Newgrass legend Sam Bush’s latest album, Circles Around Me, hit store shelves last month and he’ll be taking it on the road next year.
In the meantime, he took a few minutes to talk with us about the record, his amazing career and of course, baseball.
Q: What are some of the highlights of the album for you?
A: I guess there are many, actually, but one: just me and my band getting the chance to sort of relax and go back to our roots in bluegrass and newgrass style of music, because we play a variety of ways, we play electric music and acoustic music. We kept it all acoustic with the exception of our great bass player, Byron House, occasionally played electric bass guitar but basically he played upright bass fiddle.
And Chris Brown on drums. There are some tunes he gets to play out more and you notice him and others you don’t even hardly notice he’s playing and that’s what a tasteful musician he is. Of course, Scott Vestal on banjo is just phenomenal and he, for me, is kind of the hero of the record, the way that he plays. The timing and the tone and the touch is just, I admire his playing so much. Steven Mougin, our guitar player, although a good electric guitar player, only played acoustic.
We kept in sort of a bluegrassy approach, even songs that aren’t so bluegrass, you can tell that’s where we come from. And of course, a few highlights were guests that appeared: Del McCoury, the great Del McCoury and we did a couple of old Bill Monroe vocal duets together and I’d always wanted to do that with Del, he’s always encouraged me to sing and I think if there’s a King of Bluegrass, his name is Del.
And then there was a tune with Edgar Meyer on bass and Jerry Douglas on the dobro, we have an occasional trio we play and we recorded one of those tunes that Edgar and I wrote called “Junior Heywood” and that’s pretty challenging. Me and the band were tight, we’re tight as friends and tight as musicians playing together and also playing with Jerry and Edgar and Del, it’s pretty cool. It’s pretty fun to get to play with these guys.
Q: The title track, “Circles Around Me” seems to really set the theme of the record, what can you tell us about that theme?
A: Jeff and I wrote the tune and that song, “Circles Around Me” embodies the feeling of what we were trying to do which is how fortunate we are to be up and running, to be able to age and still play music and hopefully we’re all getting better as we age, we get better at playing and singing.
And the song “Circles Around Me” is really just a thought of, and it actually says it in the lyrics of, “how in the world did we get this far?” You know, as we age we unfortunately lose loved ones and friends along the way and you’re still up and running and sometimes you just look at yourself in the mirror and go, “How did I get this far, what are we doing? How come we made it?”
So the underlying feeling of we love each other, we love to play music together. In calling the project “Circles Around Me” the direction of this music is in a way that I’ve come full circle and I feel comfortable playing bluegrass style music again and Newgrass tunes that I would have done twenty-something years ago and that’s hard to believe, that, “Wow, we recorded that in 1972?!”
And you rediscover things that you already knew and that can be a pleasant experience. So it is as if we’ve come full circle in some ways. Of course there’s been so many, I’ve played on a few CDs where people have called them Full Circle so that title had been used enough but Circles Around Me seemed to apply.
Q: It seems that your style draws from so many places, what kinds of music have you been listening to recently?
A: John McLaughlin has a record called Floating Point I guess it’s his most recent record. I’m a huge fan of John McLaughlin.
I’ve always been a large fan of Eric Clapton and I didn’t know that he and Steve Winwood had made a live record and a buddy of mine told me about it and oh man, that is so good and I’m so proud of those guys, how gracefully they have aged and how wonderful they sound and they’re better than they’ve ever been.
Jeff Beck, I listen to a lot, Jeff’s most recent record, Live at Ronnie Scott’s blows me away. And I still love to listen to Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe too, so I’m pretty schizophrenic in my listening tastes, there isn’t one kind of music that I listen to all the time and I guess that kind of shows somewhat in our approach to playing live an don recordings.
Q: I’ve also heard you’re a huge baseball fan, who are you pulling for in the Series?
A: I’m just a little crushed right now, my Cardinals didn’t make it to the World Series, the Rockies did great but didn’t go as far as I would have loved to have seen the Rockies go, but right now I’m rooting Phillies so hey, the World Series is on, I’m still having fun, it’s still baseball season. No matter who plays in the World Series it’s kind of like when the last game is played and the World Series is over, I always go through a little, “Well, shucks, baseball season’s over.” But it really doesn’t stay gone that long because they start Spring Training again February 18th.
Baseball is always something my father and I shared together and now my wife, Lynne and I, I’m the luckiest guy in the world, I’m married to an accountant money manger who loves sports. And she loves sports and music, so we work together and we love music and baseball, particularly baseball, but it’s fun to watch sports. If anybody wants to know what reality TV is, it’s called “sports.” It’s the only thing I don’t know how it’s going to end when it starts.
And you had on a hockey jersey at Telluride, are you a big hockey fan as well?
