Just one of the boys of summer: Sam Bush is still the newgrass MVP

by Ryan Snyder

Purists view the game of baseball much in the same way that acclaimed mandolin player Sam Bush approaches bluegrass. It’s a game that moves at an unencumbered pace, beholden to no clock, and is prone to moments of pure, unadulterated bliss. Not to mention that, like a healthy dose of fine string music, summertime just wouldn’t be the same without it. Bush is one of those purists; to baseball, not necessarily to bluegrass; and even if he would never admit it, there are more than a few unambiguous parallels to be drawn between Bush and his baseball-mashing, MVPwinning idol Albert Pujols. As Pujols flirts with what could very well be the first Major League Baseball-wide Triple Crown since Mickey Mantle did it in 1956, Bush can only gush about the season so far for the St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman. “He’s as good as it gets. If he’s able to keep playing and avoid injury, someday there will be a greater Cardinal than Stan Musial and I never thought that would happen,” Bush said. “He gets two pitches a game to hit and he doesn’t miss either. He’s just a smart, smart player.” As a child, the affable, auburn-haired picking prodigy from Bowling Green, Ky. was one of thousands caught up in the expansive range of KMOX’s towers, then the radio home of the Cardinals, and has been a dutiful fan ever since. Both are right at home with a sturdy piece of maple in their hands, and as Pujols and Bush have both attained a standing among their peers as devotees to the finest nuances of their crafts, a question is regularly put forth as to whether they each might the greatest at what they do. Like Pujols, whose natural humility would force a dismissal of the question outright, Bush can only laugh and offer up a list of names that he himself holds in the utmost esteem. Names he admires, like David Grisman, Barry Mitteroff, Drew Emmitt, Chris Feely and Siler City’s own Tony Williamson come effortlessly to his mind. “People say that and that’s fine,” Bush affirmed. “I don’t know if I’m the greatest in the world and I don’t know if there even is one.”

But as far as mandolin players go, Bush has proven that he can hit to all fields and knock one out of the park every chance he gets. He’s played alongside the best string musicians that country, jazz and roots music have to offer, while having his hand firmly planted in the evolution of the jam scene. It’s approaching four decades since his seminal band New Grass Revival rewrote the rules for how bluegrass could be played; no more matching suits, grooming was optional and no song was off limits. The band regularly took on the Beatles and Jerry Lee Lewis, while Bush still has a particular taste for Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin covers. While Pujols is still years away from waltzing into Cooperstown, Bush has started receiving career honors in the midst of his peak years. His forthcoming Lifetime Achievement for Instrumentalist award from the Americana Music Association comes on the heels of one of his most productive periods. His 2006 album Laps in Seven, named for the time signature that his dog Ozzie (another Cardinals reference) drank water, hit No. 2 on the Billboard bluegrass charts and would release his first live DVD, On the Road, the following year. Laps featured the use of a few electric instruments and several guests such as Jean- Luc Ponty and Emmylou Harris; his upcoming release, Circles Around Me, marks Bush’s return to acoustically focused, unadulterated bluegrass music. Bush emphasizes that it’s an album that allows his veteran backing band to shine, but the guest spots are still intact, however, as bluegrass legend Del McCoury appears for a pair of duets. “When [Del]’s in the studio, you better be ready to square off,” said Bush. “He’s such a marvelous singer and person.” Dobro master Jerry Douglas and famed upright bassist Edgar Meyer, both of whom are longtime collaborators and friends, also appear, revealing the impetus and underlying theme behind the album. The album’s title track, cowritten by Jeff Black, makes allusions with the passages, “How in the world did we make it this far?” and “I want to thank you for all of the good friends I’ve found.” “It was written from a point of view that I feel fortunate to play music for a living,” Bush said. “That’s one of the rewarding things about getting out playing music; you get to be with your good friends wherever you go.”

The Sam Bush Band will play a free show at the Natty Greene’s block party on Saturday, Aug. 1 at 6 p.m