Hog Days Preview: An Interview with Sam Bush August 19, 2022 11:50

Photos via Sam Bush

Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen

My hometown of Montgomery, Alabama is not traditionally known as a major hub for live music. Most of your local music fanatics would attest that you're typically going to be driving up I-65 to Birmingham or I-85 to Atlanta in order to catch your favorite bands on tour. When I decided to launch Live & Listen in 2014, this was a major source of motivation. You were starting to see a new wave of likeminded, progressive locals working together to bring new and exciting events to Montgomery, and that was something I wanted to be a part of. 

Early on in 2017, I was introduced to a group of guys (Druids Charity Club) working to start an annual music and BBQ festival. It took no time at all to realize that the Druids team was serious about bringing something major to Montgomery. The event would ultimately be known as Hog Days of Summer, which raises thousands of dollars annually for pediatric cancer. They've successfully rounded up the River Region's top BBQ connoisseurs and a top notch event production company to produce one of Montgomery's most anticipated annual events at the Union Station Train Shed. The entire community seems to have embraced Hog Days from day one, which has been a beautiful process to watch unfold. 

In just a few years, Hog Days has already featured the likes of Robert Earl Keen, North Mississippi Allstars, The Band of Heathens, and Jupiter Coyote. They've managed to outdo themselves once again this year, with a lineup featuring Sam Bush Band, Anders Osborne, Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, Ally Venable Band, Ben Prestage, and Ms. Aretta Woodruff. The family-friendly festival is scheduled for Saturday, August 27th in downtown Montgomery.

In preparation for next weekend, we sat down with headliner Sam Bush earlier this week. Considered one of the originators of progressive bluegrass music, Bush has built one of the most built one of the most decorated resumes the genre has ever seen, including collaborations with Bela FleckLeon RussellGarth BrooksEmmylou HarrisLyle LovettJerry Douglas, and many more. See below for the full conversation and make sure to follow Sam on Facebook and Instagram for all of the latest updates.

Click Here: Purchase Tickets to Hog Days of Summer!

Great to speak with you today, Sam. I usually start these interviews off with some basic history. I'd love to hear about how you got started as a musician and ultimately made your way to bluegrass?

Sam: Well, I grew up on a tobacco and cattle farm outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Our parents were music lovers. My father played the fiddle and a little bit of mandolin. My mother played the guitar. That led to two of my sisters and me getting interested in music. I started playing mandolin at age 11. Pretty quickly, my sisters had already started to sing folk music, so I started playing with them. I picked up the fiddle around age 13, and within a year, I was playing in a bluegrass band as the kid fiddler. 

I grew up in household where music was greatly encouraged. Our parents didn't want us to have to work as hard as they did on the farm, and we didn't (laughs). I started playing guitar and bass in rock bands in high school. I played drums in the marching band, singing in the chorus, and playing bass violin in the school orchestra. 

I also has the advantage of Nashville television in the 60s. I got to watch a lot of Grand Ole Opry performances and really watch how the musicians' hands worked. Plus, in the era of the Ed Sullivan Show, I saw all of the performances by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and. Jefferson Airplane. So, I got interested in rock and roll with all of the TV and radio that was going down at the time. 

At age 18, when I got out of high school, I moved up to Louisville and started playing in a band called The Bluegrass Alliance. I did what we call "going to bluegrass college," and you play four sets a night / five nights a week. It really tightens up the band. That's kind of how I got into bluegrass. As a young mandolin player, the instrument itself kind of let me to bluegrass, because that's where the great mandolin players, like Bob Osborne and Bill Monroe, were. 

I'm glad that you mentioned The Bluegrass Revival. Tell me a little bit about the formation of that band and how far you went with it. 

Sam: We were four of the members of a five-piece band. That band was called The Bluegrass Alliance. When we came to a parting of the ways with our fiddle player, he owned the name of the band. So, basically, four of us quit and became The Bluegrass Revival in the fall of 1971. I was the only one who was in the band the entire time, which ended up being 18 years. I think that took us up to 1990. For our last show ever, we opened up on New Year's Eve (December 31st 1989) for The Grateful Dead at the Oakland Coliseum in California. So, that was a great way to do your last job, right?

No kidding!

Sam: After that, I played for five years with Emmylou Harris. I needed a break from band leading. I played in Emmylou's band, The Nash Ramblers, for five years. We won a Grammy in 1993 for Country Vocal Group of the Year. That was for an album we released called Live at The Ryman

After playing with Emmy for five years, I did 86 shows with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones in 1995 or 1996. After learning more about singing and getting back into improvising with the Flecktones, I was ready to making my own records and having a band again. 

That's incredible. So it was around 1995 or 1996 that Sam Bush Band got going?

Sam: Well, that's when I started making my own records and playing my own gigs again. I'm not sure when we officially had a full-time group. It was over 20 years ago. That's for sure. Chris Brown has been playing drums in the band for going on his 22nd year now. 

