Grammy Award winning multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush doesn't seem old enough to be a musical legend. And he's not. But he is. Alternately known as the King of Telluride and the King of Newgrass, Bush has been honored by the Americana Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association.
"It's overwhelming and humbling," Bush says of his lifetime achievement award from the AMA. "It goes along with the title cut of my new album, Circles Around Me, which basically says, how in the hell did we get this far? In my brain I'm still 17, but I look in the mirror and I'm 57." But honors are not what drive him. "I didn't get into music to win awards," he says. "I'm just now starting to get somewhere. I love to play and the older I get the more I love it. And I love new things." Among those new things are the growing group of mandolin players that identify Bush as their musical role model in much the same way he idolized Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns. "If I've been cited as an influence, then I'm really flattered because I still have my influences that I look up to," Bush says. "I'm glad that I'm in there somewhere." He's being humble, of course. Bush has helped to expand the horizons of bluegrass music, fusing it with jazz, rock, blues, funk and other styles. He's the co-founder of the genre-bending New Grass Revival and an in-demand musician who has played with everyone from Emmylou Harris and Bela Fleck to Charlie Haden, Lyle Lovett and Garth Brooks. And though Bush is best known for jaw-dropping skills on the mandolin, he is also a three time national junior fiddle champion and Grammy award winning vocalist.
"In the acoustic world, I've been pretty lucky to play with almost every one of my heroes. I've gotten to play with Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, I've been to the mountain," says Bush with a smile. But his greatest contribution may be his impact on the future. "I'm secure with what I can do and I know what I can't do," he says. "You just have to stand there and applaud the great young talent. "Chris Thile, Wayne Benson, Shawn Lane, Matt Flinner, Ronnie McCoury, Mike Marshall—they play in ways that I can't play," he says of today's younger generation of mandolin players. "I'm hoping to be around for is the next generation that comes along after that group. That's going to be something. The music keeps evolving.
Circles Around Me, Bush's seventh solo album and sixth with Sugar Hill, is an aurally inspiring mix of bluegrass favorites and complementary new songs. "I don't know why, but it felt right at this moment in my life to go back and revisit some things that I've loved all my life, which is bluegrass and, unapologetically, newgrass," says Bush. "After all these years of experimenting —and there's experimentation on this record too —I've come full circle." Produced by Bush, the 14-song set includes appearances by Del McCoury, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas and New Grass Revival co-founder Courtney Johnson (posthumously). The album also employs the phenomenal talent of Bush's band: Scott Vestal, Stephen Mougin, Byron House and Chris Brown. "I get to play every show with my favorite musicians and I feel real fortunate," Bush says of his band. "I love playing with them. I feel like this group is limitless and they proved it again on this record." The title cut, which Bush co-wrote with Jeff Black, "is about being thankful that you're still here, that you're still alive walking around," Bush explains. "Why are we the ones still here when we've had fallen comrades and loved ones?" "The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle," which Bush co-wrote with Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson, is the haunting real-life story of the 1973 murder of Grand Ole Opry star David "Stringbean" Akeman and his wife. Bush and Courtney Johnson, who died in 1996, were reunited thanks to New Grass Revival producer Garth Fundis, who found a previously unreleased recording with Bush and Johnson's fiddle and banjo pairing on "Apple Blossom" from 1976. "It's pretty special and means a lot to me." Meanwhile, "Souvenir Bottles" and "Whisper My Name" are fine updates of songs Bush first recorded in his New Grass Revival days. "I guess I'm proud that I can still sing it in the key that we first cut it in," Bush says of "Whisper," which was on New Grass Revival's 1972 debut album. Del McCoury, whom Bush first met in 1970, guests on two Bill Monroe songs, "Roll On Buddy, Roll On" and "Midnight On The Stormy Deep." "Del always encouraged me to sing," Bush says. "So I wanted to do these songs with him. 'Roll On' is one of the few songs Del ever recorded with Bill." Songs such as "Diamond Joe" and "You Left Me Alone" have roots in Bush's youth. The latter was on an album by the Country Gentlemen that Bush bought in the '60s. "It's a great 6/8 fast waltz tune and I am almost quoting John Duffey's mandolin playing note for note," he says. "It's a great tune and I've never heard anyone else do it." The Bush-penned "Old North Woods" is a "Bill Monroe-sounding waltz," according to Bush, that features Meyer, his wife, Cornelia Heard of the Blair String Quartet, and their 16-year-old son, George, in his recording debut. "With Emmy I learned more about singing and more about letting music breathe and I hope this CD is part of that thought," Bush says of Emmylou Harris, his former boss in the Nash Ramblers. "Through her I realized you don't have to whack people over the head with intensity on every song."
There's plenty more of course and Bush fans new and old will find lots to love. "It's crazy to think about," Bush says of his influence on today's crop of mandolin players. "I'm proud to be part of a natural progression in music. And I hope to still be playing 30 years from now." That said, it's not surprising that Bush still has goals. "I want to grow as a songwriter, as a song collaborator," he says. "There are still a lot of things I haven't discovered about playing mandolin. I want to be able to be secure in the styles that I know how to play well, but I also want to explore other styles that I haven't learned yet. "I want to improve as a singer," he adds. "I have to work harder on singing than I do on playing." "As long as I'm alive I hope I have the ability to play," says Bush, a two time cancer treatment survivor. When the ability to play is taken away, it's humbling. It teaches you a lesson: don't take it for granted."