(Note: this post is part of a series.)
Put simply, Sam Bush is and probably always will be essential to my life. Along with Béla Fleck, he was part of the double-whammy (made possible by a friend’s prescient invite to two days of the 1994 Telluride Bluegrass Festival) that jolted me into awareness of both newgrass and bluegrass. He then introduced me to a legion of other musical giants I’d never heard of. He was all over the playlist at my wedding. All three of my kids were born to Sam tunes. He’s the reason I picked up the mandolin. And the marvelous SOB just seems to get better over time.
Sam’s humility in practice is inspiring. I can recall vividly one of his shows at Telluride (I didn’t miss a TBF for a dozen years, after that first one…if you ever listen to “Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride”, consider that I was in the audience for most of what’s on that record), at which he took pains to introduce his band’s outstanding new cover of John Hartford’s “On The Road” as a difficult song to play because of its 5/4 time signature. John, he said, wanted to capture the disorientation of life on the road, and chose the time deliberately…it really was a loving tribute, and the fans loved it. What Sam *didn’t* say anything about, however, was that the song they had just finished playing, “The Dolphin Dance”, was in 13/4 time with a 5/8 bridge section! Don’t know how many of us in the audience caught that, but I sure did.
Sam doesn’t write prolifically–most of his records are at least half covers–but when he does pen a piece, it is often musically innovative and challenging, whether harmonically, or with convoluted time, or simply with Sam’s signature rhythmic variations, which are just exciting. And there is such simple, sheer joy in the man’s playing…
That first year at Telluride–the first time I had ever heard anything at all from Sam–he led off his Saturday-night closing set with an absolutely blister-raising performance of “Stingray”. I had just been floored by seeing Bela Fleck and the Flecktones for the first time as well, so I was already staggering a bit, but I was just NOT braced for that.
I suppose it remains my favorite Sam tune. You know, if I had to do something horrible, like pick. 🙂