Sam the Man
Other than Doc Watson himself, there are only a handful of
people who have been involved with all 25 MerleFests that have taken place since 1988.
One of them is Sam Bush.
Over the years, Bush has performed at MerleFest in numerous bands, such as New Grass Revival, the Nash Ramblers, Strength in Numbers and, most recently, the Sam Bush Band. He has also performed as a guest musician during MerleFest performances by acts like Doc Watson, Emmylou Harris and the Levon Helm Band.
Bush, a veteran musician who turned 60 in April, helped produce one of the premiere performances last week on MerleFest’s Watson Stage. The Sam Bush Band took the reins of the festival with a dynamite Friday evening show that featured bluegrass, country, jazz and a whole lot of rock and roll.
Singer Susan Tedeschi and slide guitarist Derek Trucks joined the Sam Bush Band for incredible live versions of Eric Clapton’s “Bell Bottom Blues” and The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Then, singer John Cowan and banjo maestro Bela Fleck joined the throng for the set’s closer: a 10-minute tour de force cover of The Band’s “Cripple Creek,” performed as a tribute to the recently deceased singer and drummer of The Band, Levon Helm.
Hours before the show, Bush spent a few minutes in MerleFest’s Media Interview Tent, answering questions from a handful of journalists.
This is a portion of that interview session:
Question: What’s it like being one of the few people to perform at every single MerleFest?
Sam Bush: When it first started, it was all people who personally knew Doc and Merle (Watson). So, obviously, that has changed. But, yeah, we were here on the back of a flatbed truck the first year, but it was truly people who loved Merle. And, of course, now, I’m sure, there are many performers in the festival who never met Merle or saw him perform.
I sure think about him a lot when I’m here. I had the privilege of going on the road with Doc and Merle. Sometimes Merle didn’t want to go on the road, so it would be T. Michael (Coleman), Doc and I, but I enjoyed it the most when Merle was there because he was such a force of nature.
We were pals. We were road dogs together.
Question: How does MerleFest stack up to some of the other festivals you’ve been associated with?
Sam Bush: Any festival to last 25 years has achieved a heck of an accomplishment. For someone such as myself to be at every one, it’s a pretty unique situation. I’ve only done that at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and MerleFest. I’ve played here with so many different bands, and I’ve been able to lead “Mando Mania” a few times. And, of course, any time I get to play with Doc, I feel that’s a pretty privileged chair to sit in. I never take that for granted.
Question: Now that Earl Scruggs has passed away, along with Bill Monroe and other greats, who is going to lead the way in bluegrass?
Sam Bush: I’ve been around long enough that a lot of my friends are not here anymore. Del McCoury is 72, and I can see him stepping into the role of elder statesman of bluegrass. There’s a new guard coming in. It’s hard to believe, because I’ve always been everyone’s younger brother, but I’m not any more.
Question: What do you think the future holds for bluegrass?
Sam Bush: If people want to call me a bluegrass musician, that’s flattering, because I respect the music so much, and it takes a certain level of musicianship to play bluegrass. But when I was a kid in New Grass Revival, people would come up to me and say, “That ain’t bluegrass.” And I’d say, “I know.” So we’ve never called ourselves bluegrass, but I’m proud to come from that world.
Question: Some of your recent albums have had cover tunes by Leon Russell and It’s A Beautiful Day. Are you exploring your classic rock side?
Sam Bush: It wasn’t classic rock when I first heard them, that’s for sure. I was in high school when I first heard It’s A Beautiful Day. That’s the first rock and roll band I heard with a violin, closely followed by a band out of Chicago called The Flock with Jerry Goodman, who played the violin in that band. And the best violin band, to me, was Seatrain with Richard Green on fiddle.
On the It’s A Beautiful Day tune, we meticulously tried to do it just like the original, because it’s just so great.
When I’m doing a Leon Russell song, I have to specifically try not to sing like him, because I sang with him for years. Just the way he sings the word “love,” (imitating Leon Russell) “Low-ah-ah-ah.”
When we recorded his “Ballad of a Soldier,” I was afraid I was pronouncing words too much like Leon.
Back then, we had all these great rock bands like It’s A Wonderful Day, Sly and the Family Stone, Cream, The Doors, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. We didn’t separate into R&B or pop, it was all just great music.