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'Father of Newgrass' Sam Bush Reflects On The Possible

Shelly Swanger
Shelly Swanger Photography
Sam Bush in the recording studio

Bluegrass legend Sam Bush included the original song “Bowling Green” on his latest album titled “Storyman.” It’s an ode to growing up on a farm just outside the southern Kentucky town.

My daddy loved that farm/ He damned near worked us all to death/He loved a fiddle tune/He played ‘em til his dying breath/My Mama was a saint/Lord she left his earth too soon/ If there’s a heaven up above/They’re dancing to a fiddle tune - "Bowling Green" from "Storyman"

Today, the man known as the father of Newgrass music says he feels nothing but gratitude for where and when he grew up.

Credit Shelly Swanger / Shelly Swanger Photography
Shelly Swanger Photography
Sam Bush

“It’s funny, when you’re a kid on the farm, you want to be in town riding bikes and stuff with all your friends,” chuckled Bush. “I now look back and realize it was a pretty fortunate situation. I grew up in a household that music was very much encouraged to me and my sisters … that we could go ahead and be part of music.”

Bush dove into music headlong by age 11. Living on a farm somewhat isolated from other kids allowed him to channel his energy into practicing the mandolin and other instruments. And boy did he channel that energy, even away from home.

“I would sit in class at school thinking about fiddle tunes, wondering ‘is this the right note, is this the right note?’ And I would sit and think about it through the afternoon, and just couldn’t wait to get home and put an instrument in my hand,” said Bush.

Take ahold of the wheel and turn it for yourself/Live like you ain’t ever gonna lose/Choose to be the one who favors kindness over wealth/Don’t be somebody else’s fool/You’ve got to play by your own rules – “Play By Your Own Rules” from “Storyman”

“Most people my age in 1970 when I got out of high school weren’t hard-headed enough to try to start their own band or be in band of brothers where you’re all going together,” said Bush. “A lot of people my age would play in someone’s already established band … get with Ralph Stanley, play with Bill Monroe, and run with Lester Flatt.”

Bush was looking to hit a different note, and said he felt fortunate his friends shared his interest in tinkering with non-traditional bluegrass songs and sounds.

“We were accidentally playing by our own rules I guess,” Bush said.

They were also inspired at that time by The New Deal String Band from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“They would play great bluegrass, but then they would play ‘No Expectations’ from The Rolling Stones on their bluegrass instruments, and we would go ‘huh! So you can do all this stuff,” remembered Bush. “It wasn’t so much a light-bulb moment, just that I made friends for life, and we still are.”

The light-bulb moment came a year earlier watching the acoustic segment of the "Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" TV show.

“Glen and John Hartford did a bluegrass tempo version of ‘Great Balls of Fire’” said Bush. “So it was no coincidence when The New Grass Revival did its first album, we did Great Balls of Fire. It was that and the little things where you see people use bluegrass instruments in a way you might not have thought of before.”

You may try to have all sunny days/This you cannot do/You’ve got to brave the stormy nights/Before the rains come shining through/So put away the razor blade/Put away the rope/Change the old prescription/For a brand new bottle of hope - “Everything Is Possible” from “Storyman”

“Everything Is Possible” follows “Play By Your Own Rules” on the "Storyman" album. Two songs offering advice, and a positive message. Bush paused for a second to consider the connection between the opening tracks on the album.

“Maybe it’s an attitude of … just two nights ago we were playing on a big jam session on stage and Jack Cassidy was playing bass. Growing up Jack and (fellow Jefferson Airplane member) Jorma (Kaukonen) were my heroes. So if a farm kid from Kentucky ended up 50 years later playing with Jack Cassidy on stage … everything IS possible,” said Bush.

Sam Bush plays the Prairie Sky Music Festival at Robert Allerton Park in Monticello, Illinois August 19.

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Bush.

Listen to the entire conversation between Sam Bush and GLT's Jon Norton.

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.