Sam Bushs Stylistic Cavalcade

In the course of a 30-plus-year career, Sam Bush has defied the odds. He has gone from a revered band member in both the progressive New Grass Revival and the supergroup Strength in Numbers (with Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer) to a sideman in Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers to a successful solo artist. Not an easy feat! He has also guested on a ton of recordings for artists ranging from Doc Watson, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, and Steve Earle to Neil Diamond, Lyle Lovett, Keb’ Mo’, and the Indigo Girls.
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On his seventh solo outing, Laps In Seven [Sugar Hill], Bush once again melds bluegrass, country, rock, and jazz into his own distinctive thang on a number of originals, collaborations with songwriters such as Jeff Black and John Pennell, and a few cover tunes. And the inspiration for the self-penned title track—his dog Ozzy’s syncopated water-lapping rhythm—must be one of the strangest and most imaginative song concepts you can bring to mind.

You certainly cover a lot of musical territory here—from It’s A Beautiful Day’s “White Bird” to Jean-Luc Ponty’s “New Country.”

It’s always a challenge any time you try to diversify the material within a record to keep everything coherent, but I believe there’s room for all of these styles. I’ve always loved “White Bird.” It was the first time I heard violin featured in a rock-band setting. Sometimes, you discover great songs by playing on them—as I did with Robbie Fulks’ “Where There’s a Road.” With Jean-Luc, I’ve been a fan since I was 15. One year, he sat in with us at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on this song, and I wanted to put it on the CD. Through the wonders of digital technology, he literally phoned his part in. I cut the tune here in Nashville, sent him the tape, he put his part on in Paris, and then mailed it back. It’s indescribable how I felt when I heard his playing on our version of his song. It was a dream come true—even though we didn’t actually get to record together.

I was Emmylou’s duet partner in her band, and I’ve always wanted her on my record. “The River’s Gonna Run”—which features Buddy Miller on guitar—put us in a totally different sonic frame. We followed it up with some hard-driving bluegrass on “Bringing in the Georgia Mail.” I like doing a rock number, and then busting back to a bluegrass feel.

Tell us about your main mandolin.

I’ve got a 1937 Gibson F-5 named “Hoss” that I’ve had since 1973. In 1999, Gibson made a copy of it for their Sam Bush signature model. They’re all named “Little Joe,” because there’s only one Hoss. I guess there’s kind of a Bonanza theme there. It has a Barcus Berry Hot Dot pickup in the bridge—which I only use live—and I run the signal through a Countryman Isomax II and a Chard Stuff Acoustic Helper preamp made by Richard Battaglia from the Flecktones and New Grass.

Which gig do you prefer: solo artist or sideman?

I like being a solo artist the most, but if you’re paying attention and doing your job correctly, there’s something to be learned in every musical application. If I’m doing my job right as a sideman, and giving the person who hired me what they’ve asked for, it helps me understand how to be a better leader. For example, when I’m directing the musicians for my solo work, I find my experiences as a sideman help me communicate what I want more effectively and more clearly.