Nashville Predators! I am a hockey fan, a casual hockey fan. It’s really fun to go to games, that’s for sure. It’s so funny to me, I was wearing the Jersey of the Nashville Preds and they have a player, #38, named Vernon Fiddler, so on the back of the jersey it says “Fiddler.” That always cracked me up, as a person who likes to play the fiddle, I especially wanted to get a Fiddler jersey from the Nashville Preds. It’s fun to go to hockey games, I’m no expert and don’t know much about it but it’s fun to go to games.
Q: Did you play sports growing up?
A: Little League baseball, Babe Ruth baseball. I played Little League at 11 and 12 years old, then I didn’t play for a couple of years and then came back and did Babe Ruth League ball when I was 15 and my father always encouraged me to play baseball and to play music.
He used to tell me, well, we grew up on a farm so he had to take me, we couldn’t just ride our bikes to go do something, we lived out in the country, so your parents have to drive you everywhere you go and he would take me to play music or he would take me to baseball practice and games and he finally got to where he told me, “You can’t do both, you’re going to have to pick one or the other, sports or music.”
I remember him saying, “I know which one I think you should pick, but you’re going to have to make that decision.” And I certainly made the right one, a mediocre baseball player or a fiddle champ, I guess I picked the right one. Though I love to play, there’s a thrill in catching a baseball that I still love. But I picked the right thing, now maybe an occasional softball game.
Q: When you’re out on the road, what kinds of things are in your suitcase?
A: Well, a shaving kit, of course. I like to take a pair of binoculars in case an unplanned thing happens, like I get to go to a music show or I get to go to a sporting event. Even if I’m sitting in the first row I want to have my binoculars so I can see what the amplifiers are set on and look at the guitars and stuff.
And as a person that’s been playing bluegrass festivals, music festivals ever since 1970 you always need to have a pair of overshoes, you need a rain poncho and you need to have a fleece vest and dress in layers. I know if I’m coming out to the mountains or anything you always want to put your snowboarding underwear in there so you can dress in layers and really, just plan on it raining and you’ll be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t. My wife got me this great Spyder ski jacket a few years ago where you can take the fleece lining out and wear it if it’s 50 degrees and put the fleece in and wear it when it’s 20 degrees.
Do you snowboard?
No. I’ve only been skiing once. And I had a good instructor down in Telluride and I had fun the first time and didn’t break any bones and I’d love to go again sometime. But really, it’s hard to get time to do that and I do have to be careful. I’ve broken bones in my life and the love of playing is still important to me.
Q: Are there other things that you never can find the time to do because you’re out on the road or in the studio?
A: Yeah, I haven’t even been to the new Bush Stadium in St. Louis and they (the St. Louis Cardinals) started playing in it, Lynn and I haven’t gotten to go to Bush Stadium. But we figure we’ll have more time to do that but right now we’re busy with business and music and that’s what we want to be doing.
We are the fortunate ones, we work hard to be in this position and to get to play music and feel very fortunate to get to play the style of music that we love. Any kind of music is fun to play but it’s especially fun when you get to call your own tunes and make the set list and play for the audience.
I love playing live music more than anything, I love getting to play on stage and its’ a goal that I want to shoot for for a very long time. I’m 57-years-old now and I’m not even close to being finished. Sometimes I feel like I’ve just started over again.
Q: How do you create the set list?
A: It varies, but our road manager, Rob, keeps a list of what we’ve done. They’re all in his computer and so I can ask Rob, “What’d we play the last time we were here?” Say you haven’t been to Denver for a couple of years, “What’d we do last time we were here?” Well, then we want to switch it up a little. “What’d we play last night? What are we having fun playing right now? What’s a song we haven’t thought about playing for a year?” We just look to mix it up and it’s fun but it’s also “What are we playing good right now? Let’s stay on some of those tunes.” So it varies from year to year.
Q: When will you be taking this album out on the road?
A: Actually, we’re not really going out on the road except for a few promo things until February. But one of the exciting things that we’re doing for this record and you can look it up, it’s on SamBush.com, is in addition to recording the music, we went into the studio and recorded, for lack of a better word on my part, webisodes. They’ll be on SBTV, Sam Bush Television, on your computer. I think we cut seven songs and they’re going to be coming out over a couple of months.
It’s kind of like virtual marketing , but the band and I went in and cut songs and we’ll talk about the song and the song “Circles Around Me” I think just started running a couple days ago. So check out our webisodes, and we jokingly call it SBTV. We’ve done that instead of making just one music video for television because we think it would be of interest to our fans to check us out on these webisodes. It’s a four camera shoot and one of the things I love is that it’s us playing, it was one take, no fixing and was just mixed and edited.
Q: Any other thoughts?
A: No, just that in the idea of Circles Around Me is a thankful feeling. I feel really thankful to still have the ability to play music over the years. It was like the year 1994 where I had broken both elbows at different times of the year and I physically couldn’t play for half of that year and boy, did it ever drive it home how much I love to play and how fortunate I am to get to do it and how fortunate I am to continue to do it. My goal is as long as I’m alive to have the ability to play music. It’s more fun than it’s ever been.
Photo: David McLister