It’s back-to-work time for Sam Bush.
The veteran bluegrass-and-more stylist and Kentucky Music Hall of Famer has spent the better part of the winter – well, all of it, actually – at a locale he seldom sees during the course of the year: home. He has been recuperating from surgery on his right foot to remove bone spurs – or, as a several on-line posts have termed it, “non-clumsiness related foot surgery.”
But the convalescence came at a somewhat precarious time. Bush’s fine new Circles Around Me album was released only a month before the footwork. That meant much of the record’s promotion, along with his usually hearty schedule of touring and recording studio session work had to be put on hold.
“But I’m getting ready to hit the ground running,” Bush said in a recent phone interview. “Literally.”
Bush will be running and then some. His first working itinerary of 2010 looks something like this:
+ a recording session with country star Dierks Bentley.
+ a flight the following morning to Cambridge, Mass. to speak and perform at a bluegrass symposium at Harvard University.
+ a flight back to Nashville before leaving again the next day for California and a series of new grass trio concerts with longstanding pals and fellow acoustic music innovators Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer.
+ the kickoff of a midwinter tour with the Sam Bush Band on Thursday at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort.
If the surgery and recoup time weren’t exactly part of Bush’s working agenda, neither was Circles Around Me. Well, making a recording was planned, but not the sound or stylistic direction it took. For an artist that has dabbled in new grass, fusion, funk, folkish country and any number of progressive string music notions on his recent albums, Circles Around Me took Bush and his mandolin and fiddle playing back to his bluegrass beginnings.
“That’s what was so interesting about when we went into the studio,” Bush said. “We had no real plans at all to make something that was so close to a bluegrass-type record that used acoustic instruments.”
But calling Circles Around Me a traditional bluegrass recording misses the mark. “Comprehensive bluegrass” might be a better tag. The recording revisits music Bush cut in the early days of the landmark New Grass Revival (Souvenir Bottles), a bluegrass nugget by the Country Gentlemen (You Left Me Alone), an immensely animated instrumental skirmish with Douglas and Meyer (Junior Heywood) and a recording of a spry duet featuring Bush on fiddle and founding New Grass Revival banjoist Courtney Johnson (Apple Blossom) that sat forgotten in a crate of studio tapes for decades. Johnson died of cancer in 1996.
“That one brought me a big old tear of joy,” Bush said of the newly rediscovered recording.
The traditional side of Circles Around Me is most luminous when two bluegrass standards popularized by Bill Monroe – Midnight on the Stormy Deep and Roll On Buddy, Roll On – come to life with vocal and guitar aid from bluegrass great (and Monroe alumnus) Del McCoury. It’s in these tunes that a strong sense of artistic reflection surfaces. You hear it in the harmonies Bush and McCoury create and the soft, unhurried sway of guitar, mandolin and fiddle.
“I don’t really know if you will find much that’s actually reflective in the lyrics of songs like Midnight on the Stormy Deep or Roll on Buddy, Roll On. But one of the things that may show a bit of reflection is what Del brings to the record.
“It was so funny. We would trade these stories between takes in the studio. Del’s a little older than me. But I’m getting old enough now that I know a lot of these same guys that he’s talking about. On top of that Del has so much energy.
“So this session lasted about five hours. By the time it was over, I pretty much had no voice left. But Del just kept going. He would say. ‘That’s okay. You don’t have to sing. Just play.’ Man, Del just sang me into the ground that night.”
Bush dedicated Circles Around Me to his wife Lynn, who served as executive producer for the album. Fittingly, and with equal lack of planning, the album was released on the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary.
But Circles‘ final dedication is to Tim Krekel, the Louisville songsmith and longtime Bush pal that died of cancer last summer. Bush’s last Lexington performance (save for a WoodSongs appearance last fall) was at the 2008 Christ the King Oktoberfest. As Krekel was also on the bill, the two friends took turns as guests in each other’s shows.
“I met Tim back when I was playing in (the ‘70s era Louisville band ) Bluegrass Alliance,” Bush said. “He was really into The Band at the time. This was before I even knew their music (coincidentally, a cover The Band’s Up On Cripple Creek was a highlight of the Oktoberfest set). I remember going over to his house one afternoon and he said, ‘Today, you’re going to listen to The Band.’ And we remained friends all those years after that.
“He was such a great songwriter, but stayed pretty quiet about it. People accuse me of being bad at self-promotion. Well, Tim really didn’t do much of that at all. He was a friend that I still miss very much.”
The Sam Bush Band performs at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are $30-$55. Call (502) 352-7469.