Music: Storied man

‘Father of Newgrass’ Sam Bush finds his voice

By Charlie Swanson

In 2010, the Kentucky Legislature unanimously passed legislation that named native son and bluegrass mandolin player Sam Bush the “Father of Newgrass.”

A spinoff of traditional bluegrass, newgrass is highlighted by a progressive sound that mixes in jazz and rock jams. Bush is considered a pioneer of the genre, an accomplished instrumentalist and vocalist with a 45-year career. This year, for the first time, he’s sharing a more personal side on his new solo album, Storyman.

Bush and his band join the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience and the Jeff Austin Band, collectively called The Mando Kings, on July 10 for the Green Music Center Bluegrass Festival in Rohnert Park.

“It was time to say something,” Bush says of his new record. “And for me it was important that these songs all seemed to go together.”

Almost all of the songs on Storyman were co-written with musical compatriots like Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark, though the lyrics came from an idea of Bush’s or a story from his life. “Being known as an instrumentalist who also sings, I finally had stories to tell,” Bush says.

Perfect examples are songs like “Transcendental Meditation Blues,” which is about how Bush used to ride the Greyhound bus to see his now-wife Lynn, or “Bowling Green,” named after Bush’s hometown and inspired by his family.

Bush also welcomes guest performers on the album, including Harris, who sings on the honky-tonk ditty “Handmics Killed Country Music.” Alison Krauss also shows up, singing on “Lefty’s Song,” which was originally written in a series of letters between Bush and songwriter Steven Brines in the 1970s.

Bush is thrilled to share the upcoming bluegrass festival with Grisman, known to his friends and fans as Dawg, and Jeff Austin, best known for his work in Yonder Mountain String Band.

In fact, Bush and Grisman have been friends since meeting at the 1965 Roanoke Bluegrass Festival in Virginia. Bush was 13 years old. “I got in a jam session, and all of a sudden somebody held out a beautiful Gibson F5 mandolin, and this voice said, ‘Hey, man, play a good one,’ and it was Grisman. We’ve just grown closer over the years.”

The two made a record together in 2003, Hold On, We’re Strummin’, which includes an acoustic cover of “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” by soul duo Sam & Dave.

“Nobody knows bluegrass mandolin better than David,” says Bush. “When David and I get together, there’s going to be some pickin’.”

The Mando Kings come together for the GMC Bluegrass Festival on Sunday, July 10, at the Green Music Center, 1801 East Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park; 3pm; $25–$45; 866/955.6040.

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