Though many musicians are admittedly brushing off rust as live performances return to order, you’d be hard-pressed to find any flaws in the skillset of the world’s most talented bluegrass musicians, a group as passionate about their craft as you’ll encounter.
One of the most critically acclaimed and seasoned bluegrass trendsetters, Sam Bush made his way to Cockeysville this past weekend for an early Sunday evening performance at Stages Music Arts, a venue that has hosted an impressive list of highly regarded musicians in just a short time.
The Bowling Green, Kentucky, native brought his full band on a sweep through the region with the final show being a stop at what’s referred to as the “Field Stage,” located just behind the main Stages Facility. Featuring a grass plot filled Sunday night with chairs, vendors, and fans who eventually got up to dance, the venue proved to be a perfect setting for Sam, now 69, to quickly find a rhythm with his for-the-most-part younger bandmates and deliver a festive set that stretched from about 6 p.m. to sunset.
Having built his career as a key pioneer of the “new grass” movement via the New Grass Revival in the ’70s and ’80s, Sam’s widely recognized for his drive to bring different sounds and styles into the bluegrass curriculum and an evening at Stages with him and his crew demonstrated the group’s appreciation for a wide range of influences and their ability to fuse those into bluegrass songs.
On July 28, the night kicked off with “On the Road” from Sam’s 2006 release Laps in Seven and rolled into a charming, energetic version of Doc Watson’s “Nashville Blues” before moving on to “Riding That Bluegrass Train,” a vigorous Sam classic that shows off his ability to command the stage with his rustic voice and any one of his Gibson mandolins.
One line in particular drew wild whoops and cheers from the crowd that was already enraptured by the third song of the set: “Got nothing in this world except this ol’ guitar, you can have it for a ticket, all the way to Baltimore.”
Engaging with the audience between most songs, Sam blurted out with a snicker, “We’re just getting warmed up!”—despite the fact the group looked and sounded dialed in as if they’d spent the entire pandemic locked in studio together.
The band delivered an extraordinary take on “Riding That Bluegrass Train” from Laps in Seven. Featuring the inexplicably intricate mandolin picking that has come to help define Sam’s music, it was followed by “Roll On Buddy,” a light-hearted but thumping jam that helped bring more fans to their feet.
Watch Sam Bush Band perform “Riding That Bluegrass Train” live in 2013 on YouTube:
Flanked by a world-class supporting cast, Sam’s outfit for this tour included his longtime drummer Chris Brown, guitarist Stephen “Mojo” Mougin, a member of the band since 2006, Todd Parks, who came on board just a few years ago, and the newest addition, banjoist Wes Corbett.
Sam’s leadership shined through as the night went on and he allowed each teammate to shine in his own right. Mojo shared his endearing version of Buck Owens’ “Only You and You Alone” from his recent solo release, New Beginnings. And Wes shared an enthralling, rapid-fire composition of his own, “Boss Fight, the origins of which he traced to battling next-stage guardians or “bosses” in video games.
Though reserved, Chris’ occasional subtle grin flashed from behind his kit indicated a veteran’s focus but a deep enjoyment as well, and clearly a sense of humor to go with his impeccable timing. And though Todd was as stoic as a bass player could be, whether on his electric or standup, he too shared in the indulgence simply by way of his faultless fingers that helped turn the Field Stage into a full-blown shindig.
Sam, who himself supported other noteworthy musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Garth Brooks, is of course not bashful about his own on-stage emotions and mannerisms. Wide-eyed, belly laughing, playful, Sam — though never missing a beat — sustained for two hours a giddiness that most humans might only experience for moments in an entire lifetime.
Through the course of the evening, Sam paid homage to friends and fellow songwriters, and he was pointed in celebrating the importance of a live music gathering in the wake what has been the weirdest of times for musicians.
“We always felt this was a song about giving thanks,” Sam said as he introduced “Circles Around Me,” which he wrote with Jeff Black for the Grammy-nominated album of the same name. Sam went on to express his sincere gratitude to the venue and organizers for the opportunity to perform in front of a live audience and be alongside his bandmates to create a gorgeous night of bluegrass music.
Stream “Circles Around Me” by Sam Bush on Spotify:
Sawing and picking through another track with a classic Sam Bush sound, “Out On The Ocean,” the band then took up “Howling at the Moon” just as the sun started to make its exit.
“Take a little time for sunshine, take a whole lotta time for love,” this song encourages. “Take time to praise and thank heaven up above. Take your life as it may come, ‘cause boy it’ll be gone soon. Take a little time for howlin’ at the moon.”
“Lee Highway Blues,” a high-speed, propulsive track that showcases Sam’s mastery of the fiddle, and “Old Joe Clark” from his 2006 album Glamour & Grits closed out a dynamic, robust set of music that just a few months ago might have been nearly impossible to put on the calendar.
On The Road
(Ridin’ That) Bluegrass Train
Roll On Buddy
You Left Me Alone
Circles (Around Me)
Out On The Ocean
Howlin’ At The Moon
Lee Highway Blues
Old Joe Clark
Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee
Here is the Sam Bush Band performing at Stages Music Arts on July 18, 2021. Photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.