Sam Bush, often dubbed the "King of Newgrass," has been at the forefront of mixing rock, reggae and other genres with traditional music for close to 40 years. He plays with his band Jan. 16 at the Steamboat Music Festival Tent as part of Ski Jam.

Courtesy photo

Sam Bush, often dubbed the "King of Newgrass," has been at the forefront of mixing rock, reggae and other genres with traditional music for close to 40 years. He plays with his band Jan. 16 at the Steamboat Music Festival Tent as part of Ski Jam.

Sam Bush keeps finding new ways to play old music

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Sam Bush, w/ Todd Snider and Band of Heathens, part of Ski Jam

  • Friday, January 16, 2009, 6 p.m.
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  • Not available / $20

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Sam Bush has been bringing rock, reggae, jazz and blues to old-time music for 40 years. He hasn't run out of ideas yet.

Growing up in a musical household, Bush had the advantage of a young start and had his debut on the fiddle at the Grand Ole Opry as a teenager. In 1972, his boundary-breaking band New Grass Revival hit the scene and stayed there for almost two decades, redefining what it meant to play traditional music on traditional instruments.

"It was the love of the mandolin that led me into loving bluegrass," Bush said in a phone interview. "As I heard the great mandolin players and (asked) what did they do and what was the form of music they were in, I came to discover quickly that a lot of the great mandolin players were playing bluegrass."

On Monday morning, Bush was in Nashville, Tenn., recovering from a New Year's Eve show with David Grisman in Anchorage, Alaska. He joked about the success of his trip to the far north.

"Really, I could stand up there and see Russia. It was a beautiful thing," Bush said. On Jan. 16, the mandolin player returns to Steamboat for the first time since his 2007 appearance in the Free Summer Concert Series. He'll be joined by his band - Byron House on bass, Scott Vestal on banjo, Stephen Mougin on guitar and Chris Brown on drums - for the Ski Jam concert.

Bush, who is often referred to as the "King of Newgrass," talked with 4 Points about finding new sonic combinations, taking advantage of his musical upbringing and discovering young players in a diverse scene.

4 POINTS: Having been known for mixing other musical genres with bluegrass for so long, do you still find yourself coming up with new ways to combine styles?

SAM BUSH: Absolutely, and especially with this ensemble. For instance, Byron (House) and Chris (Brown) : I think they know every Grateful Dead song there is.

You know, the other day we were playing, and I called an old Robert Johnson tune, and it's not your typical Robert Johnson. We made it into a little swing song at the sound check and played it that day. Sometimes when you least expect it, you may think about an old song that you've never tried before, and you get a lyrics sheet and you try it.

And sometimes the joy of rediscovering an old bluegrass song that you haven't tried in a while - it's like being a rock 'n' roll player and rediscovering a Chuck Berry song.

4 POINTS: What first got you interested in bringing newer sounds to traditional music?

SB: I grew up in the '60s, and I was influenced by watching TV, like other people. And because I was close to Nashville, Tenn., I could get Grand Ole Opry shows. And when I say Grand Ole Opry, I'm talking of musicians such as Porter Wagoner, and Flatt & Scruggs and Ernest Tubb.

But at the same time, I could also watch "(The) Ed Sullivan (Show)" and see The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and I feel really fortunate that I was old enough to get it.

It was all just part of what I was influenced by. Somewhere along the line, when I started playing the mandolin at age 11, and then in my teens somewhere I started playing the electric guitar, I would be the oldest guy in the rock bands, and would be the only one old enough to drive. And in the bluegrass bands, I would be by far the youngest.

It was all just part of growing up and getting to be influenced by all this great music that I was growing up around. It was just a great time to hear music, getting to hear Marvin Gaye and The Supremes and The Four Tops. It's all just been part of loving music.

4 POINTS: Do you think younger people coming up today have access to that same kind of musical diversity?

SB: I would think so, because just within acoustic music, there's more diversity than there's ever been.

Sure, it's an awful healthy time for music in my opinion, because we still have some originators in styles of music that young people can hear. You can still hear Doc Watson and you can still hear Ralph Stanley, and then there are guys like me that have been influenced by those guys.

It's a healthy time where you've still got the old musicians that are originators of styles, and then you've got the great young bands. One great new band I can think of that plays old time music in a great new style is Uncle Earl. You've got young musicians that are playing progressively.

4 POINTS: You mentioned Uncle Earl as a younger band that's doing older music. Are there any other younger acts that have caught your attention lately?

SB: Nickel Creek and Chris Thile, of course. And there's a band out of Nashville called The Infamous Stringdusters. And this isn't a bluegrass band at all, but there's a band called the Band of Heathens that's a very good band. :

That's what's always great - when you least expect it and you hear something you've never heard before. That's what keeps us all going, I think.

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