Mandolin Player Extraordinaire Sam Bush Scales New Heights

Besides touring with Lyle Lovett this summer, New Grass Revival co-founder's got a new live disc out.

Fun and excitement have always been part of mandolinist Sam Bush's playing.

An original member of the groundbreaking bluegrass innovators New Grass Revival, he's currently touring in Lyle Lovett's band and just released Ice Caps: The Peaks of Telluride, documenting a decade of appearances at the famed Colorado acoustic-music festival.

Bush was born in Bowling Green, Ky., and grew up listening to Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns. An enthusiastic explorer of all forms of music, the bluegrass-rooted Bush is particularly happy about the Ice Caps project.

"It was a labor of love, really," he said after a recent Lovett show at the Backyard in Austin, Texas. "That was a really good circle of communication we had going with the audience out there, and that's really a wonderful feeling to have on tape."

On it are blazing original instrumentals such as "Spooky Lane" and "The Ice Caps Are Melting," along with covers including John Hiatt's "Memphis in the Meantime" and Bob Dylan's "Girl of the North Country," which let Bush show off his singing skills as well as his instrumental chops.

'All Over The Map'

The disc includes pieces that range from a cover of bluegrass godfather Monroe's "Big Mon" (RealAudio excerpt) to an extended jam with banjo player Béla Fleck and guitarist Jon Randall on Kool and the Gang's "Celebrate," which takes off into the Bush original "Stingray" (RealAudio excerpt).

"On my studio albums, I try to stay more in one vein of music," Bush said. "But on this one, it was all over the map. The other night I was talking about it with my wife, Lynn, who co-produced. We said that what we had wanted to do, the bottom line, was just to share the fun and excitement we always have playing on the Telluride stage."

In his appearances with Lovett these days, Bush sings harmony and plays fiddle and mandolin. "And it has been hot," he said.

He was talking about the weather, but that could also describe the musicianship of the ace picker, whose credits also include playing with Emmylou Harris' Nash Ramblers, sitting in on sessions with Linda Ronstadt and Ringo Starr, and appearing on this year's Grammy Awards show with Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall and Joshua Bell to play their classical crossover piece "Short Trip Home."

Meyer got Bush involved in that classical crossover project about two years ago, "and I told him he stretched my country pickin' about as far as it could go," Bush said, laughing. "Really, it's a measure of Edgar's musicianship that he wrote pieces that would challenge me, but were not beyond what I could do." The Sony-released album Short Trip Home was nominated for a Grammy.

Rock 'N' Roll Revival

Bush was 19 when he got the idea to start New Grass Revival, a band that would change the face of contemporary bluegrass. "We were just looking for a way to stretch out on our instruments, maybe make a different kind of music. We were jamming a lot, doing extended solos, which wasn't that common in bluegrass music at the time," he said.

"We'd learn rock 'n' roll songs and play them on our bluegrass instruments at first, and then we started writing a lot of our own material," Bush said.

The group, which at one time counted bassist and singer John Cowan, banjo wizard Fleck and acoustic guitarist Pat Flynn among its members, toured with Leon Russell in the early '80s and played rock and country festivals, recording songs that showcased its tight harmonies and driving instrumental fusion.

"Callin' Baton Rouge," for example, was a chart favorite as well as a hit country video for the group. When Fleck and Cowan decided to leave, Bush, the sole remaining original member, dissolved the band and hooked up a stint backing Harris. Always in demand as a session player, he has worked on projects with Alison Brown, former bandmates Fleck and Cowan, and Dolly Parton.

Are there other side projects in his future?

"David Grisman and I played our first two-man show ever just a couple of weeks ago at Rocky Grass, and we had a ball!" Bush said. "We've been talking about doing an album together for almost 20 years, and we had such a good time, maybe we'll get around to doing that."