Progressive Bluegrass Pioneer Sam Bush Talks 'Revival' Documentary That Celebrates His Eclectic Career

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Courtesy of Revival: The Sam Bush Story
Sam Bush in Revival: The Sam Bush Story.

When examining the story of almost any legendary musician, making history wasn’t on their mind as much as getting to the next gig or getting paid. Iconic bluegrass and Americana musician Sam Bush is no different. He had no idea what lay in front of him while growing up in Bowling Green, Ky.

“I don't know if that kid would have thought it,” he said of his career as a pioneering mandolin player, who is credited with helping birth the progressive bluegrass movement through his own work and as a founding member of seminal band New Grass Revival, with bassist John Cowan, banjoist Bela Fleck and guitarist Pat Flynn.

“When we started when I was 18 and just to move to Louisville and start playing music five nights a week was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he tells Billboard. “As we learned to play and start New Grass Revival and had 18 years together, it just seemed that each little thing would lead to something. We never dreamed we'd play with John Hartford. I never thought I'd get to record with Doc Watson or play onstage with Doc or be in Leon [Russell’s] band two years or be in Emmylou Harris's band five years. Then, just all the good recording opportunities I've had. I would have believed it because I always believed that if I worked hard and I could continue to play and improve that I could continue to work. I've always felt successful in that I've always had the opportunity to work.”

Bush’s deep body of work is put in the spotlight with the release of Revival: The Sam Bush Story, a documentary released Thursday (Nov. 1), via Amazon. Written, produced and directed by Wayne Franklin and Kris Wheeler, with appearances by many of his contemporaries and influences and protégés, including Alison Krauss, Chris Thile, Ricky Skaggs, the Avett Brothers and the late Guy Clark.

Bush says he is breathing a huge sigh of relief that the film is finally out to a wider audience, an effort complicated by the music-clearance process.

“I must admit it's odd seeing yourself on a screen and being the subject of a documentary. It's just an odd thing, because we as musicians didn't grow up aspiring to be on the screen. It's amazing now because all of the sudden it's finally in release and on Amazon. In 2015, it came out on the small film festival circuit, but the songs weren't licensed yet.”

Even after watching the film. Bush remains low-key and humble about his accomplishments.

“I've never really thought about having a role in music or anything. For me to sit down and watch it, it kind of puts things in a little perspective where I can sa, ‘I've worked hard in the last 50 years and it's all been worth it.’”

When asked about what he considers among his greatest accomplishments, a couple of things stand out vividly in his mind, including his days in New Grass Revival. “I tend to think that our influences within the four of us were so wide that is what set us apart. I had a love for Bob Marley for instance. Bela would bring in jazz. Pat Flynn brought in California songwriting and a country rock style. John brought the R&B vocals. The fusion of mine and John’s vocals, where I was sort of the straight man while John was fancy with our duets, it just made a fine blend. I think we had so [many] influences. The band was about our bluegrass instrumentation that had a wide appeal because of all our influences.”

Another highlight includes playing with Harris on her Grammy-winning 1991 Live at the Ryman album, which helped salvage the shut-down Nashville landmark. “Emmylou had started the band in 1990. After being on the road for a year, we turned into a pretty good outfit,” Bush recalls. “Emmy called and said, ‘I think we should make a live record…I think I'd like to do it at the Ryman Auditorium.’ I said, ‘I've heard that that building is condemned.’ [The former home of the Grand Ole Opry wasn’t renovated until 1994.] She said ‘Perfect.'

“At the time, it had to be an invitation-only audience. I don't think there were over 300 people there. There was maybe two working bathrooms there. The place was in shambles with holes in the ceiling. It was so great, because the sound of that room is part of the sound of the recording. We played a Bill Monroe tune called ‘Scotland’ and Emmylou was buck dancing a lot back then. Bill came out every night. Bill came out and danced with Emmy every night. That was in the video. It was truly a magical thing. I really believe that Emmylou Harris is responsible for the Ryman not being torn down.”

Seeing the lengthy list of his fellow artists praising him in the film can be a little “embarrassing,” he admits, but seeing the late Clark, who died in 2016, included is something that will forever be special.

“It's a sweet memory. It just puts a smile on my face -- seeing Guy on camera,” he says. “It was filmed in his basement where he loved to hang and write songs, build guitars and smoke cigarettes. We were working on songs and writing some of them in the film. It shows us cutting some of them as well. One of the songs that Guy and I did on the last record is called ‘Carcinoma Blues.’ We wrote it because we both had our bouts with cancer. When I see Guy, I think of the song we wrote. We don't mean for it even to be a sad song. It's not supposed to be. Looking at it now, Guy Clark still brings a smile to my face.”

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