Upbeat and enthusiastic bluegrass star Sam Bush has long been an open book to his fans and colleagues. A newly available documentary illustrates for a wider public just how much respect and admiration he commands among his fellow musicians.
Revival: The Sam Bush Story is streaming on Amazon Prime after making the rounds at film festivals, winning a number of awards along the way, including the audience award for best music doc at the Nashville Film Festival.
“There are so many mandolin players that are so great,” musician Jeff Austin says in the film. “But (Sam Bush) is the perfect combination of technical skill and guts.” The reference is to how far out Bush is willing to go in a given improvisation and how many risks he’s taken to bring string band music to new heights of complexity and inclusion.
Reached in his Birmingham, AL studio, the film’s co-director and writer Wayne Franklin said that Austin, a founder of the Bush-influenced Yonder Mountain String Band, was also astute in getting at Sam’s infectious mentorship qualities. “And he talks about the fact that Sam is always willing to put himself out there, to be generous, to accept invitation to play on the stage with these younger acts, to share what he knows.”
Franklin and his filmmaking partner Kris Wheeler made two music films in the early 2010s about some lesser known artists who were close to Sam Bush. The proximity led the directors and producers to approach Bush about a comprehensive life story.
“The very first thing we did was record a seven-hour audio-only interview with Sam just to capture every little piece of his story," Franklin said. "That was the basis upon which we built our story structure.”
In an early chapter, a teenaged Sam Bush, then a national fiddle champion, is offered a road job with Grand Ole Opry legend and traditional country singer Roy Acuff. He turns it down. Franklin said it was part of showing an artist determined to succeed on his own terms.
“He could have easily gotten great inroads to the Nashville establishment through Mr. Acuff, but he just couldn’t see himself doing that,” Franklin said. “At 18 years old that’s a bold choice to turn down a sure ticket to do things on your own terms, but when has Sam not done that?”
Instead, Bush becomes a band leader, forming the New Grass Revival with musicians from around his home region of Bowling Green, KY. That adventure lasted from 1971 until New Year’s Eve of 1990 and involved virtuoso musicians such as Bela Fleck and John Cowan. The film defines the impact of the band as it spawns the new sub-genre of “newgrass” nationally, so NGR’s rise and dissolution become the spine of the film.
“I always wondered what happened to those guys," says Franklin who describes himself as fan during their heyday. "But this was pre-internet so you couldn’t just look up what happened to that amazing band that I was listening to. So for me I was fascinated to dig deep into that and determine what had happened.”
As a solo artist, Bush has completed more than 40 consecutive headlining appearances at the eclectic Telluride Bluegrass Festival and earned a spot among the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award winners. But filmmakers Wheeler and Franklin present an artist who isn’t as well known to the public as he could or should be, in their estimation. Franklin says: “It’s been fun seeing people who didn’t know anything about the music - who didn’t know anything about Sam - who are now, because of the film, avid Sam Bush fans and buying all of his albums. And I just hope we can get thousands more to do the same thing.”
Listen to a full 20-minute Q&A with Wayne Franklin here:
Trailer for Revival: The Sam Bush Story