Two recent releases by Sam Bush and Ricky Skaggs — two superstars of Americana, roots, and bluegrass music — show both artists coming home in ways that bring them full circle with their own artistic travels.
Bush’s Circles Around Me is a return to the bluegrass and early progressive newgrass of his youth in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The album opens with the title track, a tune that celebrates “being thankful that you’re here” according to Bush. His terrific road band — Byron House on bass, Chris Brown on drums, the amazing Scott Vestal on banjo and Stephen Mougin on guitar — plays on the majority of the 14 tracks, stretching out their musical chops on tunes such as the instrumental Blue Mountain and the old New Grass Revival song Souvenir Bottles. This latter tune, along with Whisper My Name written by original NGR bassist Ebo Walker and featured on their very first album, brings Bush back to the band where he made his name and helped shape a whole new genre of music — Newgrass.
But there’s also a strong traditional bluegrass strain on the album, especially on the tunes where Del McCoury joins in on vocals. Roll on Buddy, Roll On is a fine piece of straight-ahead grass. Songwriter extraordinaire Guy Clark, Bush and Verlon Thompson co-wrote the haunting Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle about the real-life tragedy of the murder of old-time country music star David “Stringbean” Akeman and his wife Estelle. Midnight on the Stormy Deep and Out on the Ocean are solid bluegrass tunes where Bush keeps his newgrass tendencies in check. In addition to McCoury, guests artists include Dobro wizard Jerry Douglas, McArthur genius and bassist Edgar Meyer and his family, and (posthumously) original NGR banjoist Courtney Johnson on the sweet fiddle/banjo duet Apple Blossom.
Sam Bush has put together a thoughtful yet entertaining album that should keep his fans happy while finding some converts among the traditionalists who are not as attracted to his recent solo work.
Ricky Skaggs has been moving in a more traditional direction for a good many years since his dip into mainstream country stardom in the 1980s and 90s. His band Kentucky Thunder is arguably the best band in bluegrass, with Skaggs showcasing some of the music’s best young talent much as his mentor, Bill Monroe, did through the years with the Bluegrass Boys.
But on his most recent album, Songs My Dad Loved, Skaggs goes solo. That doesn’t mean you’ll just hear Ricky and a guitar or mandolin, because he plays and overdubs a dizzying array of instruments: acoustic guitars, resonator guitar, round hole and f hole mandolins, mandocello, octave mandolin, steel string banjo, gut string fretless banjo, fiddle, piano, bass, Danelectro electric baritone guitar and percussion.
Songs My Dad Loved is an obvious labor of love for Skaggs. There are old-time fiddle/banjo duets (Colonel Prentiss), Roy Acuff and Fred Rose-penned old country tunes (Foggy River), gospel (City That Lies Foursquare) and mountain bluegrass (Little Maggie) among the selections. Songs My Dad Loved is dialed back from the breakneck bluegrass that Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder are known for. But it is a little gem of an album, reminding me — as one other reviewer noted — of the classic Skaggs and Rice duet album.
Two great Americana musicians, circling back to their roots. When you reach your 50s and have been playing professionally since you could hold an instrument, this isn’t a bad place to be.
And to give you a taste of the music, there’s a nice video of Sam and his band recording Circles Around Me with commentary by Sam interspersed. Enjoy.
More to come…
Image: Sam Bush at Merlefest 2012 by DJB