Sam Bush is the “Father of Newgrass,” a style of bluegrass music with modern themes. With New Grass Revival, he worked with Bela Fleck, Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker, Curtis Burch, Butch Robins, John Cowan and Pat Flynn on a sound that inspired artists like Garth Brooks, who would open for the band on tour. On Saturday, March 15, Bush brings his current band to the WorkPlay Theatre to collect more footage for a documentary.
He spoke about the time Brooks opened for New Grass Revival, and he shared memories of working with some of the genre’s younger acts, like Alison Krauss and the newly reunited Nickel Creek.
Weld: Is the documentary taping unique to Birmingham or is this footage you’re collecting throughout the tour?
Sam Bush: It actually started last year, and we’re filming at several different places. WorkPlay, of course, lends itself to that capability — we can be filming, we can be multi-track recording and our documentarians, they’ve done that once before. It’s called Duke and the King. In that vein, you’re trying to get current day performances by the band, and WorkPlay lends itself very well to that.
Not only do we get to play music for people, but yes, we’re also filming that night. So it’s a big deal for us.
Weld: Will you do it in one take, or will you re-record things?
SB: We’ll hope to play straight through, and if we have to do it again, maybe we’ll just do it after everyone leaves. [Laughs.] But no, the band is tight.
Weld: Do you have a targeted release date?
SB: No, because we’re still just kind of getting it going. I’m just a musician. Kris Wheeler and Wayne Franklin, they’re doing the documentary. Our hope is that we get a great show on tape as well. On film, I should say, not tape. [Laughs.] There will probably be some new songs that we’ve never played before; thinking six months from now when it all may come together. We’ve got some new tunes that we’d like to record while we’re getting it filmed.
Weld: There’s no better person than the father of it to ask: what distinguishes the genre as “newgrass”?
SB: Really, what makes us a little different than some things is using traditional bluegrass instruments, be it banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle — you use those traditional instruments to create a more contemporary sound. In other words, not just old songs or songs that have been passed down through the generations, but tunes that we write with contemporary thoughts with old-time instruments.
I grew up in Kentucky, and I’ve been playing the mandolin for 50 years. I love bluegrass and the traditions that have come down, but the subject matter really did change at a certain point. And I guess that I’m sort of part of that. [Laughs.] Del McCoury and I talk about it all the time — we’re the only guys old enough to know that we grew up on a farm and we understand the rural thoughts of past songs.
But that isn’t the way that people write anymore, myself included. So we use more modern-day thoughts and subject matter to related to our old-time, acoustic instruments.
Weld: Which instrument challenges you the most?
SB: The most challenging is fiddle. Of course I also play the mandolin, and fiddle and mandolin are tuned the same, but they are not at all the same beast. It’s pretty amazing that the older I get, the more I enjoy the challenge of fiddle playing and mandolin playing. But I think fiddle is the most challenging instrument, perhaps, of all of them. You have so many different factors. With a mandolin, you can take a pick and strum a chord the first time you ever pick it up. With a fiddle, it can take you a year to get a sound that’s not displeasing. [Laughs.]
Weld: You were very young when your career took off, which seems like something that happens in this genre a lot — Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek. Is there any explanation for youthful success within the genre?
SB: It’s interesting — I was actually Alison’s first producer. And I was Chris Thile’s [of Nickel Creek] second producer. And I knew he’d never need another person after that, that he would always take the ball and run with it himself.
I’m happy that when I was 13 I got to see some of the greatest performers to ever perform bluegrass music at the Roanoke Bluegrass Festival, it was called. It was one of the first festivals. So I got to see them, and fortunately, I’m not too old that I get to sit back and appreciate the the talents of Nickel Creek and the Infamous Stringdusters and Greensky Bluegrass and Leftover Salmon and the Yonder Mountain String Band. So they’re all my friends, and I get to play with them. But I’m just old enough that I got to be around some of the originators of bluegrass music.
Weld: Who inspires you now?
SB: My young friends like Chris [Thile]. And yeah, they’re having a Nickel Creek reunion this year. [Laughs.] That’s what’s so crazy — they’re old enough that they get a reunion now!
I still get to play with some of the people that are my inspirations like Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. I feel like I’m pretty fortunate that I’m in a situation where I get to play with these people. And if you pay attention, you’ll find that you learn something in every situation.
Weld: What impact did the Garth Brooks cover of “Callin’ Baton Rouge” have on the genre?
SB: It’s interesting because we had our band New Grass Revival, and Garth Brooks and us were on Capitol Records at the same time. It was a couple of years later, our band had broken up. Garth actually had opened a few shows for New Grass Revival before he had his record deal. So we knew him from Oklahoma. He always thought “Callin’ Baton Rouge” should have been a number one hit for the Revival.
The record company heard we were breaking up, so they pulled a promo and we only went to 36. Garth always thought that was a bit unjust. He wanted that song to be a hit. So he said, “I’m going to record that song. I’m going to prove to them that it can be a hit song.”
And I said, “Well, if you need anybody, we all know who knows the parts.”
And doggone if he didn’t invite the ex-members of New Grass Revival and Jerry Douglas to play on that song. And I’m really happy that, by golly, he was right. All we had to do was come in a play the same parts we did the first time. He’s a kind, generous person.
Weld: What was your favorite version of the Revival?
SB: Honestly, the second one with John Cowan, Courtney Johnson, Curtis Burch and me. Just because we were always on the same page. We were always having fun and laughing together.
Weld: Will we ever see another version again? A festival reunion?
SB: I don’t think so. Everybody is happy with the lives we have together and separately. Bela’s obviously done incredibly well in his endeavors, and God knows we love him. John has gone on to other session things — John’s a member of the Doobie Brothers. Pat is a session player in Nashville and is a producer and guitar player. And me, I’m out with my band and enjoying that part. So really, that’s the band that we’ll be bringing to WorkPlay that I most enjoy playing with.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
SB: American? Wow. Well, the Allman Brothers Band. The Allman Brothers and the Allman Brothers. The Allman Brothers!
I don’t normally just think of it as American. Okay — the Allman Brothers, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Paul Butterfield’s Better Days. Freddie King, although that’s not really a “band,” but Freddie King. That’s four — no, it’s only three.
I’m sorry, but the Allman Brothers are just the best band that ever lived. That new Duane box that came out called Skydog, it’s just awesome. Maybe we gotta put Tedeschi Trucks up there with them, too. Gov’t Mule. So it all sort of revolves around the Brothers for me – the offshoots of Tedeschi Trucks and Gov’t Mule and Warren [Haynes]. But I know I’m leaving someone great out like Santana. Crosby, Stills and Nash. Although they might not be called a rock band, I think they are. Maybe Buffalo Springfield. Poco. The Eagles! Gotta put the Eagles in there! [Laughs.]
So the Allman Brothers, Poco, the Eagles and the Allman Brothers.
Sam Bush films his documentary at the Workplay Theatre on Saturday, March 15. The show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 on the day of the show.