“It’s overwhelming and humbling,” he says of his lifetime achievement award from the AMA. “It goes along with the title cut of my album, Circles Around Me, which basically says, how in the hell did we get this far? In my brain I’m still 17.”
But honors are not what drive him. “I didn’t get into music to win awards,” he says. “I’m just now starting to get somewhere. I love to play and the older I get the more I love it. And I love new things.”
Among those new things are the growing group of mandolin players that identify Bush as their musical role model in much the same way he idolized Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns.
“If I’ve been cited as an influence, then I’m really flattered because I still have my influences that I look up to,” he says. “I’m glad that I’m in there somewhere.”
Sam has helped to expand the horizons of bluegrass music, fusing it with jazz, rock, blues, funk and other styles. He’s the co-founder of the genre-bending New Grass Revival and an in-demand musician who has played with everyone from Emmylou Harris and Bela Fleck to Charlie Haden, Lyle Lovett and Garth Brooks.
And though he’s best known for jaw-dropping skills on the mandolin, he is also a three time national junior fiddle champion and Grammy award winning vocalist.
“In the acoustic world, I’ve been pretty lucky to play with almost every one of my heroes. I’ve gotten to play with Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, I’ve been to the mountain,” says Sam with a smile.
But his greatest contribution may be his impact on the future. “I’m secure with what I can do and I know what I can’t do,” he says. “You just have to stand there and applaud the great young talent. “Chris Thile, Wayne Benson, Shawn Lane, Matt Flinner, Ronnie McCoury, Mike Marshall—they play in ways that I can’t play,” he says of today’s younger generation of mandolin players. “I’m hoping to be around for the next generation that comes along after that group. That’s going to be something. The music keeps evolving.
“It’s crazy to think about,” says Sam of his influence on today’s crop of mandolin players. “I’m proud to be part of a natural progression in music. And I hope to still be playing 30 years from now.”
That said, it’s not surprising that Sam still has goals. “I want to grow as a songwriter, as a song collaborator,” he says. “There are still a lot of things I haven’t discovered about playing mandolin. I want to be able to be secure in the styles that I know how to play well, but I also want to explore other styles that I haven’t learned yet.”
“I want to improve as a singer,” he adds. “I have to work harder on singing than I do on playing.”
“As long as I’m alive I hope I have the ability to play,” says Sam, a two-time cancer survivor. When the ability to play is taken away, it’s humbling. It teaches you a lesson: don’t take it for granted.”
Here’s to the next 30 years.