Mandolin player Sam Bush, 62, is best known as one of the originators of newgrass, the electrified bluegrass style that borrows influences from rock and jazz. He adroitly blurs the lines between bluegrass and other genres, and has been doing so since founding the band New Grass Revival in 1971. The three-time Grammy winner, recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association and a regular collaborator with the likes of Bela Fleck, Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe and Lyle Lovett, shows up this week to play in Missoula’s streets for the two-day River City Roots Festival. We caught up with him to talk about his love for the West and what new newgrass bands he is excited about.
This summer you played your 40th-consecutive Telluride Bluegrass Festival. You’ve won Grammies and played with the biggest names in the business. What’s next?
Sam Bush: I haven’t made a record in a few years. It’s been so long since I made one that we still call them records! However … people are really enjoying spinning some vinyl again—and I like that. I’ve got a big vinyl collection. So I’m just gearing up for that, in the process of writing songs with friends.
Who are the up-and-coming bluegrass bands that people should be paying attention to?
SB: I’m always afraid I’m going to leave out somebody that I really like. I like the Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, Steep Canyon Rangers, Uncle Earl and the ones that are still young bands but you might not think of them that way, like Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon. I still love those guys. And I’m fortunate that sometimes I get to go out on the road and play with them. As my wife says, “You gotta get out and play with the young guys!” So I do.
What’s one of the strangest shows or venues you’ve ever played?
SB: Well, about 1972, the New Grass Revival played in Anderson, Ind., at the coon-hunters lodge. Nice bunch of people, just not our normal crowd. Every once in a while we’ll still end up playing in places that surprise me. I thought we’d played at every beer joint in America, but no. And thinking back, the first time we played in Telluride in 1975, the streets weren’t even paved yet, and it really was a step back in time. That town is now a place you can safely raise your kids. Back then it was just outlaws and trust-funders.
If you could play with anybody, living or dead, who would it be?
SB: Eric Clapton. See, I’m one of those mandolin players. I suffer from the mandolin-players’ disease: We all think we can play guitar. In high school, I was a rock-and-roll guitar player. And I still play it, I just know that it’s not my calling in life. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin. Can you tell I love guitar players? But, in the world of acoustic and bluegrass, I’ve been fortunate to play with so many people. One person I never got to play a note with was Lester Flatt. I wish I could have gotten to play a few songs with him. But I want to mention the guys in the band, too … they’re my favorite people I get to play with.
It’s been 10 years since you last played in Missoula. Are you looking forward to coming back?
SB: Are you kidding? I’m very much looking forward to it. I love playing in Montana. I love coming out West. I started coming out there when I was 14, when I first went to the fiddle contest in Weiser, Idaho. It’s majestic. And this festival is a free-to-the-public thing, right? I love those! It’s always a great opportunity to play for people who haven’t heard you before. We’re a good band for that—we know what to do. Bring it on!
Did traveling out West when you were young influence your growth as a musician?
SB: I wish everyone could get to see the West. My family almost moved from Kentucky to Wyoming when I was 10. And I would’ve loved living out there, but musically speaking, I’m glad I got to stay within 60 miles of Nashville, because I grew up being able to listen to the Grand Old Opry with good reception. Also, I had WLAC, which in the evenings was possibly the greatest R&B station in America. I also feel fortunate that music was encouraged around our household. We grew up on a farm, and our parents wanted us to have an easier time and not work as hard as they did. And I haven’t—I’ve played music. And I’ve never enjoyed it more than I do now.
Sam Bush plays the River City Roots Festival Sat., Aug. 23, from 8:30 to 10:30 PM. The festival runs through Sun., Aug. 24. Visit rivercityrootsfestival.com for the full schedule of music and activities. Free.