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Sam Bush - Circles Around Me
CD Review by Dave SanSoucie on 1/5/2010   

Sam Bush is like a fine red wine, maturity brings out the best in his music. Now 57 years old, and a veteran of Bluegrass, Newgrass, Jazzgrass, rock and Jug Band music styles, Sam has been a major influence on traditional and progressive acoustic music since the 1970's.

After establishing himself in the traditional Bluegrass field by winning countless fiddle contests throughout the country, Sam took up the Mandolin, much to the chagrin of mandolin players everywhere (including Bill Monroe who suggested his unorthodox musical approach was best left to his fiddle playing)! Combining the elements of his virtuosic fiddle playing, rock guitar and a natural flair for innovation, Sam became one of the most amazing and soulful Mandolin players on the planet. His mandolin was the centerpiece for the progressive Bluegrass unit Bluegrass Alliance, which also featured guitarist extraordinaire Tony Rice. That band evolved into the now legendary New Grass Revival. The band traveled the world spreading the gospel of a new modern form of acoustic music, based on traditional music mixed with the rhythms, sounds and energy of rock and roll, funk and reggae. Curtis Burch, Courtney Johnson, Bela Fleck, John Cowen and Pat Flynn all cut their teeth with Sam in that amazing band. After the NGR, Sam co-founded the super group Strength in Numbers, worked five years in Emmylou Harrisfs band (The Nash Ramblers), and toured with Lyle Lovett and Bela Fleck until he returned to fronting a band in the mid to late 90fs. Sam has also lent his talents on countless recording sessions over the years for dozens of artists, including Garth Brooks, Wynonna, Doc Watson, Trisha Yearwood, Radney Foster, and Bela Fleck.

In October of 2009, Sam released his newest musical offering Circles Around Me on the Sugar Hill label. With Circles Around Me, he revisits early influences, New Grass era gems and new songs and sounds in a blend sure to please old and new fans alike. This album ranks of one of Samfs finest releases in his career.

Over the years Sam Bush has ventured far from the traditional Bluegrass that initially inspired him as a young man. His albums have found him taking stabs at music ranging from Bob Marley songs to Little Feat songs, as well as traditional Bluegrass, jazz, swing, and old time music. On his newest release he does a remarkable job of covering many aspects of the music that inspired him, and to which he has contributed greatly over the past 30 plus years.

Backed by his crack touring band (Byron House on basses, Chris Brown on drums, Scott Vestal on banjo and Stephen Mougin on guitar), and with help from big name guests, Circles Around Me will please fans of fiery picking, chambergrass, singer-songwriter style tunes, New Grass Revival chestnuts revisited and the genius that is Sam Bush.

The title track (co-written with Jeff Black) is a folky tribute to experiences, friends found and lost, and the passing of time. It seems a man in Samfs place in life as to wonder why he has been spared some of the tragedy and trappings that have befallen so many in his chosen field. I have to believe mastering instruments and performing in the manner Sam has doesnft leave much time for self destructive behavior.

Collaborating with Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson on perhaps the strongest song lyrically on the album, The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle, tells the sad poignant story of the murder of David "Stringbean" Akeman (a musician/comedian of "Hee-Haw" fame) and his wife. Apparently, rumor had it that Akeman had a large stash of "Opry" cash he had earned as a performer over the years. The song goes onto reveal the murdered couple was discovered the next day by Grandpa Jones, and that the men didnft find much cash. Furthermore, the actual stash (about $20,000) was found in the Akemanfs home twenty years later, too rotted to be of any worth.

For fans of "Chambergrass" or more extended moody pieces, That Old North Woods and Junior Heywood are striking, melodious and just plain amazing. Here Sam is joined by Edgar Meyer (Arco bass), as well as Edgarfs wife and son on Violins.

Sam turns the singing duties over to Del McCoury for a rollicking Roll on Buddy, Roll On, a song Del sang during is tenure with Bill Monroe. Later Del returns for a duet with Sam on the traditional song Midnight on the Stormy Deep, proving that no matter where music has taken him, or where he has taken music; Sam slips into the traditional setting very comfortably.

My personal three favorite songs on the album (not that there are any bad ones) hark back to the days of the New Grass Revival. I no longer remember where or exactly when I first heard the band, but hearing them turned my head around. By 1979 I was writing songs in the hopes that they would record one, and my life would be complete (I actually discussed this with Sam one crazy night at the Strawberry Folk Festival in 1996). Sam ends the album with the trilogy of Apple Blossom, Souvenir Bottles and Whisper My Name.

Apple Blossom is a duet performed by Sam and NGR band mate Courtney Johnson recorded back in 1976. For me it is a treat to hear this previously unreleased track, and a fitting tribute to the deceased Johnson, a founding member of the New Grass Revival.

Souvenir Bottles, a remake from the 1979 Barren County album, is the tale of a road musician who drank himself into oblivion, yet still has road stories to share. This version is fresh and has amazing interplay between Scott Vestalfs banjo and Samfs mandolin. At one point the banjo seems to melt into the mandolin. Originally Sung with John Cowen, Sam shares vocal duties with guitarist Byron House on this updated more mature reading of a classic NGR song.

Rounding out the album is Whisper my Name, an Ebo Walker composition. This hard driving burning bluegrass number is the perfect end to a five star album. But wait, a hidden track? The bouncy, popping cover of Theyfre Red Hot is a pleasant surprise. Although I have never heard the band, my understanding is that Sam plays in the Nashville Jug Band, which would explain the inclusion of this smoking number!

An album to please fans of jam band, bluegrass, fusion-acoustic, old time music; Circles Around Me is , most importantly, plumb-good music played by damn good musicians!

Circles Around Me
Diamond Joe
You Left Me Alone
The Old North Woods
Roll On Buddy, Roll On
The Ballad Of Stringbean And Estelle
Blue Mountain
Out On The Ocean
Gold Heart Locket
Junior Heywood
Midnight On The Stormy Deep
Apple Blossom
Souvenir Bottles
Whisper My Name

Additional information:
Genre: bluegrass, newgrass
Release date: October 20, 2009
Sugar Hill
Artist web site

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