When Guy Clark wanted to record “Picasso’s Mandolin” in 1992, he knew just what to cast in the title role — the 1937 Gibson F-5 belonging to Sam Bush, the world’s foremost cubist mandolinist. Who else was he going to pick? David Grisman, after all, is a fauvist, Ricky Skaggs an impressionist, Bill Monroe an old master.
“You can play it straight or from left field,” Clark sang on Boats To Build; “You got to play it just the way you feel. Come on, boys, play it again; play it on Picasso’s mandolin.” After the second chorus, Bush demonstrated exactly what a cubist mandolin solo sounds like. It begins with a percussive chop, then curlicue phrases appear between the chops. The curlicues unwind into long single-note lines that dance through a scale, shift to an unexpected chord, and spiral upward into a dizzying phrase before collapsing back into that heartbeat down-stroke.
“Guy told me, ‘This song is custom made for you,’” Bush recalls. “I said, ‘Can I try some slide on it?’ He said, ‘What?’ Then, you know Guy, he gave me that look of his and said, ‘Sure, knock yourself out.’ I tried to come up with random licks that you might not expect to hear with that melody.”
Just as Pablo Picasso could reveal every aspect of a mandolin by painting the front, sides and back at once, so can Bush show his instrument’s every angle in a single solo. You hear the frisky aggression of rock ‘n’ roll, the harmonic ambition of jazz, and a hint of reggae. But most of all, you hear the foundation of bluegrass and old-time country music beneath it all.
As the only person to play in New Grass Revival for all 18 years of its existence; as the key soloist in Emmylou Harris & the Nash Ramblers for five years; as a charter member of such legendary new-acoustic groups as Strength In Numbers, Short Trip Home and Crucial Country; as the guy who produced Alison Krauss’ first single and Chris Thile’s second solo album; as a session pro who has played on hit records by Garth Brooks and Alabama; as a fixture at every single Merlefest and at every Telluride Festival but one; as the featured guest on tours by Bela Fleck and Lyle Lovett; as half of the Sam & Dave (Grisman) duo on last year’s Hold On, We’re Strummin’ album; and as a flourishing solo artist with a new album, King Of My World (released April 13 on Sugar Hill), Bush has reinvented string-band music just as surely as Picasso reinvented painting.
Crucial Country, to take one example, was a quintet of Bush, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, Roy Huskey Jr. and Larry Atamanuik that played every Thursday night at Nashville’s Station Inn in the early ’90s. They never recorded under that name, but it was a chance for them to play their favorite blues and reggae songs in a string-band format. On one of their rare forays outside Tennessee, Crucial Country came to Virginia’s Barns of Wolf Trap in early 1993. The show featured a bunch of Rowan’s songs and climaxed with a pair of Bob Marley tunes. But the highpoint was when Bush took over the microphone for a wild medley of Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes”, Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”.
It began with just two musicians onstage — Bush as a one-man rhythm section on mandolin and Douglas as a one-man guitar army on dobro — and they hit the song as hard as Little Feat had. As they segued into the blues tunes, Huskey and Atamanuik reappeared, freeing Douglas to play Johnson’s slide-guitar phrases and Bush to play the fast, high-pitched, single-note phrases. Returning to the original tune, the tall, gangly Bush cried out, “Put on your sailin’ shoes!” as he rocked back and forth on his heels, his wavy red hair dancing across his shoulders, his widened eyes gleaming with glee, and his red beard and mustache twitching with mischief. He was wearing a Picasso T-shirt.
Like Bill Monroe, Sam Bush grew up on a western Kentucky farm. But while Monroe was born in 1911, Bush was born in 1952, and that made all the difference. Charlie and Henrietta Bush raised tobacco, hogs, milk cows and beef cattle on 330 acres outside Bowling Green. Sam lived so far from other kids his own age that arranging a visit was a major project. On the other hand, the Bushes had a television and a phonograph, and the records included not only Charlie’s country albums but also the Beatles and Rolling Stones 45s belonging to Sam’s older sisters, Clare and Janet.
For Monroe, old-time string-band music was not something he chose so much as something he was born into. If you were going to be a musician in Rosine, Kentucky, in the 1920s, that’s what you played. For Bush, by contrast, string-band music was just one offering on an extensive cultural menu that came pouring into his home through the TV, the radio and the stereo. He may have chosen bluegrass as the main dish, but he picked rock ‘n’ roll as an appetizer, singer-songwriter folk as a side dish, and jazz for dessert.
Bowling Green is close enough to pick up Nashville TV signals, and young Sam used to watch the country music shows whenever he could. One Saturday evening, 10-year-old Sammy was watching “The Flatt & Scruggs Show”. Lester Flatt was speaking when a little hand reached up and tugged him on the sleeve. The camera panned down and there was an 8-year-old Ricky Skaggs. Flatt says, “Whaddya want?” And Ricky replies, “I wanna pick.”
“They didn’t have boom mike stands in those days,” Bush explains, “so Ricky had to scramble up on top of two or three Coke boxes. He sang ‘Ruby’ by the Osborne Brothers, and he played the hell out of it. I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen, this little kid playing the mandolin. I said, ‘Hey, that looks like fun. I want to do that too.’”
There was plenty of music in the Bush house. Charlie was an accomplished old-time fiddler, and Henrietta often accompanied him on rhythm guitar. Older sisters Clare and Janet were folk singers in the mode of Joan Baez and Mary Travers (Sam and Janet later performed a bit as the Folkswingers; “We were like one of those groups in A Mighty Wind,” Sam remembers, “only not as good.”). But Sam had his heart set on a mandolin like those played by Bill Monroe, Jesse McReynolds and little Ricky Skaggs on television. When Sam was 11, his parents supplemented his $100 of savings and bought him a Gibson A-50.