Personalities | Sam Bush & Bela Fleck | Alt. Country & The Bluegrass Revival

In 1981, Sam Bush (mandolin, vocals, b. 1952) lost half of his band, The New Grass Revival, to road weariness. Courtney Johnson (banjo, 1939–96) and Curtis Burch (guitar, vocals, b. 1945) were exhausted by the tours with Leon Russell and the club and festival dates in between. So Bush and his remaining partner, John Cowan (vocals, bass, b. 1952) had to decide what to do: reinvent the band or fold up the tent.

A New Addition To New-Grass

It would have been a shame to give up. Ever since The Bluegrass Alliance renamed itself The New Grass Revival in 1971, it had been such a leader in progressive bluegrass that the movement eventually took its name from the band. Bush in particular had redefined the mandolin by adapting fast fiddle solos to the instrument and by inventing rhythm figures that owed as much to Chuck Berry and Keith Richards as to Bill Monroe. To keep going, he’d need to find someone who had redefined another instrument in a similar way.

When Ricky Skaggs married Sharon White in 1981, a skinny, 22-year-old kid from New York City joined in the jam at the reception and played the banjo in a radically different manner. Instead of speeding up his licks as every other banjoist did, he slowed them down so he could explore melodies and harmonies those other players had never attempted. His name was Bela Fleck (banjo, b. 1959) and Bush immediately recruited him for The New Grass Revival.

With fourth member Pat Flynn (vocals, guitar, b. 1952), the revamped New Grass Revival flourished throughout the 1980s. The band struck an apt balance between the instrumental virtuosity of Bush and Fleck and the singing of the folk-flavoured Flynn and the R&B powerhouse Cowan. They became a favourite of folk and bluegrass festivals, signed with Capitol Records, and even placed five singles in the lower reaches of the country charts.

Solo Success

Meanwhile, Bush and Fleck became central figures in a Nashville community that was revolutionizing the possibilities of old string-band instruments even as they were being hired to play on mainstream country sessions. Other key figures included fiddler Mark O’Connor, guitarist Tony Rice, fiddler Vassar Clements, dobroist Jerry Douglas, guitarist Norman Blake, fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolinist Ricky Skaggs and bassist Edgar Meyer. Out in California, similar experiments were being conducted by mandolinist David Grisman, fiddler Darol Anger, mandolinist Mike Marshall and fiddler Richard Greene.

These pickers dared to ask the questions: why limit these instruments to bluegrass? Why not also play Miles Davis’ ‘Solar’, Sam And Dave’s ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’, Bach’s Partita No. 3 and Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’? After all, the notes are there on our instruments; all we have to do is find them. Bush and/or Fleck would end up recording all those pieces and would inspire their peers to take similar risks.

These experiments reached a...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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