Sam Bush doesn’t seem old enough to be a musical legend. And he’s not. But he is. In September, the Americana Music Association with its Lifetime Achievement for Instrumentalist award will honor Bush, who is alternately known as the King of Telluride and the King of Newgrass. "It’s overwhelming and humbling," says Bush of the honor. "It goes along with the title cut of my new album, Circles Around Me, which basically says, how in the hell did we get this far? In my brain I’m still 17, but I look in the mirror and I’m 57."
Circles Around Me, Bush’s seventh solo album and sixth with Sugar Hill, will be released Oct. 20. The album is an aurally inspiring mix of bluegrass favorites and complementary new songs. "I don’t know why, but it felt right at this moment in my life to go back and revisit some things that I’ve loved all my life, which is bluegrass and, unapologetically, newgrass," says Bush. "After all these years of experimenting –and there’s experimentation on this record too –I’ve come full circle."
Produced by three-time Grammy winner Bush, the 14-song set includes appearances by Del McCoury, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas and New Grass Revival co-founder Courtney Johnson (posthumously). The album also employs the phenomenal talent of Bush’s band: Scott Vestal, Stephen Mougin, Byron House and Chris Brown.
The title cut, which Bush co-wrote with Jeff Black, "is about being thankful that you’re still here, that you’re still alive walking around," Bush explains. "Why are we the ones still here when we’ve had fallen comrades and loved ones?"
"The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle," which Bush co-wrote with Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson, is the haunting real-life story of the 1973 murder of Grand Ole Opry star David "Stringbean" Akeman and his wife.
Courtney Johnson, who passed in 1996, was reunited with Bush on the album thanks to New Grass Revival producer Garth Fundis, who found a previously unreleased recording with Bush and Johnson’s fiddle and banjo recording of "Apple Blossom" from 1976. The tape was restored and new parts were added. "It’s pretty special and it means a lot to me," Bush says. "It reminds me how much I loved Courtney’s playing."
Meanwhile, "Souvenir Bottles" and "Whisper My Name" are fine updates of songs Bush first recorded in his New Grass Revival days. "I guess I’m proud that I can still sing it in the key that we first cut it in," Bush says of "Whisper," which was on New Grass Revival’s 1972 debut album.
McCoury, whom Bush has known since the mid-60s, guests on two Bill Monroe songs, "Roll On Buddy, Roll On" and "Midnight On The Stormy Deep." "Del always encouraged me to sing," Bush says. "So I wanted to do these songs with him. ‘Roll On’ is one of the few songs Del ever recorded with Bill."
Songs such as "Diamond Joe" and "You Left Me Alone" have roots in Bush’s youth. The latter was on an album by the Country Gentlemen that Bush bought in the ’60s. "It’s a great 6/8 fast waltz tune and I am almost quoting John Duffey’s mandolin playing note for note," he says. "It’s a great tune and I never heard anyone else do it."
The Bush-penned "Old North Woods" is a "Bill Monroe-sounding waltz," according to Bush, that features Meyer, his wife, Cornelia Heard of the Blair String Quartet, and their 16 year old son, George, in his recording debut.
There’s plenty more of course and Bush fans new and old will find plenty to love. "It’s crazy to think about," Bush says of his influence on today’s crop of mandolin players.
"I’m proud to be part of a natural progression in music. But I hope to still be playing 30 years from now."