As one might expect, mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush has a lot of stories to tell. Gracious and friendly, Bush blurs the line between his impulsive stage persona and the good ol’ Kentucky boy he really is. It’s almost easy to forget he is an icon amongst bluegrass musicians and fans.
The recipient of three Grammy Awards, the AMA Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist and countless other accolades, Bush has earned his reputation as the “King of Newgrass.” On October 20, Bush will release his seventh studio album, Circles Around Me, before hitting the road in support of the album. American Songwriter recently caught up with the 57-year-old Nashville resident. Bush opened up about his music, his personal musical heroes and, of course, the St. Louis Cardinals.
You were just given the Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist from the Americana Music Assocation. Tell us a little about what it is like to be given such a great honor.
I don’t take them for granted. When you can look up and see three Grammys on the shelf –it’s just nice to look back at the achievements over my career. I wish it would automatically make me a better singer or writer or player… but it doesn’t (laughs). But to be appreciated by peers and musicians –it is flattering. This past week and, in fact, the last couple weeks have been pretty overwhelmingly wonderful.
I was so thrilled about that [the awards ceremony] at the Ryman Auditorium. The awards that they give the Americana winners is a piece of a Gibson guitar. Mine was the last one to be handed out that night and I noticed as I was about to receive the award that one of the co-owners of the Gibson Corporation walked on stage with a Gibson “Sam Bush Model” mandolin that had been painted with “Lifetime Achievement 2009,”and a little painting of Kentucky and some other personal effects. I’m looking at it right now and I’m still jazzed.
Where did the title of your new album, Circles Around Me, come from?
The title of the album comes from a song that I wrote with an incredibly talented songwriter named Jeff Black. We’ve been co-writers for years now and got to thinking about well, “How did we get here?” type questions. We’ve had fallen buddies and comrades, lost people we’ve loved – parents are gone- so how did we, specifically, get here, this far in life? We were going through a time that felt very fortunate to be here and that is what the song and title Circles Around Me is all about.
Speaking of which, I also need to add that the October 20 release date will also be my 25th wedding anniversary with my wife, Lynn.
You’ve collaborated with some incredible artists, including Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, Del McCoury (who appears on Circles) and many more. Who, past or present, would have been a dream collaboration for you?
One of my favorite musicians was [fellow mandolinist] Jethro Burns because he could just make up a song about anything and I wish we could have collaborated on an instrumental together. Bill Monroe is such a huge hero to me. “The Old North Woods” (off of Circles) is a song where I was trying to get as close to sounding like Bill Monroe as I could. And oh, I guess Eric Clapton.
Has anyone ever told you that you resemble Clapton?
(laughing) We both wear glasses, we both had a broken nose and we both are graying in our bears. His musicianship is something I admire so I suppose I’ve been called worse.
Anything you’d like to add that we didn’t get around to talking about?
I can’t wait to see the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series!