WinterWonderGrass: This time, Sam Bush brings entire band

Sam Bush

Newgrass pioneer Sam Bush jammed with Fruition two years ago at WinterWonderGrass. He will be accompanied by his entire band this year.

The Sam Bush Band will make its debut appearance at WinterWonderGrass Tahoe this year, taking the stage Saturday evening, April 1, at Squaw Valley. The “King of Newgrass” is fresh off of a number of mid-winter shows around the country, including in Colorado, Alabama and Florida.

WinterWonderGrass runs Friday, March 31 to Sunday, April 2. TICKETS

“I was a little sick over the wintertime — I was laid up for about a month,” Bush said. “I’m feeling good again and just so happy to be out playing with my band. These are the guys that I love to play with the most.”

Bush’s long-running lineup is Stephen Mougin (guitar), Scott Vestal (banjo), Todd Parks (upright and electric bass) and Chris Brown (drums).

“Chris and Todd, they went to jazz school, and Stephen was a University of Massachusetts vocal major, and Scott Vestal is a good straight Earl Scruggs bluegrass, as much as you want it, as well as progressive as anyone on the five,” Bush said. “Then sometimes we play electric kind of music within our show where we switch to electric instruments. I play a Fender mandolin solid body, Stephen plays a Stratocaster style electric guitar and Scott switches to his banjo synthesizer that gives us a keyboard sound. It’s just all fun.”

While this marks the band’s first time at WinterWonderGrass Tahoe, Bush made some solo appearances at the festival’s debut in 2015, jumping onstage with Greensky Bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters and Fruition. The Sam Bush Band also has made a number of stops at the original WinterWonderGrass event, held in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

“I enjoyed getting to be (in Tahoe) and jamming with the other bands when I was there a couple of years ago,” Bush said. “I’m anxious for our band to play it, too. It’s going to be fun.”

Sam Bush

Bluegrass festivals hold a special place in Bush’s heart. They’ve formed a crucial component, not just of his career, but of the growth of bluegrass music as a whole.

“As time marches on, one of the things that has made Bluegrass much more popular was the birth of festivals,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to go to the first multi-day bluegrass festival in 1965, when I was 13. It was in Finn Castle, Virginia, and it was called the Roanoke Bluegrass Festival. I had read about it in a magazine and saw the ad for it, and it was like every great bluegrass band I had ever head of was playing at this thing.

“So, as festivals grew by word of mouth, you have more bluegrass festivals here and there, and then by the time I started playing music for a living in 1970, when I got out of high school, there started to be more festivals,” he said. “Back then we’d play all winter five nights a week in clubs and then springtime hit. In early summer we got to go to these festivals — it was kind of like our reward.

“Now of course you look what’s going down and there’s festivals everywhere. Some are still very traditional bluegrass and some are more newgrass and progressive. That’s the great part, the music has progressed. There are some bands that still like to play the traditions that Bill Monroe and his boys started in 1946 and then many other bands that have gone on to play more progressive styles while using the bluegrass instruments. So in a nutshell that’s kind of what happened the last 30, 40 years.”

Bush runs the gamut of grass-based music, equally comfortable in a hyper-traditional bluegrass setting as he is in an off-the-map, wildly progressive jam style. He has incorporated elements of jazz, reggae, rock and funk into his lengthy discography, just to name a few of his fusions.

The WinterWonderGrass Tahoe crowd will no doubt hear a number of tunes from Bush’s most recent album, “Storyman,” released in June 2016. In a first, Bush wrote or co-wrote every track on the record (all of his many prior releases had included one or more songs by another artist, or a traditional tune).

“With ‘Storyman,’ it had been awhile, six or seven years, since I had put a record out,” he said. “We still call ‘em records, we still call ‘em albums. Albums, I think that title first came to be when people would put out a collection — my dad used to own these things — they’d put five 78 rpm records in a jacket like a photo album.

“I still tend to think of a body of work as a collection of songs. Of course I am well aware and appreciative of the fact that people buy songs one at a time, but I just know as a listener, for me, I’m still interested in hearing the whole album, the entire collection of songs.

“Many people that I’m a fan of, that’s the way I like to hear their music. One song’s not enough for me, I want to hear the whole 10 or 11 tunes or however many you want to put on there.”

Bush set out to gather some of his closest friends to contribute on the record.

“Emmylou Harris and I wrote one that’s a lighthearted take on how country music changed when people stopped playing their guitars and just used the handheld microphone,” Bush said. “Once again that’s just a funny take that we have, we’re not trying to be preachy, but that one’s called ‘Hand Mics Killed Country Music.’ ”

Another favorite of his is “Carcinoma Blues” penned with Guy Clark (the two both have survived bouts with cancer), describing the ordeal from the point of view of both the patient and their loved ones.

The Sam Bush Band also played a central role in the creative process, with co-written songs by Vestal (“Greenbriar”) and Mougin (“Play by Your Own Rules”), as well as a collaborative number put together by the whole band.

“It’s an instrumental, it’s called ‘It’s Not What You Think,’ because the fiddle player, being me, sometimes gets confused about where the one beat is, because it’s so jazzy,” he said with a chuckle.

Looking ahead, Bush is all energy and optimism. He is thrilled to be back on the road, looking forward to Merlfest and Telluride Bluegrass Festival among other upcoming performances. He is also quite keen on the future of bluegrass music, after being a driving force within the genre for more than 40 years.

“I think it’s pretty positive,” Bush said. “As I said, you have youngsters, young bands that admire the traditions of bluegrass and then you have some others that admire the traditions of bands like I was in, New Grass Revival. Things that we did are now somewhat normal…so bluegrass and newgrass, it’s all just good music for me.”

-Josh Sweigert

Related story: Band members talk about coming to WinterWonderGrass.

Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra at WinterWonderGrass.

  • The third WinterWonderGrass Tahoe is March 31-April 2 at Squaw Valley. Bands include Greensky Bluegrass, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, the Infamous Stringdusters, Sam Bush Band, Peter Rowan, Dead Winter Carpenters, Hot Buttered Rum, Fruition, Dustbowl Revival, Mandolin Orange, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Lil’ Smokies, Head for the Hills, The Bluegrass Generals, Dead Horses, Everyone Orchestra, Front Country, Trout Steak Revival, Jon Stickley Trio, Ghost of Paul Revere, Grant Farm, Brad Parsons Band, The Good Bad, The Deer and Pickin’ On The Dead.

About Josh Sweigert

Josh grew up on the California coast with a deep appreciation for bluegrass and string band music as well as the great outdoors. A guitarist and singer, he plays solo acoustic gigs in South Lake Tahoe.

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