Here is my conversation with multiple Grammy Award-winning Sugar Hill recording artist Sam Bush.
Affectionately known by his fans as the “King of Telluride” and the “Father of Newgrass”, Sam also has been honored by the Americana Music Association (with a Lifetime Achievement Award) and the International Bluegrass Music Association (several, including mandolin instrumentalist of the year awards). The influences of his percussive, athletic mandolin style and his legendary band New Grass Revival have blazed a crucial trail for a generation of pickers and jam bands, and he is a highly sought-after session player and sideman as well.
Do you consider yourself to be a natural-born performer, or was that something that you had to work on along with your musical chops?
Well, in terms of performing, I don’t think I was born a natural-born performer. One of my sisters said to me a few years ago, “You were such a shy young child!” And I think I was. But I think in terms of performing, a confidence that I might have, in my case, does come from being musically confident. And the love of music, of course, led me to want to do it in front of people. Because the way I perform is through music, and so having musical confidence leads me to be able to do it in front of people.
I know a lot of great musicians who don’t desire to do it in front of people and are happy to not make their living doing it. So with that thought, there has to be a certain amount of ego involved, enough to push you to be able to do it in front of people. And, of course, there are even times where you find yourself performing in a very small situation without a microphone, and that can be the most intimidating, because a microphone is at least something, the one thing, between you and the audience that is a powerful tool you can have.
Well, that’s interesting, I was going to ask you about that. Because you’ve played arena shows, you play festivals, you do broadcast, all those things. And then you still play the little venues, I’m assuming…
So all things being equal, do you have a preference between all those situations?
You know, I really don’t have a preference, in that all audiences, to me, are equal, and they’re all of equal importance, and it is a matter of getting the circle of communication going. In other words, it’s up to me and the band to start this excitement. I can’t just wait for the audience to excite me – it is up to us to create a feeling that we can all share in the room. And then, of course, the great thing about performing is that you know immediately how they feel about your music and what you’re trying to present.
So the moment that you start feeling positive energy back towards you, you can then continue that circle of communication and give the positive feelings back to the audience. You can’t base how you feel about your music on the audience’s participation, but you can base how the show is going. In other words, some days you might not feel that you played your best, but the audience loves it. So really, sometimes you are not even always the great judge of how your show is going – the audience is. And I know I’ve been in the audience for what I’ve considered some great musical moments from the artist, and then later maybe talked to them and found out it wasn’t as good for them as it was for me.
What puts you on the edge of your seat as an audience member in terms of a performer?
Well, as an audience member, I really believe it’s kind of, once again, how I feel, how it makes me feel. You know, my wife and I, we love sports together, we love to go to movies together, we love to go to plays, and musical performances. We’ve discussed it over the years and realized that one of the things that lets us know we’re having a great time is that our mind doesn’t wander to anything that we should be doing, as far as, you know, we’re self-employed, and if your mind wanders to something you forgot to do work-wise that day, or household chores you need to be home doing – if your mind can totally take a vacation, then you are thoroughly entertained.
When you’re onstage, do you feel like yourself, or do you feel like a different version of yourself?
Oh, I totally feel like myself. Because really, the time that we’re on stage is the time when I do feel in control of things. There are so many variables in life that you can’t control, the music is the fun part. I really believe that we travel for a living – that that’s actually what we do as performers – we travel for a living. And then our reward is to get out of the bus or plane or however you travelled that day, and those two hours onstage are the reward. I love music and learned to play for the enjoyment of the music, so that’s our perk – getting to play.
Because the traveling, now more than ever – since 9/11, flying can be somewhat restricting, and we can’t take as much of our equipment as we used to be able to take – flying is a little tougher now. And just the fact that everybody in the band, we all have families, and the time you spend away from them sometimes is not a good experience – but while we’re onstage playing music, that is the liberating part, that’s the fun of the day, and so that’s the reward.
Is it ever not fun?
It’s always fun to play. Of course, some experiences are better than others. That’s not going to come automatically – it’s part of being a professional. Because our job is to get up there and entertain people, and in our way, through music. Playing music is always fun. But it’s up to you. It’s not an automatic thing that you’re just going to get up there and have fun.
