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.

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.