Sam Bush is a pioneer of the newgrass style, a style of bluegrass that incorporates sometimes electric instruments and uses inspiration from genres like rock n roll.
Bluegrass music traditionally takes song structure from old jazz music, where individual players take turns improvising over the main rhythm to show off their virtuosic skill. The tempo in newgrass is usually fast, carefully combining bluegrass sound with rock n roll chords and tempo. When you listen to Sam Bush play the mandolin, you can imagine the same notes and solos being played on an electric guitar in a rock band, for example. Newgrass also makes room for instrumental jam band-style improvising during live performances and recordings.
Charles Samuel Bush was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, 1952, which means he grew up during the popularity of 1960s folk music and musicians like Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe, who were pioneers of bluegrass style. In 1965, Sam Bush attended the very first Roanoke Bluegrass Festival in Virginia.
He bought his first mandolin at 11, and in his teen years, he competed in the junior division of the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest where he would place first three times. His mentor was guitarist Wayne Stewart during this time, along with banjoist Alan Munde. The three of them recorded Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1969, an instrumental album.
After this album, Bush moved to Louisville, Kentucky and joined a band, which later reformed as The New Grass Revival in 1971. Through the 1970s and into the 1980s the band toured and sometimes jammed with Duckbutter Blues Band. It was 1984 when Bush recorded his first solo album, Late as Usual.
The New Grass Revival recorded over twenty albums, and disbanded in 1989, so Bush and banjo player Béla Fleck created an all-star band Strength in Numbers with Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas for Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival. This band continued to play at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, each member chosen for their ability to improvise (a key element in bluegrass, which is inspired by the virtuosic improvisation of jazz music).
Bush then joined Nash Ramblers, Emmylou Harris’s band, and would tour and record with them until 1994. His second solo album, Glamour and Grits, was recorded in 1996 and released a third in 1998 called Howlin’ At The Moon with many of the same musicians from the previous few years including Harris and Fleck.
Bush was very popular in the bluegrass scene, so popular and revered that on March 28th, 1998, his hometown honoured him with a Sam Bush Day.
After that, he released a live album in 2000 called Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride in 2000, and another album in 2006 called Laps in Seven. The latter featured banjo playing, which had been left out of some of his prior releases. After this came Circles Around Me in 2009, and Storyman in 2016.
Over the years, he has earned several awards, including Mandolin Player of the Year presented by IBMA in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 2007. His wondrous talent and extensive touring and recording gave him the opportunity to host the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards in 2007. He has also won Grammy Awards for Best Country Performance by Duo or Group with Emmylou Harris & Nash Ramblers in 1992, Best Pop Instrumental Performance with Béla Fleck & The Flecktones in 1996, and Album of the Year in 2001.
His hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky is quite proud to be the birthplace of a national musical hero, so much that Kentucky legislation named Bowling Green the Birthplace of Newgrass and Sam Bush the Father of Newgrass. No one in the Senate opposed this.
He is recognized for his talents on the mandolin. He plays with a lot of heart but keeps it very casual, usually onstage in jeans and a t-shirt for comfort and movement while playing. This sort of rebellion began with his old band New Grass Revival in the 1970s, who wore informal clothing and had long hair, as opposed to bluegrass bands who were more tradition-bound.
His talent and extensive repertoire landed him the nickname of a modern day Bill Monroe. Funnily enough, Bush met Monroe as a teenager, and demonstrated his mandolin playing for him. Monroe advised him to stick to the fiddle.
He is known for his bluegrass vocals, mandolin talents and fiddle skills: at the age of fifteen he won the National Fiddle championship. Sam Bush has also toured, played and recorded with such artists as Dolly Parton, Doc Watson and Ann Savoy, to name a few.
He continues to play at the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, taking the stage at 8:00PM.
Despite his casual ensemble, he is a very lively performer, putting heart and soul into every action he makes. He continues to tour with Sam Bush Band, appearing at small venues and big festivals across the United States. He also makes guest appearances with other performers at these festivals. He plays the F-style mandolin.