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[Photo Credit: Shelly Swanger Photography]

I’m pleased to present the second and final installment of my conversation with Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Sam Bush, the “Father of Newgrass”. The first part was posted one week ago.  This is a series I am occasionally featuring on this blog: in-depth interviews with successful performing musicians about the issues and ideas that directly relate to music performance.  – VA

What state of mind do you think contributes to your best performing experiences?  And how do you get yourself into that state of mind, pre-gig?

Sam Bush:  For me, it really is more about how we’re all playing together.  Because I’ve never been a solo performer, just standing onstage by myself – I mean, only for a couple of songs at a time, ever.  So really, it’s about how we’re all playing together, because what starts any fun onstage for me is how we’re communicating musically and are we succeeding as a group.

So as a bandleader, then, what do you do pre-gig to get everybody into that space?  Or do you feel like your sidemen or your featured artists are already good at that and they don’t really need that from you?

SB:  Well, it’s always fun to have a moment together before we play – it might only last 30 seconds.  Obviously, you know, the best time is when we just sort of warm up on a couple of old bluegrass songs backstage – not something we’re going to play onstage, but having fun just playing a couple of tunes to limber up your fingers and your voices.  And then we have what David Lindley taught us: “the vortex”.  It’s just nonsense, but we kind of put our hands all together, one on top of each other, and it’s just a positive energy moment, that we all have fun, and we’re united, that we’re all going to go out and rob our road manager – and all us musicians, we all do it, and we have what’s called “the vortex”.  And we have a positive energy moment together, and then off we go, and let’s have some fun.  Really, it is about having fun – our show especially – and I really believe the audience can tell when you aren’t having fun.  And it’s our job – and it’s a pleasure, and it’s a privilege, and we’ve worked hard for the privilege of getting up there and having fun.

Do you ever get stage fright?

SB:  No, I don’t think so.

Have you ever experienced it?

SB:  I think there are times I get anxious, that I want to get on and do it, I’m ready, let’s go.  But as far as stage fright, no, I don’t think so, not for a very long time.  I haven’t had stage fright that I’m aware of since 1973 when our band, New Grass Revival, landed the job of opening the show for Leon Russell and The Shelter People, when Leon was drawing audiences of 25,000 people.  We did a two and a half month tour, and it was a very unique situation – we rode in Leon’s private plane, we stayed in his hotel, we were totally employed by him and his organization.  And we were a bluegrass band.  We didn’t even actually plug our instruments in yet!  So we’d get out there, and of course the rock and roll hysteria was amazing back then, and Leon was such a huge rock and roll star, and it was such an experience to be around.  And, of course, we got to hear his show every night, which was such an experience.  But I’ll never forget, the first show on the tour was to be in Gainesville, Florida – maybe it was the football stadium at the University of Florida.  And I turned 21 on that tour, I wasn’t yet 21, and yes, I was shaking.  And we were all just sort of scared.  We’d never seen an audience like this, and we were wondering what we were doing there.  And I remember us all joining hands and taking a deep breath.  And we were getting ready to go out and open the show, and it just started a pretty good rainstorm, and it was decided we couldn’t play.  So the show did not happen that night.  And the next night was in Jacksonville, and we had to do it all over again!  So at least, finally, we did get to open the show in Jacksonville – about the same number of people, like 25,000.  So I don’t think I’ve ever had stage fright since then.

And I imagine there’s the issue of what you’re going to put out towards 25,000 people, and then there’s the issue of the energy that comes at you from 25,000 people, and that can knock you back!

SB:  Sure, and we didn’t know if we were going to receive positive energy back to us or not, because it was kind of an unknown thing when you have a bluegrass or “newgrass” kind of band, as we were.  And looking back, I’m sure it was much more bluegrass-sounding than we in the band thought it was.  Because it was a very progressive kind of music we were trying to play with our bluegrass instruments, but for an audience that is totally ready to hear Leon Russell do “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, it could have been a pretty strange sound to them!  So we had to be tough.  And we learned a lot on that tour.

Do you have a sense of being in your body when you’re onstage?  Do you feel like you’re grounded?  Or are you even aware of that or thinking about that?

SB:  I’m not really thinking about that.  I’m fortunate in that the music can take me to a different place.  In other words, I’ve been onstage where I’ve had a 103 degree fever, and while we’re onstage I don’t really feel it.  It’s like out in Telluride, Colorado, it can be very cold at night sometimes, for June, and sure, your hands might feel a little chilly, but I’m lucky in that once we’re playing, I don’t feel it.  And granted, I’m jumping around, I’m having fun.  But in that way, the music takes me to a place where, that’s the only thing that can take me there, is music.

Is there anything that you want to improve in yourself as a performer?  Do those goals change, or is there a common thing that you’ve been working toward?

