When one of the most versed bluegrass-bred musicians celebrates his 61st birthday, a few unexpected fortunes present themselves. Sam Bush is more than happy to brag about them.
“Hey, I get the senior discount at Kroger and the movie theatres now.”
But there is another milestone unique to the string music innovator, one of two Kentucky Music Hall of Fame inductees performing in the region on Friday (Bush and his band play the Grand Theatre in Frankfort while jazz giant Les McCann performs here in Lexington at the Lyric). Since the Bowling Green native took up the mandolin at age 11, he has now passed the half-century mark in fashioning a voice on the instrument that has regularly taken him far beyond the bounds of bluegrass.
“It is a wild thing to realize I’ve been playing the mandolin for 50 years,” Bush said recently in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. “I mean, wow, I thought I would be a lot better by now. But you know what? I still have the goal that I want to improve as a player and singer. And I’m still working on it.”
Collaboration has been at the heart of Bush’s music throughout his career, from the earliest days of the groundbreaking New Grass Revival in the 1970s to his ongoing work with The Sam Bush Band, where his music’s bluegrass roots have led to fusion, folk, country, jam band grooves, reggae and more. And that doesn’t even take into account the seemingly endless performance situations Bush has found himself in outside of his band.
They include a renewed alliance with fellow string music titans (and longtime pals) Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck at last month’s International Bluegrass Music Association awards ceremony in North Carolina and duo concerts earlier this year with iconic bluegrass stylist Del McCoury. There have also been Nashville recording sessions that earned Bush another nomination at this fall’s Country Music Association awards. Capping it all are two projects the mandolinist (and equally versed fiddler) will round out 2013 with: a pair of decidedly non-bluegrass acoustic concerts later this month with The Black Crowes in New York and a live November radio session in Minneapolis where Bush will play for Garrison Keillor in Guy’s All-Shoe Band on A Prairie Home Companion.
“I try to pay attention and learn something in every situation,” Bush said. “Take the way Del and I play. I have to play much differently when it is just the two of us. Now, I love to play rhythm. When Del and I are playing, though, I don’t really play that much rhythm because I’m the only instrument making fills and taking all the solos. And I’ve never done that in my life, because I enjoy that band ensemble playing.
“The question has been asked, ‘Well, you should just go play some solo shows. You know how to play all these instruments.’ That’s just not interesting to me because if I’m not playing with other people, I run out of ideas within two songs. I like to bounce off of the other musicians. For instance, there are these acoustic shows coming up with The Black Crowes. Well, the way they play acoustic is much different than those of us who grew up playing bluegrass-style acoustic music. It’s a totally different thing. So, yeah, right off the bat you can learn something about playing a different way.”
Best of all, what Bush picks up in every one of these performance situations freshens his musical perspective when he returns to his favorite collaborative ensemble, The Sam Bush Band, which includes guitarist Stephen Mougin, banjoist Scott Vestal, bassist Todd Parks and drummer Chris Brown.
“I try to learn from the other situations so that, one, when I come back to the band, it’s like getting back home and playing with your brothers again, and, two, there is a musical comfort level in that we don’t have to rehearse every song and stuff. If there is one we haven’t played in awhile, we may rehearse it in soundcheck just to freshen up on it. But the guys bring this great musicianship to the table and their influences make the music a lot of fun.”
Bush is devoting what little offstage time he has this fall to sifting through songs and ideas for his next solo work (his first since 2009’s bluegrass dominate Circles Around Me) and recordings from his shows with McCoury for a possible live album. In short, he and the mandolin have plenty of music still ahead of them.
“What can I say? Things are at a good place. I’ve never enjoyed playing and collaborating with people more. I’m having fun with it all.”
The Sam Bush Band performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct.18 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St.Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are $30-$55. Call (502) 352-7469 or got to www.grandtheatrefrankfort.com.