Long ago, John Hartford and I talked about this, that sometimes you need to put yourself in a space that says, “I’m going to get up and do my best. And sometimes I’m not maybe going to impress myself, and I may not succeed as well as other times, but I love to play, and I’m going to get up there and do my best, and hopefully that will transfer to joy to the audience.”
And you mix it up quite a bit – you play with a lot of different people in a lot of situations, and I imagine that helps keep things interesting for you, just by the sheer changing of combinations and set lists.
Yes, and there are still times, for instance, where I’m not the bandleader, and I feel that there’s something to be learned in every situation. In other words, when I sometimes play in Lyle Lovett’s band – I think Lyle is a great bandleader, and he knows exactly what he wants and you know exactly what he expects of you. And so in that way, I can learn from Lyle things that I, too, would want to incorporate into being a bandleader and the way I would approach it.
Same way after being in Emmylou Harris’s band, The Nash Ramblers, for five years. She’s a very generous bandleader. And I think before I ever played with her, I needed to learn more about being giving, and forgiving yourself and the other musicians. Because we’re not machines, and we’re going to make mistakes. And one of the things I learned from Emmylou was how forgiving she was of the band when we’d make our mistakes, and you know, you’d dread having to discuss it later, when in fact her take on it was, “Hey, that’s the way we did it today, and tomorrow we’ll do better.”
You know, in that thought, I’ve been in the audience before where, as an audience member, I wouldn’t know anything’s wrong until they tell me. And I come from a very old school of country music and bluegrass entertainers – that the show goes on, and it is not your job to point out to the audience something that’s wrong. Or maybe you’re dissatisfied with the onstage sound, for instance, and that is something that I believe needs to go unsaid and the audience would only know that you’re dissatisfied if you tell them. And everything can’t always go your way, but the majority of the time it does, so you’ve got to keep that in mind and perform for the audience, and you can discuss it after you’re finished. But I really try to adhere to the thought of, you know, nothing’s wrong until I tell you it is.
How do you experience the audience? What is it physically and emotionally like for you?
Well, I make my living playing live shows, and so it’s a joyful noise to me to hear the applause. And sometimes you’re even going to get hecklers, and you would think the more successful you are in the music business that you don’t get heckled like you used to get in bars back in the ‘70s, but there are still some people that sometimes want to come and voice their opinion and heckle you a little bit. And if anything, I just try to have some fun with it, because the other people in the audience, they don’t want that person to heckle you either. But it amazes me, at sporting events or music shows, how some people pay their money just to come in and yell at people! But for me, it’s a joyful experience, and a positive experience, that the audience members are reinforcing what you hope is true, that your music is worthwhile and worth presenting to an audience.
How do you feel when you’re in the zone, and do you feel that you can bring the zone on, or does it just happen when it happens for you?
Well, I think you’re responsible for starting the whole feeling of being in the zone. And for me, it’s not so much if I’m in the zone, it’s if the whole group is in the zone together. Now, I love to play rhythm, and so my job is to give you great rhythm while we all play together. That’s my job, to be the catalyst, so that people play better when we all play together. And so being in that zone is a great feeling as an ensemble, because it’s so wonderful when everybody onstage feels that maybe you’ve just played something you never have played before and you won’t play it again, it was just that moment. But in terms of just personally speaking, when I’m in a zone, when everything’s going great, I’m not thinking about what’s coming next. I’m not worried about if I remember the words to the next verse or what I’m about to play – it just happens. And that’s a great feeling.
And do you feel that you can access that whenever you want? Or is it elusive?
I can’t just access it whenever I want to, but I have a pretty high batting average.
Can you see it coming? Or do you just all of a sudden know that you’re in it?
I believe sometimes you don’t even know that you’ve been in the zone until you walk offstage, and you may have played a two-hour show and it went by like five minutes. Other times, you play a 40-minute set and it seems like three hours. So I think that’s pretty hard to predict, especially in the world where we play improvisational music. Of course, not everything is improvised, and you have to have a certain structure or the show can’t be successful. But within our solos, and when you play what we call open-ended jams, where people are free to play a solo until you’ve kind of expressed yourself and then it goes on to the next musician, those are hard to predict. And so it really will boil down to, some days you’re just going to play better than others.
