Interview with Sam Bush

sam bush
Sam Bush

Interview and photos by Scott Preston

Though he admits a certain discomfort with the moniker “King of Newgrass,” Sam Bush has more than earned it. As cofounder and leader of the seminal progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival through 18 years during the 1970s and ’80s, Bush may not be the only person responsible for newgrass, the wild bluegrass stepchild that features rock ‘n’ roll grooves and extended virtuosic jams, but since New Grass Revival’s dissolution in 1989, Bush has certainly been one of the most brilliant of newgrass’s many bright lights.

Besides helming the ever-popular Sam Bush Band, featured on the upcoming release Laps in Seven, the mandolin prodigy from Kentucky has been a prodigious influence on musicians young and old. Bands like Nickel Creek, Yonder Mountain String Band, and String Cheese Incident, to name just a few, are indebted to Bush’s example, not only in his wide-ranging choice of material and rock-based acoustic grooves, but by his captivating, high-energy live shows, which have made him an in demand headliner, and fan fave at important festivals like Telluride and MerleFest.

When not heading his own band, Bush has spent the past 15 years as a supersideman with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, and the Flecktones; spearheaded boundary-stretching collaborations with Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, and David Grisman, and driven nearly every “bluegrass supergroup” imaginable with his inimitable mandolin playing. (source –

Cincy Groove: So I understand you recently performed on the floor of the Kentucky Senate?

Sam Bush: It was quite an honor. We play music for people from all over the world, large or small audiences. Then there we are standing there on the Senate floor playing a few songs. It was once of those things that you weren’t sure if you were going to be nervous or not. It was really exciting to play there being from Kentucky myself. They also gave us a proclamation, it was resolution number 195. It was quite an experience.

Cincy Groove: Are you working on any new projects?

Sam Bush: In a round about way I am, I am in the process of writing with a bunch of people right now. Also trying to get some new songs ready for festival season. I should be ready to start recording in a couple months.

Cincy Groove: Who are you writing/collaborating with?

Sam Bush: Jeff Black and I have been writing together. I think Jeff Black is one of the greatest songwriters I have ever met. I have also been collaborating a little with Alan Roady from Louisville and also Tim Kreckle and Edgar Meyer. We are playing in early May on the west coast, so I am going to collaborate with a few writers out there as well. Just looking for something I haven’t done before. In the past year I have been playing with off and on when I’m doing other things with this great saxophone player named Bill Evans. Bill played with Miles Davis when he was in his early twenties, played for years with John McLaughlin. So its one of the heaviest music things that I’m around. Bill Evans has his band Soulgrass, he has this great banjo picker, an outrageous jazz violin player, and then he puts me on mandolin, both acoustic and electric. Its just an amazing fusion that I get to do.

Cincy Groove: I am glad to see you are coming back to perform at Spring hookahville.

Sam Bush: Thats always a fun thing. The hookahville audience is up for anything. There are no limits and no boundaries musically. Thats the kind of audience I like to play for.

Cincy Groove: Are there any new bands that impress you?

Sam Bush: Well I guess just speaking in terms of bluegrass, there is a band called The Infamous Stringdusters which I like a lot. I really like a band called The Greencards. We play with them from time to time, The Greencards really have a good sound going.

Cincy Groove: I also see you hosted the IBMA Awards last year.

Sam Bush: I did, for all the times you sit in the audience and watch the awards show go down, and wonder you know I could do that. Then all of a sudden we got the call from the shows producer and they asked me if I wanted to host the show. I couldn’t really answer that day, my wife and I started discussing it. I couldn’t really think of a reason why not. When you stand up in front of all your peers and you don’t have an instrument and your not playing it really does change everything. I was the host , it was my job to keep the ball rolling for the 2-3 hours of the show. I felt it was my job to present what the show was about. Which was honoring those that we respect in bluegrass music. I think I only pissed off a couple people, so thats good (laughing). My love of bluegrass is why I wanted to host that show.

Cincy Groove: What kind of music did you listen to while you were growing up?

