Sam Bush is one the most respected songwriters and musicians in the bluegrass realm and beyond. Bush’s new album, Storyman, sees Bush picking through jazz, folk, blues, reggae, Western swing, and bluegrass numbers with a number of very special guests. We recently spoke with Sam at DelFest about the upcoming album, musical roots growing up on a tobacco farm, and even a new documentary on him, The Sam Bush Story.
The new album, Storyman, was just released on June 24th, it is now available for purchase now via Star Hill Records.
LMD: Your new album that just came out features Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris and a couple other good friends on that one. You called it your singer-songwriter record, could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Sam: I was gathering songs and probably wrote about probably 21 or 22 with different friends. When you’ve got friends like Guy Clark, Jeff Black, Emmylou Harris and John Pennell, it’s great. Deborah Holland is a lady the rock n roll world would know from the band Animal Logic. Stewart Copleand, Stanley Clark and Deborah. Deborah wrote all the songs and did all the vocals on their records. Animal Logic was a great little group that not a lot of people knew about. I met Deborah and we wrote one called “Everything is Possible.” It’s kind of a reggae positivity song. One of the first things people will ask you when you talk about a record is, “What’s new and what’s different about it?”
In this case for me it is a singer-songwriter record in that I co-wrote all the tunes for the first time ever. I’ve always written with friends. This time I just wanted try that. I’ve come to enjoy the collaboration with the other person a lot. 20 years ago I wasn’t confident enough to sit with Guy Clark and write a song even though Guy was my good pal. With that in mind the record is with me and the band that you would have just heard on stage at Del Fest here with just a couple extra musicians.
Emmylou and I wrote a song called HandMics Killed Country Music which talks about how when country music singers quit playing their guitars that’s when the music changed. It’s an out and out country music, country shuffle song. I’ve never cut an actual country song before. I’m playing triple harmony fiddles. Steve Fishell will play steel guitar. Pig Robbins, the famous Nashville session piano player, is on there. I got him to play specifically because he helped guide us in the rhythm on that song.
Alison Krauss sings harmony on a song that I wrote with a friend of mine in the 70’s and I thought I had lost the song forever. I finally found the tape in my rat’s nest of a music room. It’s called “Lefty’s Song” by a man named Lefty Clark. My friend Stephen Grimes wrote the lyrics and I wrote the music in probably about 1977 or 1978. The tape hadn’t been rewound. I took a pencil and carefully rewound it. I played it through and I copied it to a CD as I played it. As soon as it got through the song the tape broke. It was only good for one play. Even though I co-wrote the songs with everyone a good portion of them would be ideas that I would have stated or stories that I was interested in telling.
LMD: There was an instance where someone called you up and said they had a song about your dad and then a came over. Could you talk about that?
Sam: John Randall Stewart and I used to play in a band called the Nash Ramblers together. He was in my band a couple different times. He’s on some of the records I’ve made and he’s just a wonderful musician. He came over to my house and said, “I’ve got a song started that I want you to hear, it’s definitely for you and me to write.” He co-wrote “Whiskey-Lullaby,” a beautiful song with Bill Anderson. He comes over and the first verse is kind of about my Mom and Dad. Hell, I was in tears already and then we wrote that song. The song is really about my Dad’s love of fiddle music and playing the fiddle tunes. He loved fiddle music more than anything. Country music was his love. He was a huge Hank Williams fan and Patsy Cline was his favorite singer.
LMD: The first time I saw you over a decade ago you covered songs on the electric mandolin like Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” and the Allman Brother Band’s “Whipping Post.” For you personally, how do you keep things fresh for yourself and how do you strike a nice fun balance of originals and covers for you and the band on stage?
Sam: It doesn’t always have to be a song that I wrote or one of us wrote. The first criteria is pleasing the audience, but in order to do that we have to be pleasing the five of us together. We don’t play many bluegrass standard songs, but we’ll take a Bob Marley song that everybody in the audience knows and play it with our bluegrass style instruments. That makes a whole different sound. It’s a lot of fun for the audience to be able to hear that with a little different slant.
LMD: You just played DelFest and you’re the king of Telluride. What do you think makes it special here? This seems like a festival where people really want to come play. Why do you really like playing Delfest?
Sam: The answer for me is simple. I’d be pretty disappointed if I came to DelFest and I didn’t get to sing a couple songs with Del. Del and I are friends. We did a duet tour in 2012-2013. It was so much fun. Sitting in with Del is an incredible experience. Getting with Del is what I love about being here. We live close to each other, but if you’re not working at the same gig with your friends then you don’t see them that much. I love the whole family. We think the world of Jean and we knew Ronnie and Rob when they were in high school.
