Sam Bush: A Simple Thing As Love

Sam Bush: A Simple Thing As Love

photo: Jeff Fasano


“This didn’t begin as an album project. It started out because I love John and I enjoy playing his songs,” Sam Bush says of his new release, Radio John: Songs of John Hartford. On Bush’s first album since 2016, the heralded musician, who turned 70 in 2022, performs nine Hartford originals—mostly by himself—on mandolin, fiddle, banjo, electric bass and acoustic guitar. The record then concludes with the title track, a tribute to Hartford that Bush wrote with John Pennell, featuring the Sam Bush Band.

In 2018, while Bush and his wife Lynn were spending some downtime on the Gulf Coast of Florida, he decided to work on some new material. Bush recalls, “Sometimes when I get stuck while I am trying to write a tune, I will turn to an old John Hartford song, just to play something that I enjoy. So I’ll pull out this lyrics book that Hartford gave me, scroll through them and think, ‘God, I love these songs, they’re so good.’”

 Bush was fresh out of high school in 1971 when he began his professional career as a member of the Bluegrass Alliance, which evolved into the pioneering New Grass Revival. During this era, he became a friend and cohort of Hartford, a musician’s musician, who was equally adept at fiddle and banjo.

Hartford may be best known for writing “Gentle on My Mind,” which became a hit for Glen Campbell but his 1971 album Aereo-Plain helped to blaze a trail for the trailblazers. Bush and Hartford would go on to record and perform together numerous times until Hartford’s untimely passing in 2001 at age 63, during a moment when he began to find a new generation of listeners through his contributions to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

Although Radio John took a couple of years to complete due to COVID considerations and some unrelated health complications, the Smithsonian Folkways release originated on Bush’s 2018 Gulf Coast sojourn. He explains, “On that same trip, the limits of my home-recording skills became woefully apparent. I mentioned this to my musician friend Donnie Sundal one night after we jammed together. The next day, he showed up at our house with a complete Pro Tools recording rig—mics, preamps, even an extra bass, that our friend Duke played when he was with Elvis. That was when this all came together and I realized that this could be a personal expression of how I feel about John and his music.”

On Radio John, you play acoustic guitar, electric bass, fiddle, banjo and mandolin. What was your first instrument growing up?

I started on mandolin at age 11. My mom and dad were farmers and amateur musicians. My dad played the fiddle and a little bit of mandolin. My mother tried to play like Mother Maybelle on guitar.

I became enamored with wanting a Gibson mandolin. So in December 1963, I had a hundred dollars savings bond that matured, and we put that toward a Gibson A-50. My parents contributed some money as well. When that mandolin came, I couldn’t put it down. I was ravenous to play it.

I think the first little line of melody that I ever learned was something I saw on TV. I saw Jim & Jesse [McReynolds] do “Dueling Banjos,” but they called it “Feudin’ Banjos.” I’d also seen Jesse play that on the mandolin.

We lived 60 miles from Nashville in Bowling Green, Ky., but my dad would climb onto the roof and get the antenna to where it would pick up Channel 4, WSM. On Saturday afternoons, usually starting around 4 p.m., a bunch of half-hour music shows would run. Ernest Tubb, Bill Anderson, Stu Phillips, The Wilburn Brothers, Porter Wagoner and Flatt and Scruggs—they all had shows. So I had the advantage of watching these great players and seeing their hands move. It was like watching teaching videos without anything slowed down. I remember when I first saw Bill Monroe on TV—seeing the classic bluegrass G chord that all mandolin players make. Even though I had a chord book that plainly showed that chord, it didn’t make sense. I couldn’t make that chord until I saw how Bill did it.

You were also an accomplished fiddle player who won a series of national titles as a teenager. At what point did you focus on that?

I picked up the fiddle around the age of 13. When I was in high school, I began going to Weiser, Idaho, for the National Fiddle Contest. I won’t claim that I was the best kid fiddler in America, but I won this contest, so I was called the National Junior Champion for a few years, from ages 15-17.

After I won that competition when I was 17, I realized that I didn’t know very much about the neck of the fiddle, so I took violin lessons from a professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Her name was Betty Pease and Mrs. Pease gave me an education. I went from being a champion fiddler to a beginner violinist. That was quite humbling. I’ll never forget that at the first lesson she said, “So you’re the fiddle champion? Play a scale for me.” As I played the scale, I thought I’d play a little vibrato and impress her. After I played the scale, she said, “Were you trying to vibrate there?” I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She said, “That sounds like a muscle spasm. We’re going to have to work on that a lot.” She changed the way I held the fiddle and the bow, although it never altogether took—I still hold the bow like a violin player, but I hold the fiddle like a fiddler.

