Sam Bush has called his newest project, Storyman, his “singer-songwriter album.” For those of us who have enjoyed Sam’s original tunes, this seems like a great idea. Tunes like Circles Around Me (co-written with Jeff Black) and The Ballad of Stringbean & Estelle (co-written with Guy Clark & Verlon Thompson) from Sam’s last studio album, Circles Around Me, are a tribute to the heights that a “singer-songwriter album” might attain.
Still, there are others who approach Sam’s music from his live performances. His ability to cross elements of traditional bluegrass, reggae, rock, blues, and more into a high energy blend of jam band groove with a strong dose of disciplined musicianship is legendary. These live performances are the main reason why so many refer to him as the King of Telluride. The prospects of a “singer-songwriter album” for these folks likely causes a shiver, followed by a sigh and crossing of fingers out of fear of what might be missing in this venture.
The good news is that Sam does an amazing job of doing service to all sides of his audience with this release. Sam has for the first time co-written every song on an album. For co-writers he has called on many of the usual suspects. For instance, Sam turns to Jeff Black to help him pen Transcendental Meditation Blues. Former Sam Bush Band lead guitarist, Jon Randall Stewart, co-writes two songs, Bowling Green and I Just Wanna Feel Something. Current members of Sam’s band, Stephen Mougin (guitar) and Scott Vestal (banjo) contribute Play By Your Own Rules and Greenbrier respectively. Some of Sam’s more famous friends join the party too. Sam co-wrote Carcinoma Blues with Guy Clark and Handmics Killed Country Music with Emmylou Harris. Despite the various co-writers and occasional shifts in style, the album hangs together as a satisfying, cohesive package.
On Play By Your Own Rules, the band establishes a familiar Sam Bush groove accompanied by a typical Sam Bush message — taking control of one’s own life with an emphasis on being kind to one another. This tune will likely become a concert favorite soon with the hot lick that quickly establishes itself as the hook of the song. With its reggae rhythm churning, Everything Is Possible is another soon-to-be concert favorite. I expect fans will embrace It’s Not What You Think in the same way due to its fiery musicianship and Sam Bush-patented changes in rhythm and texture.
Greenbrier is a bluegrass-style instrumental that will appeal to Sam’s more traditionally-minded fans. Likewise, Bowling Green recalls Sam’s parents’ love of music and includes the melody of several traditional bluegrass tunes woven into the song’s structure. And, of course, Sam’s impeccable mandolin and fiddle playing remain the central part of every song on the album.
Lest we forget the title of the album, Sam tells some stories here too. Lefty’s Song is a forgotten unrecorded New Grass Revival tune telling the tale of a long lost love. On Carcinoma Blues, Sam relates a slightly light-hearted take on cancer as only a survivor can and uses a bouncy Jimmie Rogers groove to reinforce the effect. Transcendental Meditation Blues recalls Sam’s courtship of his future wife and the anticipation-filled 120 mile bus ride it took to see her in their early days.
There are a few guest appearances of note too. Deborah Holland (Animal Logic, The Refugees) shares vocals with Sam on their co-written tune, Everything Is Possible. Likewise, Emmylou sings with Sam on Handmics. Alison Krauss lends her unmistakable harmony vocals to Lefty’s Song.
So while Sam calls this his “singer-songwriter album,” it’s about the furthest thing from the sometimes sappy side of that moniker. With its mix of story songs, bluegrass melodies, and lofty musicianship, this album should be a delight for all of Sam’s fans regardless of their favorite kind of Sam Bush song.
Here’s one of Sam’s story songs based on the true story of the murder of Stringbean of Grand Ol’ Opry fame and his wife Estelle.
And here’s a live version of Transcendental Meditation Blues.