Sam Bush in Bill Monroe mode: A resume second to none
A Bush We Can Believe In
By David McGee
CIRCLES AROUND ME
Being a solo artist has not been the main focus of Sam Bush’s long career, as is evident by this, only the seventh such album bearing his name alone above the marquee. But what a career it’s been: whether as a first-call sideman or progressive bluegrass exponent/pioneer in the New Grass Revival back in the ‘70s, Bush’s resume of important contributions to some of the most memorable music of the past 40-some years is pretty much second to none. If you didn’t know he had received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association this past September, Circles Around Me might strike you as being the best kind of petition for same. Its 14 tracks offer a survey of where Bush has come from, what with selections from the catalogues of Bill Monroe and the Country Gentlemen underscoring his traditional influences, another restored, previously unissued vintage track from 1976 with his progressive (now deceased) New Grass Revival mate Courtney Johnson, and some new songs he co-wrote with Jeff Black (plus one with another former New Grasser, the estimable John Cowan) to bring this project right up to date.
Bush’s basic band here includes bassist Byron House, Scott Vestal on banjo, Stephen Mougin on guitar, and Chris Brown on drums. Bush’s fellow A-list instrumental luminaries Edgar Meyer (bass) and Jerry Douglas (dobro) also make a couple of guest appearances, and so does Bush’s expressive, seldom-heard singing voice, the latter surfacing only seconds into the album on the Bush-Black title song, an easygoing, rippling beauty expressing gratitude and exhilaration at surviving the passage of time that both acknowledges his debt “to those who came before” and exults in the here and now. The traditional bluegrass barnburning opener is saved for the second cut, the traditional “Diamond Joe,” a bustling workout centered on the colorful exploits of a cattle baron who’s more than a bit of a rounder and good at enriching himself by others’ sweat. The father of it all, Bill Monroe, is duly honored not once but twice, and both times with Del McCoury adding guitar and his distinctive, keening tenor harmony vocal, first in the sprightly “Roll On. Buddy, Roll On,” a Wilborn Brothers-penned gem, and later on the mournful heartbreaker, “Midnight On the Stormy Deep,” which features, in addition to Bush’s and McCoury’s affecting, pleading vocals, a rich instrumental swirl of fiddle (Bush), guitar, mandolin and banjo comprising a chilling soundscape. In a nice bit of sequencing, this dark interlude is followed by the buoyant, high-spirited fiddle and banjo repartee of that aforementioned 1976 track with Courtney Johnson strutting step-for-step on banjo with Bush’s enthusiastic rapid flurries of short- and long-bowed fiddle lines on the uplifting “Apple Blossom.” A fresh, Bush-penned instrumental, “The Old North Woods,” is as meditative and introspective as “Apple Blossom” is joyous. Beautifully arranged by Edgar Meyer to showcase the compelling emotional textures of the various stringed instruments on hand—mandolin (octave, by Bush; harmony by Mougin), three violins and Meyers’s bass—the somber waltz tune evokes a lonely, melancholy mood, with surges of heightened feelings expressed in the deep, brooding surge of the bass. Its blend of folk roots and classical overtones link it to Dvorak, whereas its rich sense of place is in a league with Smetana’s, or Grofe’s. It should be noted here that Bush and Mougin are accompanied on “The Old North Woods” by the Heard-Meyer Family Strings, which numbers Edgar Meyer and, on violins, his wife Cornelia Heard and son George (making his recording debut in fine fashion). Closing out this wondrous journey are two songs Bush originally cut with New Grass: “Souvenir Bottles” is a dark, surging story song with scatter-shot drumming, a pronounced, bobbing bass line and room for elliptical theme-and-development solos by guitar, banjo and mandolin that happen to render the story irrelevant by dint of their adventurous explorations of mood, tempo and texture; “Whisper My Name” is a hard-charging, classically styled bluegrass treatise about betrayal and heartbreak featuring super-smooth harmony singing, a robust lead vocal and a breathtaking, song-length, rolling banjo solo that doesn’t let up until the final note is struck. Stay tuned, though: about 30 seconds after the song ends comes an unlisted bonus track and it’s a beauty—a jubilant take on one of Robert Johnson’s funniest tunes, “Red Hot,” done to a turn with the sunny disposition and infectious, bouncy rhythm of a jug band song, an uplifting sendoff that leaves a listener wanting nothing so much as a lot more of this. Sam, take note.