Throughout my senior year of high school, I took violin lessons and thought that maybe I’d go to college and play violin. Mrs. Pease helped me get a partial scholarship if I wanted to go to Western.

Instead, you began a professional music career. Is that something you’d always envisioned?

That’s what I would dream about. I actually left home the day after graduating from high school and headed to California with another person. I was convinced that I was going to join The Byrds. I wanted to join The Byrds because Clarence White was in The Byrds at that time. The Dillards also were on the West Coast, and Doug Dillard had a band. Byron Berline, who I knew from the fiddle contest, was also out there.

Fortunately, by the time I got to Las Vegas, I totally chickened out. [Laughs.] I went back to Kentucky and I’d done the right thing. There’s no telling what would’ve happened to me in California.

But right before I was about to register for college, two guys from the band the Bluegrass Alliance walked into the Holiday Inn, where I was working as a busboy, and asked me if I’d like to move to Louisville, and start playing guitar in the band five nights a week. That was a big ol’ “Hell yeah!”

So I didn’t end up going to college after all. I moved 120 miles north to Louisville and I started playing guitar in the Bluegrass Alliance. I took Dan Crary’s place. But within a month, we met Tony Rice at a festival in Reidsville, N.C. Tony joined the band and I was able to switch to mandolin, which was a much better arrangement.

How did they find you and how long had you been playing guitar at that point?

Around the time I got my Gibson mandolin, one of my older sisters got a Gibson guitar. I was not allowed to touch that guitar, but when she went to work, I’d play it a bit and she did not take kindly to that. After getting caught a couple of times, I realized that she couldn’t tune her second string very well. So when I’d get through playing her guitar at the end of each session, I’d untune the second string and I wouldn’t get caught. [Laughs.] So somewhere along the line, I started playing guitar and I even played electric guitar in high-school rock bands.

But backtracking to when I first went to Weiser, Idaho, there were a couple of fiddlers from up in the Louisville area—who were my parents’ age—that my dad knew a little bit. One of them was Lonnie Peerce, who was the fiddler in the Bluegrass Alliance. Lonnie was very helpful to me when I was learning fiddle. He helped me get better fiddles and told me who I should be listening to, in terms of Benny Thomasson, Texas Shorty or Howdy Forrester. Lonnie knew I could play guitar, mandolin, fiddle and some banjo. As a matter of fact, when I was a senior in high school and really up on my upright bass playing, Lonnie made an album called Lonnie Peerce’s Golden Fiddle Tones, and I played upright bass.

So when they needed a guitar player, they came and got me.

Moving to John Hartford, when did you first discover his music?

I mentioned how certain Grand Ole Opry performers had their own TV shows that I watched while I was growing up. Well, I’m pretty sure it was The Wilburn Brothers Show where, one day, I saw a guy singing and playing the banjo as he sang. I’d seen Grandpa Jones and Stringbean, who played a more frailing banjo, but Hartford was playing a three-finger Earl Scruggs-style banjo while he’d sing. I’d never seen anybody do that, but I didn’t catch his name.

A few weeks later, my dad and I were in Nashville and we went to the Grand Ole Opry and then to the Ernest Tubb record shop. As I was rifling through the records, I said, “There’s that guy I saw on The Wilburn Brothers Show. His name is John Hartford.” So I bought Earthwords & Music. That album had “Gentle on My Mind” on it and also “No End of Love,” which I did on Radio John. So now I was very aware of him and each time we’d go to Nashville, I tried to pick up another John Hartford record that I hadn’t seen before.

I got really into John’s RCA records and then all of a sudden the Smothers Brothers had a summer replacement show, called the Summer Brothers Smother Show. Glen Campbell got that TV show [which would later evolve into The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour], and he’d had the hit with “Gentle on My Mind.” So now there’s Hartford on TV and he started the show. [Each episode began with Hartford standing up from a spot in the audience, playing the opening to “Gentle on My Mind.”] That show also had a picking segment in the middle where John and Glen would just sit and play—maybe a bass player would play along with them.

I had a TV in my room with a jack on it, so I would record all sorts of music. That’s how I’d get songs when I was a kid. One night, they played “Great Balls of Fire” in a bluegrass style, so it’s no accident that on the first New Grass Revival record, we did “Great Balls of Fire” in a bluegrass style. I learned it from watching Hartford and Glen play it on TV and the solo John played on it that night is almost exactly what Courtney Johnson played on the record.

John was very influential to us. In Bluegrass Alliance, when Tony, Lonnie Peerce and I were singing trios, we tried working up a couple different John Hartford songs, like “The Tall Tall Grass.” On all his early RCA stuff, the accent was on songwriting.

Can you recall the first time you saw him perform in person?

