by Lee Zimmerman
It’s a major achievement to have one’s life documented and shared with celebration, and when it comes to Sam Bush, an award-winning singer, songwriter, fiddler, mandolin player, bandleader, and jam enthusiast extraordinaire, the recognition is well deserved.
A new documentary, released via Amazon Prime Video in November and titled, appropriately, Revival: The Sam Bush Story, details the career of an artist many consider a pioneer in the evolution of bluegrass. Call his music nu-grass, grassicana, or simply another panel in the Americana umbrella, but Bush helped originate a new sound in bluegrass, first with his seminal outfit the New Grass Revival (a supergroup of sorts whose membership also included other pioneers of the genre such as Bela Fleck and John Cowan), and later as a sideman to such superstars as Emmylou Harris, Leon Russell, and Lyle Lovett.
Four awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association as its Mandolin Player of the Year, Lifetime Achievement honors from the Americana Music Association, a slew of Grammy nominations and seven solo albums later, Bush is rightfully considered one of modern bluegrass’ most essential operatives, underscored by the fact that his appearances at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Merlefest, and numerous other populist playing grounds have made him a familiar presence with fans and fellow musicians alike.
“It is kind of like being at your own wake,” Bush reflects when asked what it’s like seeing himself immortalized on film. “It’s a strange sensation. Sitting in the theater watching it with some of the other people that were in the film was like ‘wow, this feels odd.’”
Revival is a tribute to Bush’s talent and tenacity. The film is filled with the usual abundance of all-star accolades from colleagues, associates and those on whom he’s had a profound influence — Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe, Guy Clark, members of the Avett Brothers and Steep Canyon Rangers, the Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile, Alison Krauss, John Oates, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna, among the many. As expected, they’re effusive in their praise, but most times, their comments have as much to do with how Bush helped their own careers progress as they do with Bush’s own accomplishments.
“The film first saw the light of day on the film festival circuit in 2015, so we’ve had a little time to get used to the idea of it,” Bush says. “Even at that, it was kind of startling when it was released on Amazon, and thinking, ‘Well, now anybody can see it if they want to.’ It’s gratifying to see your pals talking about you like that.”
The documentary covers all Bush’s basics — from his childhood in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to his early aspiration to be a prize-winning fiddle player, and on to his initial triumph in the junior division of the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest. The film follows him as he gains the admiration of industry legend Roy Acuff and, astonishingly, turns down an offer to join Acuff’s band. It then follows Bush as he eschews the trappings of tradition and opts instead to follow the route taken by previous pioneers such as the Dillards, the Osborne Brothers, and others who created a seismic shift with early contemporary country crossovers.
Thile, in one of the film’s more telling interviews, details that fateful decision. He relates how many pundits thought Bush was fated to become the next Bill Monroe by virtue of his burgeoning fiddle and mandolin skills.
“He had the guys and the vision to say, ‘No. I’m going to be the first Sam Bush,’” Thile says.
“I’ve been doing this for 48 years,” Bush reflects. “So some of these things seemed kind of normal to me. But I’ve had people come up to us and say, ‘Really, that happened?’ There’s a line in one of my songs, ‘Circles Around Me’ that goes, ‘The deafening sounds of all this love falling down on me.’ That’s what it feels like.”
Bush gained the opportunity to establish his own stance when he joined an early band, the Bluegrass Alliance, and then transitioned to New Grass Revival and later, Emmylou Harris’s Nash Ramblers, before opting to go out on his own. That’s when Bush’s life — and the film — take a dramatic turn when Bush battles testicular cancer. He gets emotional recalling that dire period, but his display of gratitude to those who stood by him and lent their support is affecting.
“We were wishing that it could have been a more private moment, but we didn’t have any money because we were so broke,” Bush recalls. “Our friends, many of the people you see in this documentary, were the ones that were playing benefits and raising money to help me get through this. You had this attention and love thrown your way, and it really was part of the recovery process — the spiritual part, especially, and the love that comes from friends that come to your aid. They’re kind of doing it again, but this time they’re not saving me from a disease. So that’s pretty great.”
Naturally, the performance footage is especially revealing, given that the energy, exuberance, and joy Bush displays in concert best represent what this artist is all about. Consequently, Revival becomes a love letter to a performer with a genuine sense of humility, a quality that likens him to an Everyman, albeit of a stellar stature.
“The bottom line is that it doesn’t make me play or sing any better,” Bush says. “If it did, that would be great. I don’t want to sound flippant. Believe me, I appreciate what my friends have said. But I’ve always felt like all audiences are equal, and I’m only as good as what I can play onstage. Once I’ve done the show, the next challenge is to keep playing well for the next.”