You know, I don’t know if you remember this one show at RockyGrass, when you did the House Band with Darol Anger, Tony Rice, Béla Fleck and Byron House. I was talking to Darol about this – there was a moment where it just kind of segued into “All Blues” by Miles Davis, and I think Darol said that Tony started it off, and it just sort of started happening, and Béla didn’t know the song, and Darol was teaching it to him on the fly – and it seemed like that was kind of a zone moment, because I don’t think the audience would have ever known that that wasn’t planned, but at least in Darol’s memory it just sort of spontaneously happened. And for me, as an audience member, that was a really cool moment, not just because it was out of the standard repertoire, but it just seemed to be one living organism up there that was making this thing happen. Do you have any memory of that?
I do. And yeah, those kinds of things can happen. Sometimes, perhaps, it happens in that situation you talked about where you’re in an ensemble that doesn’t play together all the time, so you have a sense of the unexpected, and maybe you’re really up for trying things you haven’t tried. Whereas me and my band, we know exactly what we’re going to do. But even in that, there are certain times where maybe I’ll throw in a tune that you just see the light bulbs go on above everybody’s heads, and we all join in to it together. And then that moment passes, and you get back to the regularly scheduled program.
But yeah, in terms of the RockyGrass moment, I remember that, and I’m not sure if I knew all the tune Darol had gone into that night. So it’s one of those communication things where whoever started the idea that varies from the program, you’re sort of responsible for completing that idea, and we all follow each other, and that’s a good point in musical communication.
Is there anything that you do differently as a performer now than when you first started out, technically or any other way?
Well, you know, you live and you learn. I think it came from playing in bars, that I had to learn right off the bat when emceeing the show that you can’t just talk in your normal voice. You have to project a little more, even though you’re talking into a microphone. It’s like a soundman once said to me. He said, “You can’t get up there and just talk normally. You have to get up there and say, ‘Hey, hey, HEY, we’re up here playing! We’re here for you!” And so in terms of an emcee, you have to learn to do that.
It’s interesting, long ago when we first started amplifying our instruments – because, of course, when you come from bluegrass, instruments aren’t amplified, you just play over microphones, and you play acoustically. Well, years later – even though I played electric guitars in rock bands in high school – it was somewhere in the ‘70s, and New Grass Revival was opening for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. And I was playing electric guitar with the Dirt Band, and our whole band was sitting in on an encore of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”. And Jeff Hanna got in my ear and said something to me that I’d never thought about. Right onstage he said, “Walk to the front of the stage with me, and we’ll play our electric guitars together.”
And I realized, it never occurred to me to walk forward on the stage and stand more towards the front when you solo with an instrument that is not going to have a microphone in front of it – an electric guitar. And Jeff taught me something that day that was invaluable, because I never thought about the fact that you should walk forward and show the audience – you know, they’re going to hear you, but you need to show them, too – that you’re presenting your solo right now. So Jeff taught me a lot that day.
Do you have moments where you feel like nothing’s going right, or you have train wrecks and they’re hard to overcome? Does that ever happen to you these days?
Oh, sure. Yeah, there’s times you make a mistake that you can’t believe you just made, and you’ve played that song many times, and how did you just mess it up so badly? And what you have to do, it’s like, well, I love baseball, and I guess it’s like being a hitter in baseball. You struck out at your last at bat, but then the next time you get up to bat, you can’t be thinking about the mistake you just made. You’ve got to go forward and forget about it. It’s a new day, or it’s a new moment. So you have to get over it immediately and go on to the next song.
What state of mind do you think contributes to your best performing experiences? And how do you get yourself into that state of mind, pre-gig?
For me, it really is more about how we’re all playing together. Because I’ve never been a solo performer, just standing onstage by myself – I mean, only for a couple of songs at a time, ever. So really, it’s about how we’re all playing together, because what starts any fun onstage for me is how we’re communicating musically and are we succeeding as a group.
So as a bandleader, then, what do you do pre-gig to get everybody into that space? Or do you feel like your sidemen or your featured artists are already good at that and they don’t really need that from you?
