Sam Bush has been shaking up the bluegrass world since he was in his teens. In 1971, he gave traditional purists fits when his band of musical hippies, the New Grass Revival, assaulted them on their first album with a version of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire."
"We got the idea for 'Great Balls' from seeing John Hartford and Glenn Campbell do it on TV in a bluegrass beat," Bush says by phone from his Nashville home. But while Hartford and Campbell had much higher profiles and were quickly forgiven their excursions into rock, Bush and his bunch had to earn respect for their attempt at musical integration, battling in the trenches in front of older, traditional bluegrass-oriented audiences who didn't like their long-haired looks or the intrusion of rock set to a bluegrass beat.
At 55, Bush is considered the elder statesman of the new grass genre he helped found. Jazz, reggae and worldbeat have been mixed in with the rock over the years. The musical blend has become so accepted in grass circles that nobody even blinks when Bush announces an upcoming tour this fall with Bob Marley's former backing band The Wailers.
Bush believes that the blend of bluegrass and reggae is not as huge a cultural leap as some may assume. "When I first heard The Wailers, it was the rhythm guitar that first attracted me to the idea of listening to reggae music," Bush says. "The way my crazy brain works, it sounded like the way bluegrass mandolin players chop rhythm as well."
He's not alone in that theory. Bluegrass guitarist Peter Rowan, a member of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys and co-writer of the bluegrass/reggae tune "Freedom Walkabout" with Bush, theorizes that "the chop in bluegrass that gives it that drive and the skank in reggae, which is the guitar part, in a lot of ways they're the same thing."
Bush, who admits to being a big Bob Marley fan, has recorded and performed several of Marley's tunes including "Is This Love," from 1996's Glamor and Grits, "One Love" from 1984's On The Boulevard, with the New Grass Revival, and regularly perform "Coming In From the Cold" live.
But reggae is only small part of what Bush does. A live show may feature covers ranging from Marley to John Hiatt to John Hartford to Van Morrison mixed in with his own jazz/rock/reggae fusion originals.
Bush has captured the essence of his liveliness in a new DVD out in August, On the Road, recorded at California's Sierra Nevada Brewery concert hall. He has said there's a certain squirm factor involved in seeing himself perform and cites discomfort about seeing the results of an accident that changed his playing style.
"On the very first New Grass Revival trip, my hand got smashed in a car door, my thumb and first two fingers got smashed, so when I was 19, I had to change the way I held the pick," Bush says. "As a result, my wrist looks a little stiff to me on film." But you won't hear any complaints from fans about that or the other fault the mandolinist found while observing himself. "It does surprise me how much I move around," he laughs. "Maybe I could play better if I didn't move around so much."
For most of his followers, the fact Bush does move around so much is what endears him to them. Bush's recent musical movements propelled him to New York where he played with jazz bassist Charlie Hayden, a member of Ornette Coleman's shape-shifting jazz quintet in the '50s. Like Bush, Hayden is a cross-cultural musical jumper, forgoing his jazzy side to record an old time country music record, Ocean Of Diamonds, with his family and artists including Bush, Vince Gill and Elvis Costello.
Bush has also written, recorded and performed recently with jazz saxophonist Bill Evans, who's invented a new genre he calls Soulgrass, mixing jazz and bluegrass, linking banjo, fiddle, sax and, of course, Bush's mandolin.
But Bush really got to stretch out at the 25th annual Roots of American Music Festival in New York City in August. "On that show was a person many consider the godmother of punk, Patti Smith," Bush says. "So Jerry Douglas and I ended up playing 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' by Nirvana with Patti Smith.
"It's never dull," he says of his maverick career. "There's always something interesting going on.
Sam Bush and his full band play the Neighborhood Theatre on Oct. 4 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40.