Sam Bush tests bluegrass' limits


The Sam Bush Band

Friday, July 14, 9 p.m.

The Music Mill

Tickets: $25.00, available at the Music Mill box office, all Ticketmaster outlets or charge-by-phone, 239-5151

Amid the awards and accolades he has received over the years, there’s one distinction that no one but Sam Bush can claim.

“I’m the only mandolin player to have played with KISS!” Bush pointed out during a recent interview. “There was an album that came out a few years ago, KISS My Ass! that featured different artists singing KISS songs, with the band playing behind them. I played mandolin on Garth Brooks’ [cover of] ‘Hard Luck Woman.’”

Bush’s career as a musician spans five decades. In 1969, at the age of 17, Bush made his first record, as a member of Poor Richard’s Almanac. Two years later, he co-founded the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival, whose sound came from the fringes of bluegrass music.

“It wasn’t a planned thing [NGR’s sound],” Bush pointed out, “It just happened that way.”

Bush’s latest project, Laps in Seven, gets its name from the drinking habits of his dog Ozzie.

“One day while Ozzie was drinking his water, I noticed that he had a cadence, which all dogs do I guess,” Bush said. “I listened, and noticed it was a syncopated 7/4 rhythm. I told my banjo player Scott Vestal, and my bassist Byron House but they didn’t believe me. So I had them come over to my house, to see what I was talking about. I wrote some music based on that 7/4 cadence, and Scott and Byron added some additional tracks.”

One of the songs on Bush’s new CD, “Riding that Bluegrass Train,” has a sound reminiscent of the bluegrass classic “Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” (which had been covered by, among others, the late Buck Owens). “Riding” is Bush’s nod to a banjo player he first heard in the 1960s.

“Bill and Charlie Monroe wrote ‘Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ before they did bluegrass music,” Bush pointed out. “I wrote ‘Riding that Bluegrass Train’ with my friend John Pennell. I love a song that talks about loving horse racing, losing money at the track, going to Nashville and getting mugged on Church Street!

“Walter Hensley was a banjo player out of Baltimore, and he did an album called Pickin’ on New Grass back in the ‘60s. At the end of ‘Riding That Bluegrass Train,’ we wrote the lines about riding the ‘new grass train to Baltimore,’ as a tribute to Walter.”

A highlight of Laps of Seven for Bush was the song “New Country,” which features him doing a “duet” with the song’s composer, and one of his biggest idols, Jean-Luc Ponty.

“I have been a big fan of Jean-Luc’s for years, and own every album he’s ever released. Last year we met at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and he sat in with us.

“Through the miracles of modern technology we got to play together on New Country. We Fed Ex’ed the song to Jean-Luc in France, and a short time later, he e-mailed me his track. I was amazed when I got the e-mail with his track attached to it! I was really overwhelmed when I heard his playing on the song.”

Through the years Bush has worked with a diverse collection of artists, including Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Steve Earle, Bela Fleck, Hootie & the Blowfish and Jonny Lang. His experience as a musician makes it easier for Bush when it comes to working as a record producer.

“I’ve worked both sides of the coin, and I think that by being a musician, it helps me when I’m a producer to convey to the guys I’m working with what I’m looking for in the studio. Sometimes, like with Laps of Seven, I don’t tell them anything at all.”The Bowling Green, Ky. native recalled how he got involved with Lang’s upcoming release, Turn Around.

“Only in Nashville could it have happened the way it did. Joe Glaser is a fantastic guitar and instrument repairman in Nashville. I was at his shop one day, and this guy was there who rents equipment to bands that come to town and don’t bring all of their own stuff.

“He tells me that he’s working down the street with Jonny Lang, that they were looking for a mandolin player, and would I be interested. I told him sure. A few minutes later, here comes Jonny and his band into Joe Glaser’s shop. Jonny asked me to come in and do some overdubs on a song he recorded.”

The next week, Bush went to the studio, and sat down with Jonny and his co-producer to discuss the song “That Great Day.” The trio went over “the basic feel of the song, which is real laid-back. Then they left me alone to play my part,” Bush said.

Bush admitted that when it comes to working as a sideman for other artists, it’s important he does the best that he can. “I feel that it’s my job to please the person who hired me.

“I always say you’ve done it right if you make the final mix!”