Well, it’s always fun to have a moment together before we play – it might only last 30 seconds. Obviously, you know, the best time is when we just sort of warm up on a couple of old bluegrass songs backstage – not something we’re going to play onstage, but having fun just playing a couple of tunes to limber up your fingers and your voices. And then we have what David Lindley taught us: “the vortex”. It’s just nonsense, but we kind of put our hands all together, one on top of each other, and it’s just a positive energy moment, that we all have fun, and we’re united, that we’re all going to go out and rob our road manager – and all us musicians, we all do it, and we have what’s called “the vortex”. And we have a positive energy moment together, and then off we go, and let’s have some fun.
Really, it is about having fun – our show especially – and I really believe the audience can tell when you aren’t having fun. And it’s our job – and it’s a pleasure, and it’s a privilege, and we’ve worked hard for the privilege of getting up there and having fun.
Do you ever get stage fright?
No, I don’t think so.
Have you ever experienced it?
I think there are times I get anxious, that I want to get on and do it, I’m ready, let’s go. But as far as stage fright, no, I don’t think so, not for a very long time. I haven’t had stage fright that I’m aware of since 1973 when our band, New Grass Revival, landed the job of opening the show for Leon Russell and The Shelter People, when Leon was drawing audiences of 25,000 people. We did a two and a half month tour, and it was a very unique situation – we rode in Leon’s private plane, we stayed in his hotel, we were totally employed by him and his organization. And we were a bluegrass band. We didn’t even actually plug our instruments in yet! So we’d get out there, and of course the rock and roll hysteria was amazing back then, and Leon was such a huge rock and roll star, and it was such an experience to be around. And, of course, we got to hear his show every night, which was such an experience.
But I’ll never forget, the first show on the tour was to be in Gainesville, Florida – maybe it was the football stadium at the University of Florida. And I turned 21 on that tour, I wasn’t yet 21, and yes, I was shaking. And we were all just sort of scared. We’d never seen an audience like this, and we were wondering what we were doing there. And I remember us all joining hands and taking a deep breath. And we were getting ready to go out and open the show, and it just started a pretty good rainstorm, and it was decided we couldn’t play. So the show did not happen that night. And the next night was in Jacksonville, and we had to do it all over again! So at least, finally, we did get to open the show in Jacksonville – about the same number of people, like 25,000. So I don’t think I’ve ever had stage fright since then.
And I imagine there’s the issue of what you’re going to put out towards 25,000 people, and then there’s the issue of the energy that comes at you from 25,000 people, and that can knock you back!
Sure, and we didn’t know if we were going to receive positive energy back to us or not, because it was kind of an unknown thing when you have a bluegrass or “Newgrass” kind of band, as we were. And looking back, I’m sure it was much more bluegrass-sounding than we in the band thought it was. Because it was a very progressive kind of music we were trying to play with our bluegrass instruments, but for an audience that is totally ready to hear Leon Russell do “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, it could have been a pretty strange sound to them! So we had to be tough. And we learned a lot on that tour.
Do you have a sense of being in your body when you’re onstage? Do you feel like you’re grounded? Or are you even aware of that or thinking about that?
I’m not really thinking about that. I’m fortunate in that the music can take me to a different place. In other words, I’ve been onstage where I’ve had a 103 degree fever, and while we’re onstage I don’t really feel it. It’s like out in Telluride, Colorado, it can be very cold at night sometimes, for June, and sure, your hands might feel a little chilly, but I’m lucky in that once we’re playing, I don’t feel it. And granted, I’m jumping around, I’m having fun. But in that way, the music takes me to a place where, that’s the only thing that can take me there, is music.
Is there anything that you want to improve in yourself as a performer? Do those goals change, or is there a common thing that you’ve been working toward?
Well, I guess this transfers into performing, because what I try to do is, I’m trying to improve as a player and singer. When asked what my future goals are, I’m still trying to improve. I’m not satisfied with where I’m at musically. And as a performer, I try to get a little wiser and more seasoned, and maybe looking at certain things I could do to improve the presentation. It’s a fine line.