LMD: When I was sent information about the new album I learned something about you that I didn’t know. You grew up working on the tobacco fields. How did that time in your life influence you and who you are today?
Sam: Growing up like we did was a great way to do it. We ate vegetables that we grew and the meat we ate was from our farm. The milk we drank was from our dairy cows. I look back now and that was a great thing, being on the farm. I started playing mandolin at age 11 and I was able to just channel all that energy that was going to just specifically music. I would sit in school and think about ways to play fiddle tunes. I couldn’t wait to get home to see if those were the right notes. Growing up on a farm was a great way to grow up. Our parents loved music and they bought records. Old country music records and fiddle records. I was also apart of the generation where the Beatles came on the Ed Sullivan show and I saw all of those performances. It was just a great time being the kid in the 60’s to hear music. Country music was coming out of Nashville and all that great country music coming out of California. I was turned on to the psychedelic music in San Francisco. I played in high school rock bands and I was in the high school orchestra playing the bass violin. I was just interested in everything that had to do with any music. It was fun. I’d be the oldest guy in the rock band in high school and then I’d be the youngest guy in the bluegrass band. I’d be the fiddler at square dances on Saturday night and played in high school rock bands on Friday night. I was just surrounded by music. I’m pretty fortunate that our parents encouraged us. They wanted all of us to get off the farm and we all did.
LMD: You’ve played a lot of shows and played at a lot of different places. When you look back at it what have been some of the more memorable moments to you personally? Have there been any shows or sit-ins that you’ve done that really stick out to you?
Sam: One time at Telluride when Jean-Luc Ponty played with us on violin it was incredible. I’ve played with Doc Watson. I played with Doc on the road here and there. Doc taught me that if you play a bunch of hot licks in a song that doesn’t call for that stuff you’ve not honored the song. Doc taught me to respect the song. Playing with taste.
LMD: You were here during that really crazy tornado at DelFest awhile back. What was that like?
Sam: We haven’t been through a storm like that before or since. Steven and I got stuck on stage. We couldn’t leave our instruments. We had eleven instruments up there and we were under a piece of heavy plastic. Then we heard a giant crash and my new 150-pound amp had blown over. We didn’t know what was blowing over. Then we were getting concerned. Chris had his early 60’s Ludwig Ringo Starr kit and it got totally wet, but he was able to revive the drums. Ever since then he has a different set when we’re not playing indoors. They sound great, but he’s playing the festival kit today.
LMD: Could you tell us about Neptune Recording Studios in Destin, FL?
Sam: Just being in Destin is cool. We go when we can. I was just there a couple weeks ago and we were mastering the record by mail. It was being mastered in Cleveland and then I would go into town to the studio where we cut it at Neptone Studios. We’d listen to it in there over their speakers because that was the best way we could get a judgement on our final sounds of mastering.
As usual I look forward to Telluride, Colorado and we’ll be back at Bonnaroo. You never know what kind of experience you’re going to roll into there.
They have a new stage at the Telluride music festival. The town has built a new stage and it’s for many activities that go on there. That’s going to be fun.
We’re going to get back out to a really beautiful place in Alta, Wyoming. The Grand Targhee bluegrass festival. It’s hard for me to even project 2017.
We’re working on the record and there’s a documentary on me called Revival: The Sam Bush Story. It’s kind of been out at a few little film festivals. They’re still working on song licensing and getting a distributor. I know I’ll have a record out in a few weeks. By the end of the year the movie could be in full distribution and then we’ll know if it’s going to go to a few little theatres or maybe a Netflix situation or not.
LMD: Is it kind of strange to have a documentary about yourself?
Sam: Yeah, it’s very strange. It’s great, but it’s like yeah it’s your own funeral. It’s pretty gratifying and a lot my friends are in there saying nice things so it’s pretty cool.
Upcoming Tour Dates
7/30/2016 Rockygrass Lyons, CO
8/5/2016 Charleston Music Hall Charleston, SC
8/6/2016 City Winery Atlanta Atlanta, GA
8/13/2016 Targhee Bluegrass Festival Alta, WY
9/9/2016 Carolina Theatre Durham, NC
9/16/2016 Musical Instrument Museum Phoenix, AZ
9/17/2016 Pickin’ in the Pines Flagstaff, AZ
9/23/2016 Watermelon Park Fest Berryville, VA
10/1/2016 Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival Columbia, MO
10/4/2016 Fryeburg Fair Fryeburg, MD
10/9/2016 The Festy Experience Nelson County, VA
11/5/2016 Parrish Auditorium Hamilton, OH