Sam Bush loves North Carolina. And gauging from the roar of the appreciative crowd of some 200 souls gathered at the Cat’s Cradle live music venue in downtown Carrboro on Saturday night, North Carolina loves Sam Bush and company, and in this particular instance, the Sam Bush Band.
“It don’t get no better than to play in North Carolina,” Bush said from the stage.
His fans agree. “As always, Sam and band were amazing,” commented Rick Henderson of Raleigh. “No two shows are the same, but they’re all terrific.”
For the uninitiated, Bush is known simultaneously as the “Father of Newgrass” and the “King of Telluride,” Colorado, that is, and on Saturday night he told the crowd he felt equally at home in both N.C. and his adopted home state.
Both are a bit far afield of his hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he starting playing the mandolin at 11 and watched on black-and-white TV a show featuring Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, to whom he paid tribute to during his two-hour-plus set. But the nods to traditional bluegrass were just that, given the rest of the evening was filled with songs from his latest album, “Storyman,” written in conjunction with members of his band and many of Americana’s musical elite, as well as covers of rock and blues anthems by Tom Petty, Little Feat and Muddy Waters.
Bush’s energy and youthful appearance belie his 61 years. Known widely for his frenetic attacks on his mandolins — MerleFest popular “Mando Mania” set’s roots were firmly planted by Bush, whose departure from traditional bluegrass is most notable in his band’s prominent use of a drum kit, played with precise execution by Chris Jones. In fact, for much of the night, if someone unknowingly wandered into the show, they would have sworn they were at a rock concert and NOT a bluegrass performance.
Thus the term “newgrass,” the progressive bluegrass for which Bush is known, was derisively dubbed by his early bluegrass idols in the beginning before he performed for the first time in 1975 at what would become the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
According to “Picker” Herndon, the true inspiration for the festival was an up-and-coming Igroup called New Grass Revival, who bent all the bluegrass rules, playing electrified music on their traditional instruments. New Grass members at that time were Sam Bush (mandolin, fiddle and vocals), John Cowan (bass and vocals), Courtney Johnson (banjo) and Curtis Burch (guitar, Dobro and vocals). (In 1981 Courtney and Curtis left the band and were replaced by banjo phenom Béla Fleck and guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Pat Flynn.) “Mostly the festival got started to bring Sam Bush here, New Grass Revival,” Herndon said in an interview published on theTelluride Bluegrass Festival website. “That was really the main push behind it.”
Not surprisingly, Bush is also one of the first performers, and remains among a handful of the only ones to never have missed Merlefest, Telluride’s younger cousin, founded by none other than the late, great Doc Watson as a tribute to his son and fellow musician, Merle Watson, in 1988 and held annually on the campus of Wilkes Community College.
I met Bush at an interview in the media tent at MerleFest more than a decade ago, long after I first watched him light up the stage for years under the roar of Bridal Veil Falls in the box canyon that houses the former mining town of Telluride and its now-famous festival. A few years later, I bumped elbows with him at FloydFest and Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival. And while I am certain he couldn’t pick me out of a lineup, unlike some artists with even lesser illustrious careers, he has always been jovial and kind, appearing to be genuinely happy to see me.
It’s that genuine happiness that Bush shares with everyone who has the chance to catch him in a live performance, most of which are outdoors. In fact, it occurred to me Saturday — when he mentioned it was one of the few venues in which he and the band had played indoors since Merlefest in April — that it was the first time I have ever seen him and the boys perform indoors. And if you knew how many times I have seen Bush live, you’d realize that made it a momentous event. You can catch Bush with John Cowan as guests of Leftover Salmon during the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA)’s Wide Open Jam in September and on tour here.
It also got me to thinking about how, if it wasn’t for Bush and some of his contemporaries — the aforementioned Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Tim O’Brien, just to name a few — we would never have had the chance to hear the amazing performance of the opening act, Hank, Pattie & The Current, or in this case, specifically the Hank and Pattie Duo.
I had the pleasure of meeting Pattie Hopkins Kinlaw and Hank Smith during the 2017 IBMA and was blown away by their set that was part of Wide Open Bluegrass.
When Kinlaw and Smith play without the rest of the band as they did Saturday night, these North Carolina-based veteran bluegrass musicians are known as simply the Hank and Pattie Duo, but there’s nothing simple about this duo’s music. With Smith on the banjo, which he teaches at the University of North Carolina, and Kinlaw on violin and vocals, the pair make a sound so big you can hardly believe it’s just the two of them on stage.
“You can hear everything, every bow and string,” Kinlaw remarked after the stripped-down version of their set. “It’s much more intimate when it’s just the two of us.”
But no less powerful.
The pair joins forces with some of the Triangle area’s most versatile musicians to create modern, American, acoustic music featuring the full range of their talents as composers and arrangers. The band is on tour regionally and nationally in support of their newest album, “Hold Your Head Up High” on Robust Records, released in 2017.
“The band makes use of traditional bluegrass instrumentation in a nontraditional way to present original music to the listener that goes beyond the limits of the idiom,” according to the band’s website.
“The arrangements take on a new level of maturation that follows in the footsteps of Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Chris Thile, Bush, Edgar Meyer, and Tony Rice. Hank, Pattie & The Current want to pick up where seminal crossover groups like The Punch Brothers, Strength In Numbers and the ever-changing Bluegrass Allstars call home. The music is vocal and instrumental, allowing the band to experiment with arrangements and tailor the compositions to become vehicles for exploration.”
But if you missed the Hank and Pattie Duo on Saturday night, you have plenty of upcoming chances to catch them live here. Traveling as far as Iceland to South Carolina and Tennessee with plenty of North Carolina dates thrown in between, the band can also be found playing at Carolina In the Fall and the Albino Skunk Festival.