Sam Bush: I was really exposed to a variety of music. I grew up outside Bowling Green, KY where we got reception from the Nashville tv stations. I grew up getting to watch all these great country music people. My mom and dad also played music, they didn’t play for a living, they were farmers. My mother played the guitar and my dad plays the fiddle and some mandolin. Music was in our household and encouraged. Of course we listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Friday and Saturday nights. It was something the whole family could do together. I was learning to play the mandolin and listening to fiddle records that my father had by a Grand Ole Opry fiddler named Tommy Jackson. On the Tommy Jackson records a mandolin player would also play and I was really turned onto the sound of the mandolin. Loving the mandolin led me to learn more about Bill Monroe. On tv I got to watch Bill Monroe, Jessie McReynolds, Bob Osborne with Osborne Brothers, and The Dillards on the Andy Griffith Show.

But also bearing in mind at the time, this was the 1960’s, I also had the advantage of getting to watch for instance The Ed Sullivan Show. I had this little tape recorder and I would tape the people on there. Getting to see The Rolling Stones when they play “Lets Spend the Night Together” and they had to change the words to “Lets Spend Some Time Together”. Getting to see Jefferson Airplane on tv and later becoming friends with Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. By the time I was in high school after playing mandolin since age 11, I started to play electric guitar. It was crazy I was playing drums in the marching band, bass and violin in the orchestra, and I would be the youngest guy in the bluegrass band playing mandolin. I was also the only one old enough to drive and I was playing electric guitar in a rock band. In the 60’s and 70’s it was just a great time to be a musical sponge.

In 1967 I went to Weiser, Idaho for this national fiddle contest. I ended up winning the junior division. On our way home, which really wasn’t on our way home, we dropped down to San Francisco. We wanted to see the hippies and see what they looked like (laughing). I also got to see The Grateful Dead playing out on Haight Street. A freaked out bluegrass player is what I became.


Upcoming Sam Bush tour dates:
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4/25/08 Wilkesboro, NC Merlefest
4/26/08 Wilkesboro, NC Merlefest
5/1/08 New Orleans, LA Tipitinas
5/3/08 Indio California Stagecoach Music Festival
5/23/08 Richmond, VA Browns Island
5/24/08 Cumberland, MD 1st Annual DelFest
5/25/08 Thornville, OH Hookaville
6/6/08 Iowa City, Iowa Iowa Artsfest
6/7/08 Scottown, OH Appalachian Uprising
6/13/08 Manchester, TN Bonnaroo Music Festival
6/14/08 Hiawassee, GA Georgia Mt Roots and Music Festival
6/19/08 Telluride, CO Telluride Bluegrass Festival
6/20/08 Telluride, CO Telluride Bluegrass Festival
6/21/08 Telluride, CO Telluride Bluegrass Festival
6/22/08 Telluride, CO Telluride Bluegrass Festival
6/27/08 Atlanta, GA Chastain Park Amphitheater
7/11/08 Olathe, KS Frontier Park
7/12/08 Bellvue, CO Mishawaka Amphitheatre
7/13/08 Snowbird, Utah Snowbird Event Center
7/19/08 Walsh Farm Oak Hill, NY Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival
7/22/08 Uncasville, CT Mohegan Sun Casino Wolf Den
7/25/08 Lyons, CO Rockygrass
7/26/08 Lyons, CO Rockygrass
7/27/08 Lyons, CO Rockygrass
8/3/08 Seaside Park… Bridgeport, CT Gathering of the Vibes
8/9/08 Alta, WY Grand Targhee Bluegrass 2008
8/22/08 Gettysburg, PA Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival
8/23/08 Boone, NC The Old Fairgrounds
8/31/08 Yosemite, CA Strawberry Music Festival
9/12/08 Murrells Inlet, SC Pawleys Island Festival of Music & Art
9/13/08 Brevard, NC Brevard Music Center
9/19/08 Lexington, KY Christ The King Oktoberfest
9/20/08 Bristol, TN Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival
10/25/08 Live Oak, FL Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park