I’ve been waiting for this show for three months. One of the best known names in bluegrass music, Sam Bush, was coming to my neck of the woods, and I had a front row seat.
I arrived at Carrboro, NC’s iconic music venue, Cat’s Cradle, an hour early to pull out my gear and mingle with my fellow fans. Cat’s Cradle is a fantastic venue. Not luxurious, by any means, but that’s not why you visit. You visit Cat’s Cradle to get an up-close and personal experience with the bands you love.
As concert-goers piled into the venue, Sam poked his head out from back stage with a smile on his face. In a way, he seemed to be just as eager to see us as we were to see him.
Opening for Sam Bush was Hank and Pattie Duo, two-fifths of the dynamic local bluegrass group, Hank, Pattie, and the Current. Featuring local banjo legend Hank Smith and the charming violinist Pattie Hopkins Kinlaw, the duo drew in the crowd with a set filled with originals. Just as Sam’s music transcends genres, Hank and Pattie’s music takes listeners on a journey through folk, bluegrass, and classical sounds.
As Hank and Pattie wrapped up their set, Sam took the stage with his band, which features commensurate artists such as Stephen Mougin on guitar, Scott Vestal on banjo, and two-time IBMA Drummer of the Year Chris Smith.*
The band kicked off the set with two fan favorites, Play By Your Own Rules and Transcendental Meditation Blues, which debuted on Sam’s 2016 singer-songwriter album, Storyman. The rest of the first half of the set was a mix of originals from various seasons of Sam’s 50-year career, including Greenbriar, an instrumental groove that he co-wrote with bandmate Scott Vestal, and Dark Shadow written by guitarist Stephen Mougin, and covers such as The Dillards’ Dooley, performed in honor of the late mandolinist Dean Webb.
One of the highlights of the show (if you can call any moment in such a fantastic set a “highlight”) came in the middle of the set. The band cleared the stage, leaving Sam in the spotlight with “Hoss,” his 1937 Gibson F5. As the crowd waited with bated breath, Sam cranked up a 12-minute medley that consisted of a solo rendition of Muddy Waters’ 1955 blues hit, Mannish Boy, followed by a cover of Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes.
The band regrouped for a few closing tunes – mostly covers, including Sam fiddling on Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen and a driving electric Tom Petty classic I Won’t Back Down.
While I can honestly say that the entire show was a delight, the audience got a special treat in the encore. As the Sam Bush Band came back to the stage, a beaming Hank and Pattie followed closely behind. Taking their places at the front of the stage, they launched into a bluegrass-reggae crossover cover of Bob Marley’s One Love. Keeping the jam going, they followed up with the straight-ahead bluegrass staple, Merle Travis’ Nine Pound Hammer.
After the show
I had a chance to connect with Sam after the show to get a few tips as a developing mandolin player and chat about about music with a few others when a young guy joined the conversation. He was working security that night and wanted to thank Sam for the experience. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would attend a bluegrass show, but found Sam’s music refreshingly easy to connect with.
Sam replied, “If we show up to a bluegrass festival, they see the drums and think ‘rock and roll.’ If we show up to a rock festival, they look at our instrumentation and think ‘bluegrass.'” Just like greats like Clapton brought genres together, he aspires to do the same.
“If we show up to a bluegrass festival, they see the drums and think ‘rock and roll.’ If we show up to a rock festival, they look at our instrumentation and think ‘bluegrass.'”
The “King of Telluride” does just that. With joy, passion, and enthusiasm, Sam bridges the divide between bluegrass, blues, jazz, reggae, and rock. His message of positivity and encouragement pervades not only his lyrics, but his showmanship.
My first evening with Sam Bush was a night to remember, and I look forward to more to come.
* That’s a joke, people.