Keynote Speaker Sam Bush

 Sam Bush set the mood for the 2010 World of Bluegrass giving the keynote Address on Monday night with reminisces of Bill Monroe.  As Sam noted many young players go back maybe as far as Sam or some of the other mid generation players and don’t remember the root of it all. A genre of music that began with one man.

Growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Sam was aware of Bill Monroe’s music through his parents and he could remember as a young boy, Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys rolling into town, not how it is now, the day would start with a Baseball game against a local pick up team, followed by jamming while the “venue” a big tent was set up for the nights festivities. Sam remembered being intrigued by the playing and the music that really cross genred mountain music with room for jazz style improvisation.  If you can play Bluegrass you can play anything.

Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys

Finally, when Sam was thirteen his family travelled down to Nashville to see the Grand Ole Opry. Bill Monroe and the band were not scheduled to perform but as the show was wrapping up Bill Monroe and band showed up instruments in hand ready to play and the show didn’t end for a while, in fact they brought the roof down. Sam was hooked, as he headed back up to his home in Kentucky he woodshedded many hours on the Mandolin as he also picked up the Fiddle.

He kept his keen interest in Bluegrass music from his teen friends, because after all it was the Sixties and it was only cool to be into rock and roll and not old time music. He went to the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest in Weiser, Idaho at the age of fifteen and he realized there were other Fiddle “geeks” like him.  It was at this time in his life that he had his first brush with the father of Bluegrass Music.  He was playing Mandolin during a jam when somebody went up to him and said “play somethin’ on this” and slipped a 1927 Gibson F5 into his hands. He had never played such a fine instrument. The person who lent him his instrument just happened to be David Grisman, a great player who would become a lifelong friend.  He noticed somebody peering over his shoulder and we glanced back he realized it was Bill Monroe. He dug in and played hard, Bill then said, “Keep playin’ that fiddle”. Sam said “I don’t know what he meant by that. Maybe he was needing a fiddle player in his band, but, it inspired me to be the best I could on that Mandolin.”

As he was increasing his ability on the Mandolin and Fiddle he got a call from the biggest Bluegrass group in Louisville, Kentucky, The Bluegrass Alliance.  The only problem was he was invited to join the band as a guitar player. He said sure and there he was in his first professional band as a guitar player.

Newgrass Revival

He was often encouraged as other musicians were by Bill Monroe to keep playing, at least until the big “shake-up” of 1971 when there were defections from one band to the next. The Bluegrass Alliance was not one to be left out. When all the members decided to fire Lonnie Peerce, he told him that they couldn’t do that because he owned the rights to the name The Bluegrass Alliance.  It turned out to be true so all the other members said in that case we quit. Sam and the others went on to form Newgrass Revival.

Unfortunately, through unproved rumors as well as the non- traditional long hair jam style they were not invited to be on Bill Monroe’s Festivals but performed on Bluegrass alternative festivals with forward thinkers such as The Country Gentlemen.  They were out to push the boundaries of traditional Bluegrass.

Things began to come full circle when Sam had a bout of cancer in the mid 80’s. While he was in the hospital, one night his wife answered the phone and quietly saying “yes Mr. Monroe.” when Sam realized who was on the phone he wanted to speak although horse and severely out of it.

Bill Monroe told him to beat the cancer he knew what it was like and Bill knew Sam could beat it. He also offered generously to perform at any benefits that were needed, which Bill did among others in the music business.

Later on, Sam performed with Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers.  While on the road, one day he heard some stuff going on at the front of the bus and rolled out of bed in nothing but cut off shorts with his long hair to find Emmylou talking with Bill at the front of the bus.  He felt it was typical, Bill was there when he least expected it.

One of the crowning moments of his career was when Emmylou wanted to record an album  live at The Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman was not in the greatest of shape in 1991, there were holes in the ceiling and in the floor; only about 300 people were allowed in at a time. He told Emmy Lou that they shouldn’t do the live album there that is was condemned Emmylou thought, hey only the better.  What a cool idea.

So the night came to perform and it was being videotaped for a live concert release and there was a part in the show where Emmylou had a guest to dance with her while the band performed. On this special occasion, they had invited Bill to dance with Emmylou which he graciously accepted.

After the “dance” The mobile recording truck was busy changing the big analog tapes which would take about ten minutes. One of the other band members said to Sam, “Why don’t you jam with Bill?” and there during the taping break, was Sam jamming with Bill Monroe on the stage of The Ryman. It was a moment that Sam had dreamt about all his life, something he had hoped for, but never thought possible. It was a moment etched forever.

It was the “olive branch” moment when Sam was welcomed back into Bill Monroe’s world.

Bela Fleck / Sam Bush

Finally, he talked about the death of Bill Monroe. He said there were two times in his life that he could remember exactly where he was, the death of Bobby Kennedy and the death of Bill Monroe. Interestingly enough, he was at the time playing with another genre stretching band, Bela Fleck and The Flecktones and The Flecktones on the fateful day of September 9th, 1996. Here was the man that began a type of music that influenced his life’s ambition from the time he was a little boy when The Bluegrass Boys’ tent “venue” rolled into town.

Sam has become a part of that legend, the growth of the genre known as bluegrass while forging ahead to find new ways to explore beyond Bill Monroe’s Legacy. Sam related the story of another Bluegrass Artist who wrote a song specifically with the style of Bill Monroe in mind. He finally had the opportunity to play it for Bill. Bill just said “it sounds great; now let’s see what you can do”.

Sam made a point that although there is tradition and structure to Bluegrass music that even Bill himself enjoyed what others could bring the table and how they could leave their mark on his legacy. Sam has continued the genre bending style that pushed the envelope with Newgrass Revival back in the early Seventies.

 He can play traditional with the best of them , in fact he is one of the best Mandolin players ever, a product of his Kentucky upbringing a bridge to the past, knowing Bill Monroe himself as the next generation were able to glean from his memory and understand the charisma of Bill Monroe, a Pioneer of a new style that is now bigger than it has ever been with national exposure and now being celebrated with the twentieth year of the IBMA World of Bluegrass that originally started with a few outdoor tents and now is hosted in Nashville filling the Convention Center.  

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN,