Father of Newgrass excited for Wolf Trap return
by Cara Hedgepeth
One of the first to ever combine the rural roots of bluegrass with the rhythm of rock ‘n’ roll, musician Sam Bush has long been hailed the “Father of Newgrass.” But it’s a label the Bowling Green, Ky., native is still coming around to.
“I used to be a little more uncomfortable with that but I’ve come to embrace it,” Bush said.
Bush and his five-piece band will perform at Wolf Trap on Thursday night. The musician first played the Vienna venue in 1971 at what was then the National Folk Festival, as a member of The Bluegrass Alliance. Since then, Bush has played Wolf Trap several times, often with fellow bluegrass singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris. His last appearance there was in 2010.
“I’m anxious to come back,” Bush said. “It’s a real fun place to play.”
Before revolutionizing bluegrass music in the 1970s, Bush, now in his sixties, was a Bowling Green boy growing up on a farm to the tune of country music and rock ’n’ roll.
“Growing up close to Nashville, we had the advantage of having Nashville radio stations,” Bush said. “I would listen to a country station and then soul. We had the advantage of being able to get TV reception from Nashville and get Grand Ole Opry performances.”
Bush also had the good fortune of coming of age during the early years of rock ’n’ roll.
“I was seeing some of the greats of country music but at the same time, my older sisters were listening to the Beatles,” Bush said.
Unlike today’s musical landscape, Bush said there was enough room for two genres at the same time in the same place.
“I just feel fortunate to have grown up in a time when music wasn’t so compartmentalized,” he said. “People didn’t make so many divisions; do you like this kind of music or do you like this kind of music?”
Bush said the variety allowed him to experiment with different genres.
“I was a junior fiddle champion and a mandolin player, but at the same time played guitar in a rock band, drums in the marching band,” Bush said. “Didn’t matter what kind of music it was as long as I could play.”
Now an accomplished mandolin, fiddle and guitar player, Bush’s diverse musical upbringing set the stage for the Newgrass genre.
“In being influenced by rock ’n’ roll musicians, and as a kid always listening to rock ’n’ roll and jazz and improvisational music and we brought that improv side into bluegrass music,” Bush said. “It’s basically what I would think of as contemporary music played on traditional bluegrass instruments.”
The term “Newgrass” actually derives from Newgrass Revival, the name of Bush’s original band.
“People would shorten the name and say, ‘Have you seen Newgrass?’” Bush said.
In the early 1970s, Bush and “Newgrass” were bringing new and progressive ideas to bluegrass music.
“We were the ones who didn’t dress alike, who had long hair,” he said. “When we first started our band, our claim to fame was to make bluegrass versions of rock songs.
But Bush is quick to point out that he and Newgrass Revival didn’t invent the Newgrass style entirely on their own.
“We were influenced by people who were already playing progressive bluegrass and we took it to the next level,” he said. “There are a couple of great bands in D.C., Emerson & Waldron, The Country Gentlemen, who we were influenced by.”
Today, Bush has become that influence that young musicians, especially mandolin players, look up to.
“It still kind of surprises me sometimes, but it’s very flattering,” Bush said. “If I’ve had anything to do with anyone’s growth as a musician, that’s wonderful.”
Despite the nickname, the Father of Newgrass said he wouldn’t be where he is today without his family: his band.
“My favorite thing ever is when I get to appear with the band ... I don’t do solo shows,” Bush said. “I literally can’t think of anything interesting to play if I’m not playing with the other guys.”
The other guys — Chris Brown on drums, Scott Vestal on banjo, Stephen Mougin on guitar and Todd Parks on bass fiddle and electric bass — will join Bush on that familiar stage Thursday night.
“We’ve been coming to Wolf Trap in one form or another since 1971,” he said. “We want to meet the new friends and greet the old.”