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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1363

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Sam Bush: King of My World
by George Graham

(Sugar Hill 3987 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/14/2004)

The past four years have been rather good for bluegrass, in the wake of the hit soundtrack for the film O Brother Where Are Thou? Not only has a new generation of bluegrass artists like Alison Krauss and Union Station, and Nickel Creek been receiving some attention in the media, but it has also paved the way for a revival in the careers of some veteran musicians like Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury.

But it was about 25 years ago when bluegrass also had an injection of new blood and some public attention, with the rise of the so-called New Acoustic style. It also had to so with a film. Mandolinist David Grisman was enlisted to create the music for a film with a gypsy theme. He had been enchanted by the music of the late gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, and so sought out Reinhardt's musical collaborator in the 1930s, violinist Stephane Grappelli for the film project. That association led to Grisman's combining the instrumentation of bluegrass with the rhythmic and harmonic complexity of jazz on his classic 1979 album Hot Dawg. Soon thereafter, the style spread like wildfire among younger-generation bluegrass pickers who brought both considerable musical ability and eclecticism to the table, sometimes to the considerable chagrin of traditionalists.

Another of the long-running innovators in the New Acoustic field is Sam Bush, who has just released his fifth CD under his own name, called King of My World.

Like many of the New Acoustic virtuosos, Bush was something of a prodigy, taking up mandolin ands fiddle at age 11, and by the time he graduated from high school in the mid 1960s he had already won some national competitions. In 1965, Bush went to one of the first bluegrass festivals in Roanoke, Virginia, where he met Grisman, Tony Trischka, Andy Statman and others who would also become New Acoustic pioneers. In 1969 Bush made his debut on the Grand Old Opry, and that same year released his first album called Poor Richard's Almanac. A year later, he joined a group called the Bluegrass Alliance, an influential early band in the formation of progressive bluegrass. With Bush, the Bluegrass Alliance would evolve into New Grass Revival by the mid 1970s, and would set the standard for eclectic bluegrass with vocals -- Grisman and his colleagues concentrated on instrumental music. New Grass Revival would achieve surprising popularity, especially after banjo sensation Béla Fleck joined the group. Bush was also part of the seminal 1989 New Acoustic summit release Strength in Numbers.

At the same time, Bush became much in demand as a studio musician and sideman, being part of Emmylou Harris' Nash Ramblers band, and playing on hundreds of albums, including recordings by Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Maura O'Connell, and many Nashville country recordings, as well as lending his talents to a recording that combined classical violinist Joshua Bell with bluegrass and jazz bassist Edgar Meyer, and was part of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

Bush's last album was a live recording made at the Telluride folk festival. Now Bush is out with a studio recording that features his regular touring band, with guitarists Jon Randall Stewart and Brad Davis taking turns, bassist Byron House and drummer Chris Brown.

Right off the bat, one notes that traditional bluegrass by definition is not supposed to have drums, and like almost all of Sam Bush's work, this is not traditional music. It consists of material running from old country songs to contemporary compositions by friends that run toward the singer-songwriter style, as well some notable instrumentals. And continuing the break with bluegrass tradition, there are some electric guitars, and amplified slide mandolins. Bush does not claim to be much of a lyricist, so the original compositions on this CD are mostly instrumentals, while the songs he collects from others are a fascinating mix of material from such artists as Keb' Mo' and South African Johnny Clegg.

Things get under way with one of the instrumentals by members of the band. Puppies 'N Knapsacks is probably the closest to straight bluegrass on the album, though with drums. Bush, the multi-instrumentalist, is heard on fiddle, mandolin and banjo, by way of overdubbing. <<>>

Rather different in style is A Better Man by Keb' Mo' and New Orleans songwriter Anders Osborne. The band manages to comvey some of the New Orleans spirit in the song whike keeping the instrumentation mostly acoustic. <<>>

It's back to a more traditional direction for the old Grandpa Jones song Eight More Miles to Louisville. It's a song that has been part of Bush' concert repertoire for a while, and the version here imparts a combination of energy and awareness of tradition. The song probably has some relevance to this Kentucky native. <<>>

The title track, King of the World, puts Bush into the singer-songwriter style for the composition by Jeff Black. Making a guest appearance is Reese Wynans, the keyboard man who spent a while with bluesman Steve Ray Vaughan. <<>>

Perhaps the most unlikely choice of songs on the CD is Spirit Is the Journey, by Johnny Clegg, one of South Africa's best known pop musicians. Bush and company, again with Wynans on the keyboards, give the piece an interesting treatment, trying to maintain a little of the African feel while adding the bluegrassy mandolin, and hinting at a reggae beat. The result, though interesting, does come off as a little scattered, with the stylistic ingredients not meshing as well as they do elsewhere on the CD. <<>>

In his younger days, when the kind of eclectic bluegrass fusion Sam Bush was doing was not so widely accepted on the bluegrass festival circuit, one time after a New Grass Revival performance, a large burly fellow confronted Bush and said "Who do you think you guys are? The Mahavishnu Mountain Boys or something?" That incident stuck in Bush's mind, and eventually led to one of the instrumentals on King of My World. The Mahavishnu Mountain Boys sounds rather like its title, with the modal compositional style and the Indian quarter-tone influenced violin played by Bush. It's definitely one of the highlights. <<>>

Sam Bush and company take yet a further musical direction on Bless His Heart, one of only two tunes Bush wrote for the CD with lyrics. The result comes out as a kind semi-acoustic Little Feat. <<>>

The CD ends with a swingy tribute to a favorite baseball player, St. Louis shortstop Ozzie Smith. Bush calls the song The Wizard of Oz. It's a fun track, and yet another turn of the musical style for the versatile Bush and his band. <<>>

Multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush is of the pioneers in the New Acoustic Music style, and for almost 35 years has been taking his music beyond the boundaries of bluegrass. As a versatile sideman on hundreds of albums, he brings that ability and enthusiasm to play in a broad spectrum of styles to King of My World, his first new studio recording under his own name in about five years. The CD runs from near rock to near jazz with a healthy dose of bluegrass and a bit of country. It's all played tastefully, and with an infectious spirit of good fun.

Our grade for sound quality is a "B-plus." The sonic clarity is commendable, but as is so often the case, the recording was compressed to be loud all the time, taking much of the life from the performance. This would not be so quite so bad on a rock album, but there's no excuse for it on a mostly acoustic recording like this one.

I suppose if one could level one criticism at Sam Bush's King of My World it would be that it tackles perhaps too many styles, some a bit better than others. But one has to admire Bush for his versatility, musical adventurousness and downright fine playing. Overall, this is an impressive and satisfying recording carrying on the eclectic tradition of New Acoustic Music.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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