About five or six years ago, I think I’d gotten into a habit of talking a lot onstage, and all of a sudden I realized it. I think an audience does like to be talked to, but they came to hear you play and sing. So it was said to me from a few close friends, and a soundman I had said, “You know, dude, I think you’re talking too much!” So, yes, the audience wants to be talked to and communicated with, and I feel comfortable doing that – but saying that, I’ve learned to string my songs together in a better, more cohesive manner. I want the audience to hear a lot more music and less talking! Like I say, it’s easy for me to talk on a microphone and I feel comfortable doing it, but I’m just trying to wise up and make music my goal.
Well, you’ve got a certain kind of patter that your audience is used to hearing. Your devoted followers know they’re going to get a certain kind of patter from you.
Sure, and it’s fun, and it should be. I don’t believe the audience that comes to hear my shows wants to be lectured or preached to – and I don’t mean that in a religious way, I’m just talking, you know, my views. Steve Martin used to do the funniest skit about “What…I…Believe!” But we just want to play, and we want the audience to feel the fun and the joy that we have while we play music.
I know a lot of people would ask you to offer advice about how to become a success. But I would ask you to offer advice on how to become a satisfied performer, a performer that’s happy performing. And it sounds like, from what you’ve been saying, it’s being prepared, musically…
Yes, and really, I think it comes with an understanding of knowing where your strengths lie, what you do well, and realizing what you don’t do well. So just do the things that you do well.
I know it’s kind of a strange thing to be talking about this stuff.
Well, no, because we are performers. You know, twice, me and the band did the music for the Augusta Ballet. The thread of the performance, the storyline of the ballet, was the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. There were improvisational tunes, but they had to be the exact number of bars of music each night. And if you go one bar too long, you have blown it for the dancers. So that was an incredible musical education. And Peter Poulos, the choreographer for the Augusta Ballet, first contacted me, and he had meticulously choreographed the tunes to records we had made or that I had played on. So it wasn’t all tunes that I wrote, but everything that we did were things that I either played on or wrote.
So Peter already had everything mapped out the way he wanted it. And a couple of these tunes were improvisational tunes that we may have recorded 20 years ago! And you don’t even play the same way anymore. And I would literally have to go back and relearn musical phrases that you played in an improvisational solo that you don’t even play that way anymore, and you haven’t thought that way for 20 years! And you had to make it match up, and he had even little head movements choreographed for the dancers, a musical phrase I might have played, and you had to go back and relearn ways that you used to play.
So that was an incredible learning experience, and it taught you another factor of performing, because that was truly a performance. And the dancers were the star of the show, and the music was there to serve the dancers. So that was a whole different thing, and I think that taught us a little more about presenting our musical performances when they just stand alone as music, without dancing and light shows and things.
Well, I imagine you must have transcendent moments at various times, and it goes back to the idea of the zone where, “Wow, I didn’t even know I could do that.”
It’s a pleasant surprise. Really, I’m not sure if that’s as much performing as the musical surprise when you stumble upon something that you didn’t know you could play.
But for someone like you, I think you’d probably agree you’ve pretty much got total command of your instrument. You can make it do what you want it to do, right?
Most of the time! Sometimes you just can’t believe you’re not playing better.
It’s like you were saying about baseball, you’re batting .300, or you’re batting .400, that’s pretty damn good, you know?
Yeah, that’s the great thing about playing music – you don’t tend to get in a slump like you can in sports!
Well, at least you don’t! I mean, I think people do, they get a crisis of confidence and get psyched out, and even the most skilled among us can get to that place.
For me, I think I come from a different point of view than some people may, because as important as music is to me, it’s only music, and it’s not your whole life. And perhaps part of it is, as a two-time cancer survivor, or should I say cancer treatment survivor – one was [in 1982], and one was in 2007 – I come from a different point of view. You know, so I make a mistake. Big deal. I’ll try again. It’s not like if I make a mistake, that I made a mistake on someone’s diagnosis and it turns out wrong. After my first bout with sickness long ago, I just learned that making a musical mistake is not the end of the world. Because I get to try again. I get a do-over. So with that in mind, every day is a good day.
This is really important.
It is. And all you can do is your best. When I was younger, I can remember walking offstage and almost in tears over how rotten I thought I’d played and how badly I thought the band played. And one of my best friends just said, “You’ve got to get over it. Tomorrow’s a new day, you know? Come on, it’s just music!” And he was right.
That’s really something we can all remember in everything that we do.