Sam Bush: Father of Newgrass, Godfather of the Mountaintop

Article Published: Aug. 26, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Sam Bush: Father of Newgrass, Godfather of the Mountaintop

Sam Bush returns to Music on the Mountaintop Saturday, Aug. 28.

Photo by Frank Ruggiero

Sam Bush has many titles to his name - and not just albums.

For his role in the genesis of newgrass, the accomplished mandolinist was dubbed the King of Newgrass. Now it's bound by law.

In March, the governor of Kentucky signed legislation that named Bush the Father of Newgrass Music and his hometown of Bowling Green, Ky., the Birthplace of Newgrass.

A progressive form of bluegrass with a distinguishable rock influence, the term "newgrass" was coined with the evolution of the band New Grass Revival, in which Bush played with such luminaries as Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker and Bela Fleck.

Thanks to this weekend's Music on the Mountaintop (MOTM) festival, Bush has yet another epithet.

"This year, we have dubbed Sam Bush the Godfather of Music on the Mountaintop in Boone, N.C.," MOTM founder and organizer Jimmy Hunt said.

Bush has been a staple at the homegrown festival since its inaugural 2008 run, and this year saw him contacting Hunt and company for an opportunity to return.

"Any time you get to be involved in a festival from the ground up, so to speak, it's interesting to watch it grow," Bush said. "And I believe they're doing everything the right way."

MOTM's emphasis on the environment and all things green is particularly appealing to Bush, a strong advocate of recycling and environmental stewardship.

"I really like the way Jimmy Hunt's trying to make this a green festival," he said. "They do that out in Telluride, Colo., and it's important."

But it's not just advocacy that keeps bringing him back.

"Another thing I enjoy ... is, quite frankly, the quality of music they've brought there, so I'm happy to be a part of it," Bush said. "As festivals grow, of course, and you need them to grow in terms of popularity and audience size, it's sometimes hard to keep the integrity of your original idea."

And Bush would know. Despite ever-growing popularity and a mounting number of awards - the Sam Bush Band netted five IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) nominations this year, including Album of the Year, for their latest release, Circles Around Me - he remains humble and kindly as ever.

More so, he attributes much of that success to his bandmates - bassist Todd Parks, drummer Chris Brown, guitarist and vocalist Stephen Mougin, and banjo and synthesizer player Scott Vestal.

"It's sometimes been suggested that I play a solo show sometimes, but really, I don't have near as much fun if I'm not playing with others," Bush said. "It's a joy to play with all these guys, so the Sam Bush Band is coming your way."

And it's evident in Circles Around Me, an entirely acoustic album in which Bush and the gang take a more traditional bluegrass approach. Among their nominations are Instrumental Group of the Year, Instrumental Performance of the Year (for "Blue Mountain"), Mandolin Player of the Year, and Song of the Year (for "The Ballad of Greenbean and Estelle").

"In the past, I've really enjoyed making CD projects where I like a mixed bag of acoustic and electric, and this time, the only conscious decision was I wanted to keep it all acoustic and maybe gear a little more toward the roots of bluegrass and newgrass influences."

In doing so, Bush revisited a few New Grass Revival songs, including "Whisper My Name" from NGR's debut album and "Souvenir Bottles" from 1992's Barren County.

"We've been playing those songs on stage, and they feel great," Bush said. "'Whisper My Name' sounds like good ol' bluegrass to me now, and that's the evolution that's taken place for me in the last 40 years in the music business, and the way that 'newgrass' is now a generic term."

In addition to the Sam Bush Band, a few of Bush's pals joined in the recording, including Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas and Del McCoury.

"That is one of the main joys of playing music for me - the different collaboriations," Bush said. "You get to play with a different side of music you might not have thought about before. So, that's always fun to me, if we have different people sit in with us sometimes, jamming. Anytime you play with a different person, they can help shape your playing to all fit together."

Case in point: Doc Watson, the flatpicking legend from Deep Gap. Bush shared the stage with him again at MerleFest earlier this year.

"I always have to credit Doc Watson," Bush said. "His timing and taste are so good, so one thing I've really taken from Doc is trying to play tastefully and play for what fits that song. In other words, different types of tunes you want to play differently to suit the song, and that's one thing I've picked up from Doc."

Music on the Mountaintop's an ideal venue for versatility and collaboration, promising a Saturday night jam featuring anyone or everyone.

But as far as Bush's set goes, "you can expect a really positive, high-energy show," he said.
In other words, fun.

"It's a good festival, and we're glad to be here," Bush said. "We've been going out west a lot this summer, flying on airplanes, and that's just not as much fun as it used to be. We'll be back traveling by bus, and we're just going to have a ball there."

Sam Bush performs at Music on the Mountaintop's Chaco Stage on Saturday, Aug. 28, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit For more on Music on the Mountaintop, visit

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