After four decades, ‘newgrass’ pioneer Sam Bush remains as busy as ever

Sam Bush helped create an entire subgenre when he began his career in the early 1970s, combining his love of classic bluegrass with a yen toward more experimental, jazz-style improvisation to give birth to “newgrass.” Photo provided

Sam Bush is a master of the mandolin, and he’s pretty brilliant on fiddle and guitar, too. He helped create an entire subgenre when he began his career in the early 1970s, combining his love of classic bluegrass with a yen for more-experimental, jazz-style improvisation to give birth to “newgrass.” It’s a category that Bush and players like banjoist Bela Fleck, Dobro player Jerry Douglas, mandolin player Chris Thile, and bands like The Infamous Stringdusters have broken boundaries with for the past five decades.

But Bush can work just as easily within the mainstream, as well. In addition to his genre-bending solo albums (the most recent of which is 2016’s “Storyman”), Bush has played straight-ahead country with Alabama, bluegrass with Alison Krauss, rock with Steve Earle, folk with the late John Hartford, and much, much more. In fact, his credits as a sideman alone climb into the hundreds.

So you might wonder: What kind of music does a man who can play virtually everything under the sun actually listen to? Well, everything under the sun, pretty much.

“One of the things we’re listening to in the car right now is the Loretta Lynn collection on MCA Records,” Bush says. “It’s just incredible. I still like listening to John Hartford; it’s comforting music to me. I love [jazz-fusion guitarist] John McLaughlin, and another one of the things I’ve been listening to lately is a live record from the Montreux Jazz Festival of Miles Davis and Quincy Jones that’s one of the best records I’ve ever heard. Oh, and there’s a 1963 record by Muhammad Ali that I discovered called ‘I Am the Greatest.’ It’s an album of him reciting his poetry.”

Not that Bush, who will perform Friday at The Spinning Jenny in Greer with his band, actually has a lot of time to listen to music, because he’s typically too busy making it. When asked about his schedule, Bush says he’s mostly just doing some summer festival shows, but then he describes an itinerary that will make your head spin.

“At this moment, [I’m] going through the song-licensing process to get the music for a documentary about my career, called ‘Revival: The Sam Bush Story,’” Bush says. “And I’m still writing and compiling tunes for my next album. I just played my 44th consecutive Telluride Bluegrass Festival [an annual multiday event in Telluride, Colorado] and I also played the RockyGrass Festival. The night after my band played, I got to sit in with the Old and in the Way reunion with Peter Rowan and David Grisman, playing [the late bluegrass violinist] Vassar Clements’ parts, then the night after that I participated in Hot Rize’s 40th anniversary show. And I also played with the Steep Canyon Rangers.”

Basically your typical lazy summer, right?

The documentary has been an especially interesting project for Bush because it allowed him the rare opportunity to take a look back at his long, extremely busy career.

“It’s sometimes startling to look up and realize I’ve been doing this since 1970,” he says. “It’s pretty humbling and overwhelming. The great part is that I still get to do it. I’m still busy creating music.”

Bush says his many collaborations, both in the studio and on stage, allow him to return to his own projects with greater skills when it comes to leading his own ensemble.

“I think in order to be a good bandleader, you have to be a good support musician for other people,” he says. “I think that it’s a great situation to be able to step into a group. There’s nothing more fun to just sit in like I did with Steep Canyon Rangers or Hot Rize and blend in. They have great sounds, so it’s your responsibility to not detract from them. It helps me to play with others and find that rhythm.”

Sam Bush w/ The Blue Eyed Bettys
Where: The Spinning Jenny, 107 Cannon St., Greer
When: Friday, Aug. 10, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $32 adv., $38 door
Info: 864-469-6416,



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