Watch Out! Sam Bush is Still a New Grass Commando

September 1, 2004

“It’s amazing to look back and see how the term ‘new grass’ has become a generic label for a whole genre of music,” says Sam Bush of the band he co-founded in 1972, New Grass Revival. With their first album, The Arrival of the New Grass Revival, staunch bluegrass traditionalists were shocked to hear a quartet of long-haired hippies play classics such as Bill Monroe’s “Body and Soul,” but also tear up rock standards like “Great Balls of Fire” with traditional bluegrass instrumentation. Unknowingly, Bush and company started a revolution that paved the way for bluegrass contortionists like Béla Fleck (a member of New Grass Revival during most of the 1980s) and, more recently, Nickel Creek. Bush folded New Grass Revival in 1989, and has gone on to a successful solo career. His new album, King of My World [Sugar Hill], showcases his astounding chops on mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and, just for good measure, guitar.

What instruments did you use on King of My World?

I used my ’38 National mandolin, which I converted from eight strings to four. That’s what I play slide mandolin on. For the fiddle stuff, I used the same old red fiddle that Courtney Johnson gave me in 1980. He found it in a junk shop somewhere in New Mexico. I Crazy Glued it back together, and I’ve used it ever since. For the banjo stuff on the album, I played a flathead Gibson Mastertone. All of the mandolin tracks were done with “Ol’ Hoss”—my 1937 F-5 Gibson mandolin that I acquired in 1973. It’s the same one Norman Blake used on John Hartford’s Morning Bugle album. I also used Gibson Sam Bush model F-5s for various overdubs, because I’ve found if you’re overdubbing harmony parts, it sounds much more believable if you use two different instruments.

What could a rock guy learn from a bluegrass player?

Timing and drive. See, in a bluegrass ensemble, every instrument is responsible for keeping impeccable time and contributing to the rhythm. In other styles of music, a lead player may never even play rhythm. In bluegrass, even when you solo, it’s essential that the rhythmic drive is there.

You’ve always been considered a bluegrass rebel. Was that tag ever confining?

Oh, no. In fact it was quite liberating. Heck, way back when I was on the cover of Frets, you guys labeled me as a “New Grass Commando!” That was my favorite. Commando? I thought I was a pacifist! Seriously, I never set out to change bluegrass, I was just playing it the way I felt it.

Did you ever worry that the older, more traditional bluegrass guys wouldn’t accept you?

Never. We knew what bluegrass was, and we respected it, we loved it, and we played it. But we’d also throw in other elements such as jazz, rock, and reggae. People would come up to us if we were playing some twisted version of a bluegrass tune and say, “That ain’t bluegrass,” to which we’d respond, “You’re right!” What we did was add our own voice to this music.

Do you feel that mixture of genres has helped the popularity of bluegrass?

Yes. When New Grass Revival began, there was a definite division between the old fans and the young fans. But as different influences began spilling into the music, the young audience began to grow, and those divisions didn’t hold up so well anymore. Nowadays, even young jam bands are using bluegrass instrumentation. And that’s very important—every type of music needs that young audience to survive.

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