I had all plans to start a series today about the writer journey, but I was so inspired by MerleFest, I decided to wait a week. Look for that next Monday. It will be a run-up to an announcement about my book, which after all these years is now very close.
Today I’m gonna tell you about Sam Bush. For those of you who don’t already know, Sam is the number one rocking mandolinist in the world.
I first saw Sam years ago with Newgrass Revival at a club called Green Acres. Green Acres was way out in the country. The closest town was Bostic, N.C. and it was not easy to find. I got there because a patient told me about a guy named Rocko. I never knew his real name. The deal was he’d drive you there while he was sober if you’d agree to drive him back home after the show. At age twelve he’d driven the gas truck to deliver fuel oil for his father’s business, so he knew every pig path out there.
“The sheriff don’t even know this road,” he say. “Never did get caught for no license or DUI either one.”
I’m not sure you can even get to Green Acres in the daylight. We followed moonlit moonshiner back roads by old abandoned school houses and still occupied graveyards. I went several times before I was sure I could find my way back alone. When we got there it was dim lights and thick smoke. Some of the chairs were long benches like church pews and others were old movie house seats salvaged when the local theater burned down. We stood in the back in the event of fire. A fellow named “Little King” came up to greet us. He was slightly rotund, and had a long white beard that woulda made Santa Clause proud.
As it turned out “King” was the local Health Department director. He was a solid honest man, but I promise you all the society people didn’t know what to make of him because he spent his money bringing new acoustic music acts to town instead of paying country club dues. We’d never heard of most of the bands he brought in, but they were all good. The first great one that came through was Newgrass, and Sam Bush was the mandolin player.
It was a Halloween masquerade party. Sam was dressed up like a pirate and had a patch over one eye and some kinda peg leg. I recall Bela went as Bela and was dressed in the standard checked shirt he wore in those days. Pat Flynn was red hot on the guitar and we’d never heard anyone sing like this Cowan guy they brought. I went as Dr. B with a stethoscope around my neck. (If you believe your doctor should be boring I’ll do.)
The crowd hoisted some fellow overhead who had on a turban and a white robe. Everyone shouted “Bagwan, Bagwan, Bagwan,” to the top of their lungs as they passed him around the crowd. It was my first time to hear Newgrass and it changed my life. I think they did “White Freightliner” ’cause we learned it right about then.
Years later I stood in line at Merlefest to get Sam to sign a pack of strings. (I still have the autograph) “I ain’t gonna bother you man,” I said, “but I gotta ask, this is a bigger gig than Green Acres, huh?”
He smiled and nodded. I moved on. There were hundreds who wanted to speak to him, and he looked tuckered to me.
In the mid 90s, I ran into Sam at one of Butch Baldassarri’s workshops. We thought we could play a little, but when Sam cranked up I put mine in the case, latched it up, and listened. He filled up the room with music all by himself. Recently at Merlefest Mandomania Sam said you can learn something from every mandolin picker you hear. I sure did learn a lot back then. For one thing I learned I’d better hold onto to my stethoscope, this guy was good!
Another time Sam was at a local radio station and my friends called me to come over at lunch. He let me play his old Gibson, (Hoss) which is even more weathered in person than it looks in pictures or on T.V. The case was about to fall apart. He toted a Goldrush mandolin that day too. I was at work on “Brilliancy” at the time. I played a few bars. Sam looked over my shoulder and flashed that crooked grin and look of surprise he gets as if to say he was gonna “steal” a lick from me.
“Shut up man,” I said. He laughed out loud. If you are against a good time, don’t hang out with Sam Bush. He’s gonna have fun.
Nowadays Sam plays to sixty thousand people as a headliner at MerleFest, but I want to tell you I don’t think Sam Bush has changed except he is a deeper artist than ever. Every time I have seen the man play a show he has gone all out to give his best. I admire that. There are days when I feel bad, but I try not to show it to my patients. They are owed my best every time. I bet Sam sees it the same way.
So now you understand why I was so appreciative of him this weekend. There were dozens of people tugging at him backstage, but he took the time to sign “The People’s Mandolin” and had a photo-op with it and all the players on Mandomania.
So, I want you to come away with this for today. Sam Bush is pure acoustic music enthusiasm without fail. Go see him and buy a CD; he is a true artist who gives his best be it the old times at Green Acres or nowadays at MerleFest.
I know one thing. If the man can make me forget my troubles for a few hours and get an old button-down shirt doc to howl at the moon he’s a powerful entertainer. Y’all check him out. Here’s his website: