Bush and Skaggs: Coming Home, Coming Full Circle

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, photo by Erick Anderson

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…


Shuffling Off to…the Swim Meet

Today I took some time off to serve as a timer at the swim meet for Andrew’s school.  I do this every now and then to make sure I connect with that part of Andrew’s life during the school year, and because every parent needs to volunteer to make these meets work.  It was great fun and Andrew dropped time in all his races.  I even got to time him in the 500, when he beat his personal best.  What fun.

But this post isn’t about swim meets and getting your pants wet (which I did .  Those high school boys come in hard for the touch at the end.)  Nope, this post is about why I love the Shuffle feature on the iPod.

I have about 3,500 songs or so on my iPod.  About 2,400 of them are in one playlist that I call “Americana.”  That’s where I dump in all my albums and iTunes purchases that have anything to do with bluegrass, acoustic music, country rock, Americana, blues, you name it.  I can go for weeks listening to that playlist and not hear the same song twice.  By comparison my rock, jazz, and new age playlists are much smaller in number.

And I always keep my playlist set on shuffle.  That way the iPod decides what I listen to next.  On occasion I’ll get a bunch of tunes in a row that make me wonder why I ever chose this music.  But then there are nights like tonight when I’m driving to and from the meet.  You hit a stretch of songs and realize how wonderful it is to remember old tunes and be surprised by ones you don’t really know that well.

Steven Levy even wrote a book in 2006 about the wonderfulness of the iPod and its shuffle feature called The Perfect Thing:  How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness.   He goes a bit overboard in effusive praise of all things Apple (not to mention Steve Jobs), but I do connect with him on the wonderful randomness of iPod’s shuffle feature.

So as I head out, the first song up is:

  • Rock, Salt and Nails by the original J.D. Crowe and the New South.  This is the 1970s band that featured youngsters Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, and Ricky Skaggs.   I’ve always loved this song.  It is a modern tune, but it sounds like it was written a hundred years ago.  Thanks to Cracker Barrel Records for reissuing this classic album on CD.
  • Then I get a live version of You Don’t Have to Move That Mountain from Nickel Creek’s Reasons Why album.   Toward the end of this version Chris Thile has a little mandolin break that shows the craziness and inventiveness of this guy’s mind.  He doesn’t play a lot of notes (I know that will surprise Thile fans) but its the notes he plays that are such fun to listen to.
  • Next I get a couple of electric guitar heavy tunes from The Waybacks, a favorite of mine from San Francisco (Good God, James Nash can play), and Cross Canadian Ragweed, an alt-country band whose album I bought on a whim while visiting the wonderful Lone Star Music store in historic Gruene, Texas last year.
  • Then Patty Griffin’s Kite came on.  This was another CD I bought on a whim after hearing it played over the store’s speakers while shopping at the neighborhood Barnes and Noble.  I’ve since fallen in love with Patty Griffin.  (Shush…don’t tell my wife.)
  • Alison Brown followed with The Devil Went Down, a nice banjo tune from Fair Weather.    I love Alison Brown but every time I hear her I feel a little sorry for her parents.  She’s a Harvard grad with a MBA, and I think about all the money that went to those institutions of higher learning to turn out…a world class banjo player!  But then I think, jeez she’s doing what she loves (what parent doesn’t want that for their child) and she used that MBA to start her own successful record company.  So the feeling quickly passes.
  • Then my little mini-tour ends with three live performances.  The first was Ain’t That Peculiar by the New Grass Revival, with John Cowan doing his best Marvin Gaye impersonation.  That was followed by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives (best band name ever) with a terrific banjo/mandolin duet from their acoustic/bluegrass album recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.  And in a quirk of fate that only the iPod shuffle can produce, that was followed immediately by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder playing Shady Grove at breakneck speed live at…the Ryman Auditorium.  Andrew was with me for this part of the ride and he said, “What are the odds, out of 2,385 songs, that you’d get two in a row live from the Ryman?”

The Ryman…Mother Church of Country Music.   With my playlist, those odds are actually pretty good.

And you knew this was leading up to a video.  I couldn’t find Ricky Skaggs playing Shady Grove on You Tube (even though this was from a PBS special), but I did dig out this fabulous video of Skaggs and his band playing at the Ryman with The Chieftains, as they blend folk and bluegrass (Cindy and Cotton Eyed Joe) with several Irish tunes.  This one performance is like the randomness of my musical tastes.  Stay with it to the end to catch some great dancing by members of the band.


More to come…