Sam Bush

StingrayGlamour & Grits
The Ballad Of Spider JohnGlamour & Grits
Girl Of The North CountryIce Caps: Peaks Of Telluride
Sailin' ShoesIce Caps: Peaks Of Telluride
Same Ol' RiverIce Caps: Peaks Of Telluride
River Take MeLaps In Seven
Ballad For A SoldierLaps In Seven
Gold Heart LocketCircles Around Me
The Ballad Of Stringbean And EstelleCircles Around Me
Souvenir BottlesCircles Around Me



Contributor: David Lewis

Sam Bush is one of the pre-eminent mandolin players of the modern era. One of the players who emerged in the 1960s and who expanded the groundbreaking technique of Bill Monroe, Bush made mandolin a valid rock instrument. His erstwhile colleague, Butch Robins, stated that no player had as wide a taste as Sam. Sam introduced reggae to a bluegrass audience, realising that the bluegrass ‘chop’ (a rhythmic chord technique developed by Bill Monroe and advanced by Sam and others) sounded like a reggae rhythm part. Stylistically, he has a dizzying array of approaches in his arsenal: from bluegrass, to country, to rock, to jazz, to classical and old time. He is considered the ‘Father of Newgrass’, a style of music which takes bluegrass instrumentation and techniques and adapts it to other styles of music. Newgrass musicians tend not to be bound by tradition, and Sam will use solid body instruments and effects such as overdrive and delay. He also plays in irregular time signatures, 7/4 being a particular favourite.

As well as mandolin, Sam is a world class fiddler, guitarist, vocalist and banjo player. He first came to notice in his band New Grass Revival (watch this space … ed.), with John Cowan, Courtney Johnson, Curtis Burch and, later, Pat Flynn and Béla Fleck. He has also played with Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and bluegrass supergroup Strength in Numbers. This list is Sam solo and, for want of space, excludes his collaboration with the other great mandolinist of his generation, David ‘Dawg’ Grisman.

Sam deserves to be far better known. To regulars of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Sam is a legendary presence, having attended and played every one since its inception. To mandolin enthusiasts, he is one of the top players of the modern era. His technique is aggressive and upfront, his touch is impeccable and his musicality is almost unrivalled.

This list, like all of these, is ultimately one version of many that might be done.

Sam usually features a mandolin tour de force and I’ve chosen to go with Stingray. It’s Bach flavoured phrasing is a finger buster, and it shows his unusual technique at its best. Sam has a very guitar-like approach which lesser players cannot emulate.

From the same album, Sam gives us The Ballad Of Spider John. Willis Alan Ramsey’s plaintive ballad is done definitively with Sam accompanying himself on guitar. As we will see in this list, Sam is a masterful interpreter of songs as well as an accomplished and skilled composer. He inhabits the characters of his songs, giving them an authenticity lacking in many other performances.

Ice Caps: Peaks Of Telluride is a live album documenting Sam’s legendary performances at the Telluride Festival. It is full of highlights and culling it was difficult. One of Sam’s signature tunes is his magnificent version of one of Bob Dylan’s most beautiful compositions, Girl From The North Country. Equally as good is his duo with New Grass Revival singer and bass player John Cowan. The Little Feat song Sailin’ Shoes is sped up and is one of the most joyful renditions of any song. Listen for Cowan exclaim ‘Jedediah’ just before the second verse. Rock is often at its best in these little random moments: Levon Helm snatching the lead vocal back from Rick Danko in The Weight or Paul McCartney warning ‘look out’ just before She Came In Through The Bathroom Window are two examples of many. The last song, and I could have picked another five, easily, is Same Ol’ River. Sam had already recorded this on Glamour & Grits but the live version is superior. Listen to Scott Vestal’s incredible banjo arrangement, which includes the ticking of a clock at the opportune moment. Also, this version saw Jerry Douglas step back in on dobro, after having left the Sam Bush band amicably some years before.

Although I’d love to include the title track of the next album, Laps In Seven (inspired by Sam’s dog’s lapping pattern while the dog was drinking) is too full of goodies. River Take Me is a heartbreaking story of a proud man who life has left behind. Darrell Scott’s composition suits Sam beautifully. Leon Russell’s Ballad For A Soldier is one of the great anti-war songs.

Sam’s latest album, Circles Around Me, is, I think, his best. Although there is much to recommend the title track, with its obvious echoes to Sam’s own biography, I’ve picked the brilliant Gold Heart Locket, written by Jeff Black, who has collaborated with Sam regularly. It features a tenor banjo and a terrific set of lyrics. The Ballad Of Stringbean And Estelle tells the true story of the murder of David Akeman, player on the American TV show, Hee Haw, and his wife and its effect on the community. Finally, Sam revisits an old New Grass Revival track, Souvenir Bottles. Sam’s more mature approach brings out the subtlety and nuance of it, and shows that a great artist is never afraid of revisiting old work.

Although revered by his fans, Sam deserves a much wider audience. This list only scratches the surface of what he is capable of. Fiddlers can learn from Sam – Spooky Hollow (Glamour & Grits) or Big Mon (Late As Usual) show his violin virtuosity, for example. Nonetheless, I hope this introduces someone to a great performer and musician.

The Official Sam Bush Website

Sam Bush biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #155


  1. Ian Ashleigh
    Jan 1, 2014

    Many thanks David, I had not heard of Sam Bush until today. I thoroughly enjoyed your essay and listening to the 10 tracks (11 if you include Laps in Seven). I am looking forward to discovering more.

  2. Rob Millis
    Jan 2, 2014

    Fantastic stuff David. Any eight stringer considered to be the “other” notable alongside David Grisman is a mighty talent indeed. Will definitely dig out lots more and enjoy. I tinker on the mando myself and am constantly looking for non-clicheed material, reckon there must be bucketloads in Sam Bush’s catalogue.

    BTW – have you kept up with Hot Tuna over the last decade or so? Their mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff is VERY tasty.

  3. David Lewis
    Jan 2, 2014

    Thanks both of you. Naturally, like the protagonist in ‘High Fidelity’, I can’t stick with one version of a list, and Sam has 6 or 8 albums of brilliancy. He is supreme as a bluegrass player, so ‘Bringing in the Georgia Mail’ is a great example. Speaking of brilliancy, that’s another great finger buster. For an instrumental change of pace, there’s ‘The Dolphin Dance’. And ‘The Mahavishnu Mountain Boys’ is a great piece of fusion, newgrass …

    • Rob Millis
      Jan 4, 2014

      Mahavishnu Mountain Boys indeed! Will there be a mandolin disco funk act soon? The Flat Back Band, perhaps? 😉

  4. David Lewis
    Jan 5, 2014

    I have been known to surprise (I’m hoping pleasantly) my students by plugging my solid body mandolin through a wah pedal and distortion pedal and playing funk. So anything is possible, I guess. Nickel Creek with the outstanding Chris Thile on mandolin can push that way on occasion. And that may be another Toppermost….

  5. David Lewis
    Sep 3, 2017

    And I should point any reader to Sam’s latest album, Storyman. Some real gems on it. Released last year (long after this article was written) I’ve been letting it settle. ‘Transcendental Meditation Blues’ and ‘Lefty’s Song’ are two standouts.

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