His last record for RCA was called Iron Mountain Depot. I got to see him with the Iron Mountain Depot Band when he came to Western Kentucky University. I was a senior in high school and it was a Friday night, so I had to march at halftime [on bass drum]. After the football game, it was just killing me because I knew Hartford was about to start over at Diddle Arena. It rained and I had mud all over me, but I went to the Diddle Arena show in my band uniform because I couldn’t miss any part of the show.

That group was called the Iron Mountain Depot Band. John was on banjo, guitar and fiddle. A guy was playing 12-string rhythm guitar—I think it was Terry Paul. He also had a drummer and a keyboard player, who played piano bass.

That was the first time I saw John, and it’s kind of what his record sounded like. But on Iron Mountain Depot, you could also hear where he was experimenting— trying longer tunes and extended solos. He did a banjo instrumental version of “Hey Jude.” So he was trying some different things and he also was going a little more acoustic.

When did you finally meet him?

His next record was Aereo-Plain. I didn’t know what was going on, but I heard that Vassar Clements was playing with John. I had met Vassar when I was teenager. I also heard that he was playing with Norman Blake.

I saw John when he was a guest on The Johnny Cash Show in the ‘60s, and they did a bluegrass segment with Norman Blake. I didn’t know that Norman Blake was a staff musician and played on many of Johnny’s records. But here was a guy with a Gibson F-5 mandolin and Johnny Cash said, “Kick it off Norman.” Then, with their low voices, Cash and Hartford did “Mule Skinner Blues.”

Now cut to 1971. I was in the Bluegrass Alliance and we were invited to play at Bill Monroe’s Beam Blossom Music Festival. Bill had also booked John Hartford and what we called the Aereo=Plain band. They didn’t carry a bass on the road, so it was John, Norman, Vassar and Tut Taylor. The actual name of the band was the Dobrolic Plectral Society because Tut Taylor played with a flat pick on the Dobro. Tut was a sign painter as well and he made all these beautiful logos on their cases. It was cool if you had a Dobrolic Plectral Society case.

We met earlier in the afternoon and I was pretty thrilled. Then, later that night after their set—it was unreal how good it was—we ended up having a jam around somebody’s campsite for about two hours. That’s when I realized, “Man, this Hartford guy loves to jam.” That would be a reoccurring theme. As long as he lived, I never met anyone that loved to pick or jam more than John.

I’ve heard that he hosted multi-day jams at his house and that you were one of the participants. How would you describe that experience?

I went to quite a few of those. They often fell around New Year’s Eve or the Christmas holiday. It would be about a three-day running jam and there’d be jam sessions all over the house. It wasn’t just one group of pickers. There’d be so many pickers there that they’d split off into different rooms. Sometimes John would play three or four songs in one jam, and then he’d go to the next room and play with another group of people on either banjo or fiddle.

John knew all kinds of people, so it was quite a combination of young pickers and masters of their craft. Charlie Collins, one of the greatest rhythm-guitar players of all time—who played with Roy Acuff—would usually be there. When the McCourys moved to town they would be there. Vassar would be there. Earl Scruggs would come—John and Earl were good friends, so it would always be a highlight for everyone when Earl came in. Bashful Brother Oswald would be there jamming. Grandpa Jones, Mac Wiseman and Johnny Russell would be there. Shel Silverstein might be over in the corner.

The jams would usually stop at 3 or 4 a.m. and get back up and running by 9 or 10 a.m. I think some people just passed out but we lived in Nashville, so I’d go home and then come back.

photo: Lynn Bush

The Bluegrass Alliance evolved into New Grass Revival. A couple of years ago, when you recorded a track for the MusicCares album On the Road: A Tribute to John Hartford, you said that without Aereo-Plain there would be no newgrass music. Can you elaborate on that?

By the time that we started New Grass Revival in ‘71, we’d already been jamming with John, Vassar and Norman here and there.

We would travel around in a ‘63 Chevy station wagon, and we had a little portable Norelco cassette player up on the dashboard. We had a cassette, and on one side, was John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain and on the other side was Leon Russell and the Shelter People. Those were the two records we listened to as we went down the road.

Aereo-Plain combined the sensibilities of bluegrass timing and the bluegrass approach with John’s contemporary songs. He was one of the most masterful songwriters in America. The marriage of the songs and John’s arrangements with the playing by Vassar, Tut, Norman and John was outstanding.

People credit New Grass Revival with being one of the leaders of the progressive bluegrass movement but we were directly influenced by the Aereo-Plain album.

You originally recorded a number of the compositions on this new album with John Hartford during the mid ‘70s. How did that initially come to pass?

When the Aereo-Plain band started to go their separate ways, Tut was the first to leave and ask if I wanted to replace him. Tut managed John for a short while and John wanted me to join. I thought about it, but it just wasn’t the right time. We had started the New Grass Revival like six months earlier, and I was so in love with my brothers in the band— especially Courtney Johnson, as I’d been playing with him on and off since I was like 15.

