liked inspired us originally.”
Many of his memories were made in Knoxville. “New Grass Revival used to play there on ‘The Strip’ (Cumberland Avenue) quite a bit,” Bush said. “I remember one night after the Tennessee-Alabama game, we couldn’t leave the bar for something like four hours until they swept all the glass off the street. We physically could not drive out.”
Indeed, he’s no stranger to these environs. “My band played the Bijou not long ago, and I played (World’s Fair Park) where we’re performing this weekend when I was with Emmylou and when I was playing with the Flecktones. I love getting to play there.”
Born in Bowling Green, Ky., Bush traces his interest in making music to his father’s record collection and later, to his first bluegrass festival, which he attended at the age of 13. By the time he was a teenager, he already was performing frequently and even winning his first award, accorded him at the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest in Weiser, Idaho, when he was only 15.
That enjoyment persists today, a fact that’s all too apparent in the constant grin that’s become an inevitable part of Bush’s facial features.
“It is a joyful experience for me, especially with the group I have now,” Bush said. “We communicate so well. We all have our stories to tell. I certainly have my experiences and have been through a few ups and downs. Still, I know I’m fortunate to get to do this. When the music starts, I go right into it. I let it overtake me. That’s how we want the audience to feel. If we can take you away from your daily grind, even for a couple of hours, then we know we’ve done out job.”