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Suwannee Springfest Coverage: Sam Bush Talks Life & Music

Foreword & Interview by Jesse Filippelli

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Since the first time I heard the unmistakable sound of Sam Bush’s mandolin playing, I have been hooked. His unique style prompted me to listen through entire albums and even pick up the mandolin myself. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I found out that I would have the opportunity to sit down with Sam Bush at Springfest!

For me, Bush is more then just a musician, he is one of my idols. From his upbeat, happy attitude on life to the energy that falls upon a crowd the moment he steps on stage. For me, he IS bluegrass. Here’s the conversation we had on his role as a musician and how his family shaped who he is today.

“That man is the man folks, and that’s all there is to it.” –Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass

Jesse: Its been a busy year for you so far Sam. You have been sitting in with many bands all across the country, many of who are here today. Last month at Winter Wondergrass you played two sets with Greensky Bluegrass, you have played a few shows with Steep Canyon Rangers, and like in many years before you have found yourself playing with the McCourys. What’s the best part of being able to play with so many different groups?

Sam Bush: There is something to be learned in every situation. I feel like my job in life is to be the good supporting person. That even falls into today; today it’s my band and when the other guys are soloing or singing its my job to give them the best rhythm I can, especially when I’m sitting in with Greensky, Salmon, or even Yonder Mountain.

It’s great that my younger friends who grew up listening to New Grass Revival are now the same guys I have the privilege to be playing with today. It’s a nice honor that I get to play with my friends. I learn something from all of them every time I play with them too. If you really pay attention in the role of the support musician like I am many times, my job is to fit in with them, not to stand out. When I’m leading my own band I get to stand out; but when I’m supposed to be playing good rhythm for them it’s a big responsibility. The goal is to play together. My job, and I hope this doesn’t sound crazy, is when I play with you, you play better.

You grew up in Kentucky, but today you are the “King of Telluride.” How do you find a way to combine the influence of southern style bluegrass from Kentucky with the rocky mountain style bluegrass from Colorado?

We were the guys in KY who never felt the restraints of following our elders.  I had a friend when I was younger who wrote a song that sounded like a Bill Monroe song, and he actually played it for him once. I happened to be on the sidelines and Bill liked it, but he said, “That’s good, but what can you do on your own?” So I always felt that even Bill Monroe liked it, but he did his own and made his own style of music. I took that statement as well even Bill Monroe expects you to have your own direction.

So the first time we ever got out to CO we met a new audience. We met new people and it seemed to have something to do with the wide-open spaces of CO and the way of thinking and excepting different ideas and different music. Not what we traditionally grew up listening to. It was cool. We were all out here exploring this new world together, and that’s how it felt back in 1975 when we first played in Telluride.  It was interesting to me that we happened to run into our audience out in Telluride in 1975.

What do you prefer to play, mandolin or fiddle? And, What made you pick up an instrument to begin with?

Mandolin, for whatever reason I have always felt much more comfortable on mandolin.

My parent’s love of music [made me pick up an instrument at first]. My mom strummed the guitar and my dad played the fiddle as well as a little bit of mandolin, so the instruments were always around. We were encouraged to play music and always encouraged to sing.  Now, I look back and we would be going into town to see a basketball game or something and he would have my sisters and I singing harmony. My dad would listen to the fiddle records with mandolin and it made me want to pick it up.

My father (laughs) was not a good musician, but nobody loved music more then my dad, and he really wanted me to be a fiddler more then a mandolin player. Now I’m getting to the point where I’m kind of half and half. But yeah, it was my parent’s love of music that made me start. We grew up on a farm, and my parents had to work very hard for us. They didn’t want us to have to work as hard as they did. Luckily we all found our own way to do that. Mine was through music.

How does it feel to be back at Suwannee?

SB: Its wonderful. This is our first outdoor festival of the year. It’s a joyful noise and normally this wouldn’t be the first one, but we couldn’t be happier to be here. Every March my wife and I go to Disney so being able to be back here is great.

How much of an influence does this environment have on the music?

It affects you; you can’t help but stand there and appreciate what everyone else is appreciating. We are all here together outdoors on this nice day.

The song “Circles Around Me” seems to have a pretty deep connection to the fans, as well as for you. Can you talk about what inspirations you had for writing that song?

Jeff Black and I write together, and he is so interesting and so good at writing that you can just say things to him and he turns his head and starts taking notes. On that day one of us turned to the other and said, “Wow, how in the hell did we get this far?” We were just talking about all these dumb things you do as a kid, falling off the monkey bars or hurting your arm, which ended up making that line. There is another line in that song “Was I dreaming or did this really happen?” I didn’t know enough about my father’s life, so a few years before he died I decided I should interview him with my camera to find out more about his life.

So one day when I was young I was plowing tobacco on the farm, my job was to lead the horse. I stupidly was holding the reigns too tight and the horse saw some grass and leaned down bringing me clear over the horse and on my back. All I remember was it knocking the wind out of me. This was in the day and age when parents’ didn’t tell you everything; they never told you if they were scared. They were the parents’ they were in running the show, so years later I asked him if that was real, did it really happen? He said, “Hell yea it happened, but what was I supposed to say?” The bottom line is that the song is about appreciating being here today.

sam bush


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