But New Grass Revival eventually had the same manager and booking agent as John, so we ended up doing quite a lot of shows together on the road, starting in ‘73. Through all that, John would show us some new songs that he had done. I remember when he came in with “Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown,” we said to each other, “OK, he’s totally lost his mind now.” [Laughs.]

After he had fulfilled his Warner Bros. obligations, he wanted to go to a smaller label, so he went to Flying Fish. Mike Melford was the producer on Nobody Knows What You Do, All in the Name of Love and Mark Twang. John wanted to have a Nashville-style rhythm section featuring acoustic bluegrass people. So me and Benny Martin were on Nobody Knows What You Do, but he also had Buddy Emmons and then either David Briggs or Pig Robbins on piano.

We would have a nine or 10-piece band in the studio and just play one take. We’d fix mistakes, but it was pretty much done live. That’s what people call old-time Nashville style, where you have all the musicians, the singer sings and, boom, you’re done.

Getting to sing and play on “In Tall Buildings,” when he cut that one, was pretty spiritual.

I’ve always been intrigued by “John McLaughlin,” which is one of the songs you selected from Nobody Knows What You Do. Do you know what prompted him to write it?

When New Grass Revival toured with John in ‘73, he was now a solo performer. He was carrying a banjo, fiddle, guitar and a one-shoulder bag full of clothes. At first, John would fly to each gig while we drove. Then after two weeks of shows together, he said, “Hey, can I just ride with you guys? I don’t want to fly by myself.” We were honored to have John ride with us. He’d take a turn driving and he also brought a cassette with him—we listened to Birds of Fire by the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

John was a total fan of McLaughlin and also Jan Hammer on synthesizers. So we’d listen to McLaughlin things together, and every once in a while, he’d go, “I think this is what he’s doing on that.” So John figured it out, and he called the tune “John McLaughlin” because they were figures like John McLaughlin would play. I always thought it was funny to call the song “John McLaughlin” but he said that was the best title for it.

You’re on banjo throughout Radio John. In the liner notes, you thank Béla Fleck for loaning you one of John’s banjos. Didn’t Béla once have you play banjo on an album he was producing?

Before Béla joined New Grass Revival, the banjo player was Courtney Johnson, who would drive his own camper. We’d be on the road and, every day, I’d get up at the motel and go out to Courtney’s camper. He made the world’s strongest coffee, so we’d sit, drink this coffee and play banjo and guitar together—starting out with me on guitar. Then we’d switch.

When Béla joined the group [replacing Johnson], we lost the camper but Béla and I would sit around and play a little bit. We didn’t play as much as Courtney and I had done, but we did it enough that Béla was aware that I knew the rules of Scruggs playing. He was producing a Blaine Sprouse album, and there were a couple of tunes where Béla wanted to sit in the control room and listen. So he asked me to play banjo because he thought I sounded more like [J.D.] Crowe. I’m not sure I agree with him, but that’s what happened. [Laughs.]

When we recorded this album, Béla loaned me a couple of low-tuned banjos to play like John Hartford would. He loaned us John Hartford’s personal low-tuned D banjo but I didn’t have enough finesse with my right hand to play it. However, when the Sam Bush Band recorded “Radio John”—which was the first tune that Wes Corbett recorded with us—he played John’s banjo, which was pretty neat.

Of the nine John Hartford compositions on Radio John, is there one in particular that you felt might have fallen through the cracks if you didn’t bring it to people’s attention?

All these songs make me feel something. Any song I work up, that’s the criteria— does it make me feel something?

“In Tall Buildings” resonates with me a lot as a country boy. I haven’t done office work in tall buildings, but I’ve gone to tall buildings for music meetings. So figuratively speaking, I’ve gone to work in tall buildings.

“Morning Bugle” brought me great comfort when I was a kid. In 1972, New Grass Revival was playing Thanksgiving weekend in Savannah, Ga. We had Thanksgiving night off, and it was the first time that I didn’t go to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. So I was looking out at Savannah Beach, feeling kind of lonesome. I went back to my room and I had my reel-to-reel tape recorder that I carried on the road and I had the tape of the Morning Bugle album. I hadn’t paid any attention to that song until that day and it even talks about Thanksgiving.

But the one that a lot of people haven’t heard is “A Simple Thing as Love.” It’s such a well-written love song. Some people interpret it as a breakup song but that’s not the way that I see it at all. I see it as you’re together, but she has to go. John says, “Without you, I’m a child who sucks the vacant thumb of emptiness left crying when he has not had enough.” My response is: “Where’d you come up with that one?” He was at the height of his descriptive powers in that period of his songwriting. That song just slays me.

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