Sam Bush Embraces Musical Schizophrenia

New DVD Finds Him Still Exploring Far Reaches of Bluegrass, Rock and Jazz

Sam Bush’s On the Road is very likely the first-ever concert DVD to collect songs written by musicians as diverse as Country Music Hall of Fame member Grandpa Jones, jazz-fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and South African singer, songwriter and political activist Johnny Clegg.

Amused by the observation, Bush jokes, “You might as well call it I’m Schizophrenic — and So Am I.” He adds, “That’s kind of the story of my musical interests … in addition to how diverse this band is. It wasn’t so much a conscious attempt to try to show the different styles, but it does, as it turns out, show them rather well.”

With Bush on vocals, fiddle, mandolin and guitar, the band on the DVD features banjo player Scott Vestal, bassist Byron House, guitarist Stephen Mougin and drummer Chris Brown.

“You’re only as good as the musicians you play with,” says Bush, who will be hosting the International Bluegrass Music Association awards show on Oct. 4 in Nashville. “Sometimes I feel like I’m surrounded by people who are better than me, and that’s a great position to be in. I’m surrounded by great musicians in the band I’ve got now. They’re just superb, and we can go in a variety of different directions due to how versatile they are.” Those directions include Jones’ “Eight More Miles to Louisville,” Ponty’s “New Country” and Clegg’s “Spirit Is in the Journey.”

Bush began on a more traditional bluegrass path before melding bluegrass and rock in the ’70s and ’80s as a founding member of New Grass Revival.

“When we first got together, I remember us taking a trip to Florida,” Bush says. “We had a cassette tape. … On one side of it was John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain. The other side was Leon Russell and the Shelter People. Those two records influenced our band more than anything I can think of. We were just glued to those records, so it’s not so ironic that we would later open shows for John and then back him on the last half of his set or that we became Leon Russell’s band. It’s no coincidence.”

While jazz musicians and rock groups such as the Grateful Dead were already improvising lengthy solos during their concerts, New Grass Revival’s extended instrumental explorations qualifies them as one of America’s original jam bands. In fact, younger musicians from bands such as the Yonder Mountain String Band and String Cheese Incident cite Bush and New Grass Revival as a major influence on their musical directions.

New Grass Revival is best known for two editions — the first with Bush, bassist John Cowan. guitarist Curtis Burch and banjo player Courtney Johnson and the second featuring Bush, Cowan and guitarist Pat Flynn and banjo player Béla Fleck.

“Maybe we got higher tech with the second edition of the band, but I always thought the first edition was definitely as good,” Bush says. “In some ways, we broke new ground that the later band could just easily follow. By the time Béla joined the band, Courtney had already taken all the grief for breaking all the rules.” He laughs, adding, “Nobody gave Béla any crap. They gave it all to Courtney, who didn’t give a damn about it anyway.”

New Grass Revival’s commitment to stretching musical boundaries was viewed with disdain from some traditional bluegrass fans, although Bush is quick to explain, “Any opposition to the music we were doing really never came from the other musicians. At the time, it was from the fans of bluegrass. They were more divided.”

Bush’s spirit of improvisation is evident in the 16 songs recorded for On the Road.

“When you have the freedom, it’s sort of like you’re making up a little tune on the spot,” he says. “If you have succeeded in your improvisation, it’s not just licks you might have played before, but you’re actually looking for melodies you may not have discovered. That’s when you really hit the jackpot. When you’re improvising and come up with little melodies everybody in the band can play off of, then you’ve really succeeded.”

Bush and his band continue to appear at festivals geared to bluegrass and acoustic music aficionados, but he’s also performed for rock fans at major events such as the Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn.

“I do some jam band kind of jobs, but I’m not full fledged into it or anything,” he says. “The part I do like about … these so-called jam band festivals and jobs is that it’s about playing music — and that’s all it’s about. It’s like a ’70s kind of scene when people are just enthused about music. It’s not about dance steps or choreography or even being influenced by radio airplay or seeing bands on TV.”

When he’s not working with his own band, Bush often records and tours as a sideman with other artists. In particular, he’s been prominently featured with Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett.

“When I’m in the situation of being in a backup band, there are things I learn that I want to apply when I’m the leader of the band and things I learn that I might not want to apply,” he says. “But there’s something to be learned in every situation. I think it helps us all. With me and my band, we all lead and we all follow. I think it helps me realize that although I’m the leader of this band, when Scott Vestal’s playing, then it’s my job to kick him hard with rhythm — and vice versa. Just surround yourself with the best, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.