Sam Bush speaks fondly of MerleFest and coming back

by Tim Bullard

Sam Bush speaks fondly of MerleFest and coming back

Sam Bush knew Merle Watson. “Oh yes,” Bush said. “I knew Merle quite well. We started knowing each other very well in 1974 through New Grass Revival. We did 15 gigs opening up for Doc and Merle. We did a festival in Kansas in mid- September and went to the West Coast. It was back then that Merle had a band called Frosty Morn. New Grass Revival would play, and then Frosty Morn and then Doc and Merle and then T. Michael Coleman with them played.” Then Bush played on a record with Doc and Merle, Memories. “I became a good pal of Merle’s,” Bush said. “He would hire me to play on records he was producing. Many a time we would sit together. Merle was a great slide guitar player.” A Kentucky native, Bush isn’t too shabby on mandolin either. “[Watson’s] favorite slide guitar player was Duane Allman, as was mine,” he said. “We would sit and listen to the Allman Brothers together and marvel at the great slide playing of Duane. I always thought

Merle was an acoustic version with the same intensity that Duane had. So, years later I played the slide mandolin.” He wrote a tune based on Merle’s and Duane’s playing, so he called it “Watson Allman.” “When MerleFest first started, everybody who played on it was personal friends of Merle’s and Doc’s. When it first got going, it was real emotional because we were still missing Merle, and we still do. Really, that’s how the festival got going. Now, of course, it’s grown much larger. We still think about Merle all the time.” Bush visited the Todd studio the Watsons had. Bush also played at PB Scott’s Music Hall in Blowing Rock, a geodesic dome with hippies galore, weird smoking on the third floor and sometimes an appearance by Appalachian State University coach Bobby Cremins with his staff. “I remember Merle coming to hear us one time. It was an odd-sounding room I remember,” Bush said. “You could literally be playing and hear the soundman talking on the other side of the dome. It sounded like he was standing next to you during the soundcheck. So, the sound really traveled across the top of that dome.