Wow. Those are some serious accolades already by 1996. Touring with the likes of Leon Russell, Bela Fleck, and winning a Grammy with Emmylou Harris. I'm sure there was no shortage of inspiration.

Sam: I also spent some time playing with Lyle Lovett around that time. When you play with Lyle, you wear a suit and tie. I know how to do that too (laughs). My big thing is that I love to play with others. Even within my own group, it is my job to back them when they're soloing. I love to play rhythm. To lead well, you must support well. I learned that from Emmylou, Lyle, and Leon over the years. 

I would imagine so. Well, let's talk a little more about the current state of the Sam Bush Band. Who's on the road with you these days?

Sam: Sure. In order of seniority, we have Chris Brown on drums. Next, we have Stephen Mougin on guitar and vocals. On bass, both acoustic and electric, is Todd Parks. Those guys have been around for a while. We also have Wes Corbett, who has been with the band for a few years, on banjo. Both Stephen and Wes, and me as well, many times will have switched instruments by the end of the show. We'll be playing electric instruments by the end of it. We have an electric side, as well as our bluegrass / newgrass side. 

It sounds like you guys have an ever-evolving show up on stage.

Sam: Oh yeah. I've never been about what kind of music it is, as much as "Are we enjoying it?"

That's the way to do it. How has the year of 2022 shaped up for you guys thus far? Has it been a pretty heavy year of touring and festival plays? Any time in the studio?

Sam: We've had a pretty good amount of work this year. Of course, we're still in a pandemic, and we're being as cautious as we can. We're all trying to make our way as clearly as possible. 2022 has been a good year so far. We've played quite a few festivals. Earlier in the summer, we had a tour called The Bluegrass Happening, which was Bela Fleck & My Bluegrass Heart, The Jerry Douglas Band, and Sam Bush Band.

The three groups banded together for a tour than spanned about 10 dates in the midwest. This was right after the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It's good because we have a few weeks here in August to regroup a little bit. By the time we come to Montgomery, we're back in the saddle. It's just great to be out playing. We have a good amount of work in September and October. If all goes according to schedule, I'm supposed to be having a new album come out in November. I'm looking forward to that. 

It has to feel amazing to find that sense of normalcy again. We're obviously not out of the woods with COVID, but this year has certainly presented fewer challenges than the past two. 

Sam: Well, let's face it. I was born in 1952, so that's how old I am. I've been wondering if I should consider not traveling as much anymore. When 2020 hit, I learned what it was like to be retired, and I found I wasn't ready for that. I'm not close to ready to retire. If anything, I think all of us in the music business, whether we knew it or not, we needed a reboot. It's a unique situation that we have, and I think many of us needed that reminder. 

Totally agree with you there. It definitely puts things into perspective.

Sam: Absolutely.

Well, before we wrap this up, I wanted to get your thoughts on the current state of bluegrass. Guys like you, Bela Fleck and The McCourys have about as strong of a grasp on this scene as anyone. When you look across the bluegrass spectrum, you have the longstanding jam grass acts like Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, and Yonder Mountain String Band. Then you have the rising stars like Billy Strings and Sierra Hull. What are your thoughts on where bluegrass stands in 2022?

Sam: The current state of bluegrass is really healthy. You still have Del McCoury, for instance. Del is kind of 2nd generation bluegrass himself, but as a man who played with Bill Monroe and everything, if you want to hear true bluegrass, go see Del McCoury. As you mentioned, you also have The Travelin' McCourys, that don't just want to play what their dad does. They play what you consider to be more "new grass," right?

One of the great things that is happening in bluegrass, and acoustic music in general, is the emergence of more great, female artists. The first few that come to my mind are of course Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle. You also have The First Ladies of Bluegrass, which is Becky Buller, Alison Brown, and Missy Raines. Sierra and Molly are really making their own way now.

When you speak of Billy Strings, he's really drawing big audiences, and that only helps the rest of us. Billy's out there doing his own this, and one that I really love about him is that he strives to improve all the time. Bluegrass is in good hands, and it's really good for the world of bluegrass and acoustic music that Billy is doing so well right now. It only helps the rest of us. 

I couldn't agree more. There is a very bright light on the bluegrass world right now. It's great to see so many younger acts making waves and putting their own spin on such an beautiful style of music. 

Sam: It really is. You know, when I was a kid, there just weren't as many youngsters coming up playing bluegrass. Now, it's reached a whole new level, where kids are excited about it. I think it only gets better as we go along.

Love to hear that from you, Sam. I really appreciate your time this morning. I think I can speak for everyone involved with Hog Days when I say we are stoked to have you coming to Montgomery. There's going to be some amazing BBQ there, and we can't wait to see what you and the band have planned. 

Sam: Thanks so much, Jordan. We're really excited to come play for y'all.