At 51, Sam Bush’s musical future is wide-open. Thirty years ago his band New Grass Revival not only sparked his career, it sparked a movement. Bush’s mandolin has since graced every genre and countless records. In the shadow of a Grammy nomination for best country instrumental performance—for “Luxury Liner,” from 2004’s King of My World (he lost)—and before another tour, Bush took time to discuss the freedom of open spaces and the freedom of open music from his home in Nashville.
Q: You’ve won three Grammys before. Is it still exciting?
Bush: Oh God, yes. This is the first nomination I’ve had that’s actually under my own name…so it’s pretty exciting. I don’t take it for granted. It may never happen again, and I’m really flattered that it did now.
Q: What is the show going to be like next week? What kind of band are you bringing?
Bush: Well, good ol’ Byron House will be on the electric and acoustic bass. We have a drummer, an incredibly versatile drummer, Chris Brown. Byron and Chris played on the most recent CD that I have out. This will be the first trip for a new guitar player we have named Keith Sewell, and Keith is a really good singer as well…great guitar player and fine singer. For the first time since New Grass Revival broke up I have a full-time banjo player now, Scott Vestal. He is just an incredible player. With Scott we have the freedom to play more bluegrass if we want to. He also uses a guitar synthesizer when he’s not playing banjo so that when we play reggae kind of songs or South African kind of tunes we can have a Hammond B3 organ sound, and it’s really fun, it’s really really rockin’ up there. It’s like we’ve added two new guys to the band and we can play more bluegrass if we want to, or we can rock out further if we want to…and it’s more versatile.
Q: You’ve been playing out West since you were a teenager. What do you like about it compared to other parts of the country?
Bush: Well, I had the good fortune to go to Weiser, Idaho, for fiddle contests starting at age 14. I got to see a part of the country that a lot of people from the Southeast—I’m from the state of Kentucky originally—don’t get to. There are a lot of people in this country that have only seen the home state they live in. When I was 14, I got to come out and see the Rocky Mountains, drive through Wyoming and get to Idaho. I fell in love with the West and the Northwest back then. There’s just a different smell in the air. I swear, I have wondered if the wide-open spaces have something to do with the way people are open-minded in certain areas, especially musically. The first time we ever went to Colorado and played music there, it was as if that audience was ready for anything. Maybe being out where it isn’t as populated as it is back here in the East, people just are more willing to accept new things. I don’t know, but I find the audiences are open and ready for new things.
Q: I read a rumor that EMI is going to be re-releasing some of the New Grass Revival music. Is that true?
Bush: Yeah…it’ll probably come out sometime this summer and I don’t know what the title would be. It’ll be a two-CD set. Basically there will be a few songs off of every album we ever made…There are probably about 10 unreleased cuts or unreleased versions of these songs…We’ve got the audio portions of two different performances off of [“Austin City Limits”], four different songs, two different performances…It’s the first time that a compilation has been put out where it really does cover the entire 18 years we were together.
Q: Is there a particular musician you’ve played with over the years who you loved to play with more than the others?
Bush: At this point Byron, Chris, Scott and Keith are the people that I enjoy playing with the most. But sure, when we made the album Strength in Numbers, to get to play with Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Bela Fleck—that’s a once in a lifetime thing. It happened at a time when we happened to all have a few weeks we could spend on it. Anytime I get to play with Doc Watson it is still a great honor and pretty amazing to think that I could be a contemporary with Doc Watson. That blows my mind. I’ve been very fortunate. As far as getting to play the mandolin with a mandolin buddy, David Grisman and I made a record that came out a couple years ago [Hold On, We’re Strummin’, Acoustic Disc, 2003]. We’ve known each other since 1965, and it’s the same kind of thing. There isn’t a better mandolin player than David, and I loved the collaboration.
Q: Do you have any tricks up your sleeve for the Missoula show?
Bush: Hey man, like I say, every day is a new day with this new band. We’re working up a new song every day. We have the freedom to do more rock or more bluegrass. We have the freedom to experiment now. The way we’re approaching this new group, I’m loving it. I’m having a ball.
Sam Bush plays Saturday, Feb. 19, at the University Theatre. Tickets cost $20, available at Rockin Rudy’s and the UC Box Office. Doors open at 7 PM, show at 8.