It's possible that the inklings for the brand new songs on Kristian Bush's latest re-issue started forming at some point in the early 70s. Because that's right around the time when his ear for music started working overtime.
Bush has just re-issued his first solo album Southern Gravity (The Complete Collection), originally released five years ago, and added seven brand new tracks.
When he called me from his Atlanta quarantine to talk about it, we first went back to his earliest roots in music.
When Bush was just three years old, his mother signed him up for Suzuki-method violin lessons somewhere near their East Tennessee home. And as it turns out, that was also the time when Bush realized he didn't have to read music to make music.
"I was first exposed to music at the University of Tennessee. You learned how to play without reading music. So I walked around with a margarine box under my chin," Bush told me of his early, early violin lessons. "They're only playing you the first five songs and that's all you listen to. Nothing else. You have a speaker under your pillow that plays those songs endlessly while you're sleeping." Typically, those songs would be: "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," "Lightly Row," "Song of the Wind," "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" and "O Come, Little Children."
But just when Bush was thinking that those five songs were the only five songs, he came across the AM country radio station. And suddenly, everything changed for him.
"Because I had just spent five years learning to learn things by ear, I could understand what they were playing," he said of expanding his repertoire.
"I got my first record player in my own room," he recalled, "and I played a 45 of Paul Simon's 'Slip Slidin' Away,' then Kenny Rogers' 'The Gambler' and then a K-tel compilation in the late 70s. (Possibly Music Machine with Andy Gibb, Wild Cherry, Foreigner, Manfred Mann's Earth Band, ABBA, and a rare ballad from Kiss. Or maybe Gold Rush in 1979, which would've introduced Bush to Little River Band, The Babys, Dr. Hook and more.)
After being steeped in mountain music for the first part of his life, Bush said, he then started to discover bands like Thompson Twins, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and R.E.M. And then fast forward four more decades, and Bush still has that discerning ear for music and for opportunity.
He recalls taking guitar lessons in Knoxville and asking questions about Van Halen and Tom Waits. "I wanted to know, 'How do I make that sound?' I'm agnostic. I'll bang on pots and pans if I have to to play a Tom Waits song. So this has been a long journey, because I didn't have a me to imitate," he said. "That's what made making a solo album hard for me.
"I wrote 300 songs for his first solo album" -- after years with folk duo Billy Pilgrim, then with country duo Sugarland and later with rock trio Dark Water -- "because I could," he said. "It was like I had to have some self-awareness of when I sucked and some self awareness of when I was good."
When we talked about the nearly impossible mission of narrowing down the song stack, first for the original 12-song release and then again for the 7-song new edition, Bush said that having a theme has always been a real thing to him.
"Albums are living, breathing things. The best ones don't just take me back in time. They comfort me from afar. Which is different from nostalgia," Bush explained. "And that's what I was striving for and why I worked so hard on it. I intentionally made all the song choices and music choices for a reason: for it to find you where you are."
Watch his latest release from the re-issue, "American Dreamers."
Next up for Bush, post-quarantine, is hitting the road as soon as he can. "I think I'll get back to traveling," he said. "It's getting bad enough that just in the past week I've pulled out my guitar and just started playing anyway. To no one. Just to see what it feels like. I even went outside and tried to accidentally sing a little too loud so the neighbors might hear me."
Southern Gravity (The Complete Collection) TRACK LISTING:
1. "Make Another Memory"
2. "Light Me Up"
3. "Trailer Hitch"
4. "Southern Gravity"
5. "Flip Flops"
6. "Giving It Up"
7. "Feeling Fine California"
8. "Waiting On An Angel"
9. "Walk Tall"
10. "Sending You A Sunset"
11. "Sweet Love"
12. "House On A Beach"
13. "American Window" *
14. "So Smooth" *
15. "Burning Flowers" *
16. "My Heart" *
17. "Falling Remix" *
18. "Fire And Ice" *
19. "American Dreamers" *
* New tracks