Though he admits a certain discomfort with the moniker "King of Newgrass," Sam Bush has more than earned it. As co-founder and leader of the seminal progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival through 18 years during the 1970s and '80s, Sam may not be the only person responsible for newgrass the wild bluegrass stepchild that features rock 'n' roll grooves and extended virtuosic jams but since New Grass Revival's dissolution in 1989, Sam has certainly been one of the most brilliant of newgrass's many bright lights.
Besides helming the ever-popular Sam Bush Band, featured on the upcoming release Laps in Seven, the mandolin prodigy from Kentucky has been a prodigious influence on musicians young and old. Bands like Nickel Creek, Yonder Mountain String Band, and String Cheese Incident, to name just a few, are indebted to Sam's example, not only in his wide-ranging choice of material and rock-based acoustic grooves, but by his captivating, high-energy live shows, which have made him an in demand headliner, and fan fave at important festivals like Telluride and MerleFest.
When not heading his own band, Sam has spent the past 15 years as a supersideman with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, and the Flecktones; spearheaded boundary-stretching collaborations with Edgar Meyer, Mark O'Connor, and David Grisman, and driven nearly every "bluegrass supergroup" imaginable with his inimitable mandolin playing.
"I wanted to try something different," Sam says of how he approached the new record, inadvertently defining his lifelong approach to music. "I wanted to shake things up a bit while still displaying the live sound of the road band." Sam's band is a tight crew of Nashville's most in demand studio musicians, including (previous 2005) guitarist Keith Sewell (Stephen Mougin has joined the band since the recording was made as guitar picker/harmony vocalist), Byron House on bass, Chris Brown on drums and banjoist Scott Vestal.
Scott Vestal's presence marks one of the striking differences that Sam was aiming for. His dynamic, inventive playing will certainly remind listeners of the last days of New Grass Revival, which, of course, featured a young Béla Fleck. "I can't tell you how much I love playing with Scott," Sam says of his most recent banjo buddy. "He can play everything, but he doesn't feel compelled to put it in every song."
In addition to giving his band room to romp, the "something different" that Sam was looking for often occurs when one of his many special guests joins the proceedings. For example, the opening track, Julie Miller's "The River's Gonna Run," features Sam's old boss Emmylou Harris in a duet vocal with Sam, as well as the electric and acoustic guitar playing of Buddy Miller. "Buddy gets a sound out of an acoustic guitar that bluegrassers don't get," says Sam. "He's all about painting the landscape. He doesn't try to stand out, he just tries to make a big wall of sound, and boy he really does on this track."
Such a powerful, rockin' and emotional opener needed a strong follow up, and it got oneprobably the most traditional-sounding bluegrass cut on any of Sam's solo CDs, the Charlie Monroe classic "Bringing in the Georgia Mail," which features the Sam Bush Band doing what they do best throwing down the bluegrass gauntlet and waiting to see if anyone is brave enough to pick it up. Not many who hear this rousing rendition will be so bold.