by David Royko
On The Edge
Circles Around Me
Much has already been written about mandolinist/fiddler/singer Sam Bush returning to his roots with “Circles Around Me.” Well, yes, but that is as it has always been with Sam Bush albums. The acknowledged King of Newgrass music and founder/leader of New Grass Revival from 1971 through 1989 has more than a half-dozen solo albums under his belt, and the first one opened with “Big Mon,” the instrumental Bill Monroe self-portrait. Every album since has featured--not just dabbled in--bluegrass and pre-newgrass music, and not out of any sense of obligation. It is where he comes from, and he absolutely loves it. And, Bush is great at it all.
What is different this time is the conscious, and slightly melancholic and wistful, glance back, though more in theme than musical style. From the opening title track, Bush is contemplating mortality and his own place in the world. And it is a bit jarring, coming from one of music’s seemingly eternally youthful firebrands.
At the same time, it is invigorating by the end, because what he created in his early days, exemplified by two now-classic New Grass Revival closing cuts, still sounds so fresh. “Souvenir Bottles," here tightened up but with its built-in nostalgia intact, sounded slightly quaint in the ‘70s as delivered by the new hippies on the block. Now it comes full circle, with Bush representing the sage as well as the youngster listening in awe, like a man looking in the mirror in disbelief at the wizened visage glaring back. The hushed transition between Scott Vestal’s banjo solo and Bush’s mandolin exploration is among the disc’s highlights.
The CD is packed with reflective moments, even if they’re not always explicit, with Tex Logan (“Diamond Joe”) and John Duffey’s Country Gentlemen (the crackling waltz, “You Left Me Alone”) circling around him, while Bush spins his own ellipses of instrumental newgrass gold on “Blue Mountain.”
Nobody is better than Bush at the bluesy instrumental side of Monroe, and adding to the bittersweet ancient tones he conjures on “The Old North Woods” are bassist Edgar Meyer with Meyer’s son George and wife Connie on violins. Family is further touched upon with the brief “Apple Blossom” fiddle/banjo duet, posthumously featuring original NGR banjoist Courtney Johnson, the track’s dedicatee along with Sam’s recently deceased dad. Bush also tosses his hat into the ring of murder balladeers with an effective co-composition (written with Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson), “The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle,” a “true song” (as
Vestal, bassist Byron House, drummer (this IS newgrass music) Chris Brown, and guitarist Stephen Mougin are Bush’s house band, and besides those already mentioned, exquisite guest turns are provided by singer Del McCoury and Jerry Douglas. Bush has never made a better record as he stands firmly in the center of these massive circles, creating new ones for his fellow future giants. (Sugar Hill Records,