2007 Artist Lineup

Sam Bush

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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. “I wanted to try something different,” Bush says of how he approached the new record, inadvertently defining his lifelong approach to music. “I wanted to shake things up a bit while still displaying the live sound of the road band.” Bush’s band is a tight crew of Nashville’s most in demand studio musicians, including (previous 2005) guitarist Keith Sewell (Stephen Mougin has joined the band since the recording was made as guitar picker/harmony vocalist), Byron House on bass, Chris Brown on drums and banjoist Scott Vestal. Vestal’s presence marks one of the striking differences that Bush was aiming for. His dynamic, inventive playing will certainly remind listeners of the last days of New Grass Revival, which, of course, featured a young Bela Fleck. “I can’t tell you how much I love playing with Scott,” Sam says of his most recent banjo buddy. “He can play everything, but he doesn’t feel compelled to put it in every song.” In addition to giving his band room to romp, the “something different” that Bush was looking for often occurs when one of his many special guests joins the proceedings. For example, the opening track, Julie Miller’s “The River’s Gonna Run,” features Bush’s old boss Emmylou Harris in a duet vocal with Bush, as well as the electric and acoustic guitar playing of Buddy Miller. “Buddy gets a sound out of an acoustic guitar that bluegrassers don’t get,” says Bush. “He’s all about painting the landscape. He doesn’t try to stand out, he just tries to make a big wall of sound, and boy he really does on this track.” Such a powerful, rockin’ and emotional opener needed a strong follow up, and it got one-probably the most traditional-sounding bluegrass cut on any of Bush’s solo CDs, the Charlie Monroe classic “Bringing in the Georgia Mail,” which features the Sam Bush Band doing what they do best, throwing down the bluegrass gauntlet and waiting to see if anyone is brave enough to pick it up. Not many who hear this rousing rendition will be so bold. After establishing both his rock and bluegrass credentials, Bush spends much of Laps in Seven paying tribute to old friends and musical influences. John Hartford’s “On the Road” gives worthy respect to his dear, departed cohort and a natural for Bush’s flexible band. “New Grass Revival used to play that song with John a lot,” Bush recalls. “For a few years, 1975-80 or so, we played a lot of shows with John. And that was one of the more fun ones to jam on.” Though the song is in 5/4, the rhythm flows naturally from Hartford’s lyrical phrasing, creating the kind of complex yet accessible song that Bush and company revel in. “I Wanna Do Right,” a rendre hommage to Gulf Coast hurricane survivors was co-written by Bush and Jeff Black , a favorite writer on previous Bush recordings, and features an R&B duet with Little Feat’s own Shaun Murphy (who also arranged back-up vocals of the Do-Right Singers). Darrell Scott, another talented former guitar picker in the SBB, contributes yet another of his extraordinary songs, a lyrical and haunting version of “River Take Me.” Other Bush friends and favorites include Leon Russell’s “Ballad For a Soldier,” as timely a song now as it was years ago when he wrote it, and Robbie Fulk’s “Where There’s a Road,” a story for touring musicians everywhere. Bush has written a number of songs with songwriter John Pennell, and the latest is “Riding that Bluegrass Train,” which gives a nod to bluegrass/newgrass music, horse racing, and Baltimore banjoist Walter Hensley, whose 1960s recording Pickin’ on New Grass, was the first place Bush heard the words that would come to define his music. To give it that high-lonesome sound, Bush called on Tim O’Brien to sing the high harmony vocals. “Tim and I play the same instruments so we hardly ever get to play on the same records,” Bush says. “Tim just nailed the harmony, it was effortless.” Though Bush is most often known as a mandolinist, he’s also a champion fiddler and on two tracks he pays tribute to two violinists who helped push his fiddle playing into the rock arena when he was a youngster. On the rock classic “White Bird,” Bush and Andrea Zonn update violinist David LaFlamme’s enduring composition, both vocally and in a soaring violin arrangement that expands and improves on the original. The recording of Jean-Luc Ponty’s “New Country,” which has been a live Sam Bush Band fave, includes a scintillating performance by Ponty himself, playing twin fiddles with Bush. This track is the result of a meeting at last summer’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, at which Ponty sat in with Bush and company. “I’ve been a fan of Jean-Luc since his first record, Sunday Walk, came out in America,” says Bush. “He is the king of jazz-rock violin. He was at Telluride playing with another trio, so I asked him if he would play “New Country” with us. To be standing there looking over at him right beside me was a dream come true, something I never imagined could happen. So I thought it would be great to get him to record it, too. We recorded the track and sent it to him in France. When we got it back and I heard the beauty of his playing, tears just streamed down my face. It was as joyful a moment as I’ve ever had. It’s nice to be 54 years old and still just be totally overwhelmed by something,” says Bush of recording with Ponty. I was just as excited as I would have been if it happened when I was 16, when I first heard him.” Rounding out this musical adventure are two of Bush’s signature instrumentals. This recording features “The Dolphin Dance” and “Laps In Seven,” a drinking tune written by Sam, Byron and Scott and inspired by Bush’s dog Ozzie. Sam Bush’s ability to be continually touched and amazed by new music may be the quality that makes him such a successful and virtuosic performer and band leader. He helped create newgrass music almost 35 years ago, but Laps in Seven is evidence that he’s still as vital a presence on the acoustic music scene as ever: still making new sounds, still rockin’ out on great songs, and still pushing the bar higher for the legions of his proteges, fans and friends.

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