SB:  Well, I guess this transfers into performing, because what I try to do is, I’m trying to improve as a player and singer.  When asked what my future goals are, I’m still trying to improve.  I’m not satisfied with where I’m at musically.  And as a performer, I try to get a little wiser and more seasoned, and maybe looking at certain things I could do to improve the presentation.  It’s a fine line.  About five or six years ago, I think I’d gotten into a habit of talking a lot onstage, and all of a sudden I realized it.  I think an audience does like to be talked to, but they came to hear you play and sing.  So it was said to me from a few close friends, and a soundman I had said, “You know, dude, I think you’re talking too much!”  So, especially in the last couple years – yes, the audience wants to be talked to and communicated with, and I feel comfortable doing that – but saying that, I’ve learned to string my songs together in a better, more cohesive manner.  I want the audience to hear a lot more music and less talking!  Like I say, it’s easy for me to talk on a microphone and I feel comfortable doing it, but I’m just trying to wise up and make music my goal.

Well, you’ve got a certain kind of patter that your audience is used to hearing.  Your devoted followers know they’re going to get a certain kind of patter from you.

SB:  Sure, and it’s fun, and it should be.  I don’t believe the audience that comes to hear my shows wants to be lectured or preached to – and I don’t mean that in a religious way, I’m just talking, you know, my views.  Steve Martin used to do the funniest skit about “WhatIBelieve!”  But we just want to play, and we want the audience to feel the fun and the joy that we have while we play music.

I know a lot of people would ask you to offer advice about how to become a success.  But I would ask you to offer advice on how to become a satisfied performer, a performer that’s happy performing.  And it sounds like, from what you’ve been saying, it’s being prepared, musically…

SB:  Yes, and really, I think it comes with an understanding of knowing where your strengths lie, what you do well, and realizing what you don’t do well.  So just do the things that you do well.

I know it’s kind of a strange thing to be talking about this stuff.

SB:  Well, no, because we are performers.  You know, twice, me and the band did the music for the Augusta Ballet.  The thread of the performance, the storyline of the ballet, was the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.  There were improvisational tunes, but they had to be the exact number of bars of music each night.  And if you go one bar too long, you have blown it for the dancers.  So that was an incredible musical education.  And Peter Poulos, the choreographer for the Augusta Ballet, first contacted me, and he had meticulously choreographed the tunes to records we had made or that I had played on.  So it wasn’t all tunes that I wrote, but everything that we did were things that I either played on or wrote.  So Peter already had everything mapped out the way he wanted it.  And a couple of these tunes were improvisational tunes that we may have recorded 20 years ago!  And you don’t even play the same way anymore.  And I would literally have to go back and relearn musical phrases that you played in an improvisational solo that you don’t even play that way anymore, and you haven’t thought that way for 20 years!  And you had to make it match up, and he had even little head movements choreographed for the dancers, a musical phrase I might have played, and you had to go back and relearn ways that you used to play.  So that was an incredible learning experience, and it taught you another factor of performing, because that was truly a performance.  And the dancers were the star of the show, and the music was there to serve the dancers.  So that was a whole different thing, and I think that taught us a little more about presenting our musical performances when they just stand alone as music, without dancing and light shows and things.

Well, I imagine you must have transcendent moments at various times, and it goes back to the idea of the zone where, “Wow, I didn’t even know I could do that.”

SB:  It’s a pleasant surprise.  Really, I’m not sure if that’s as much performing as the musical surprise when you stumble upon something that you didn’t know you could play.

But for someone like you, I think you’d probably agree you’ve pretty much got total command of your instrument.  You can make it do what you want it to do, right?

SB:  Most of the time!  Sometimes you just can’t believe you’re not playing better.

It’s like you were saying about baseball, you’re batting .300, or you’re batting .400, that’s pretty damn good, you know?

SB:  Yeah, that’s the great thing about playing music – you don’t tend to get in a slump like you can in sports!

Well, at least you don’t!  I mean, I think people do, they get a crisis of confidence and get psyched out, and even the most skilled among us can get to that place.

SB:  For me, I think I come from a different point of view than some people may, because as important as music is to me, it’s only music, and it’s not your whole life.  And perhaps part of it is, as a two-time cancer survivor, or should I say cancer treatment survivor – one was 27 years ago, and one was in 2007 – I come from a different point of view.  You know, so I make a mistake.  Big deal.  I’ll try again.  It’s not like if I make a mistake, that I made a mistake on someone’s diagnosis and it turns out wrong.  After my first bout with sickness long ago, I just learned that making a musical mistake is not the end of the world.  Because I get to try again.  I get a do-over.  So with that in mind, every day is a good day.

This is really important.

SB:  It is.  And all you can do is your best.  When I was younger, I can remember walking offstage and almost in tears over how rotten I thought I’d played and how badly I thought the band played.  And one of my best friends just said, “You’ve got to get over it.  Tomorrow’s a new day, you know?  Come on, it’s just music!”  And he was right.

That’s really something we can all remember in everything that we do.

SB:  Absolutely.

Readers: I highly recommend Sam’s new CD, “Circles Around Me”.  In my opinion, this is his best album yet.  I encourage you to visit your local independent record store, or go to Sam’s online store, to purchase this gem. – VA