By this point, the home state heritage sitting at the heart of Sam Bush’s music is pretty much impossible to conceal. For his appearance last night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center for “The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour,” such Kentucky-bred charm was on unavoidable display. You heard it during the nine-song set in “Bowling Green,” a new tale of farmers and fiddlers named after Bush’s hometown, as well as in “This Heart of Mine,” a 1975 classic resurrected from his early years with New Grass Revival and a prototype tune for the modern string music Bush has helped pioneer through ensuing decades.
But what was so intriguing about this “WoodSongs” recording, where Bush was the only guest, was how natural the blend of tradition and progression sounded. Much of that came from an expert band that included the ultra-tasteful banjo support of Scott Vestal and equally resourceful guitar work and harmony singing from Stephen Mougin. Ultimately, though, the catalyst for this program was Bush himself — a still-outgoing and personable presence whose love of stage performance remained obvious. Watching him deftly switch from mandolin to fiddle to slide mandolin, all while shifting styles and musical temperaments with each tune, was where the magic came in.
For the opening “Play By Your Own Rules,” his mandolin runs became a collective call to arms for his band, which then neatly dispatched myriad string music colors with Vestal doing much of the heavy lifting. The aforementioned “Bowling Green” let Bush’s fiddle lead establish a more dramatically traditional air while “I Just Wanna Feel Something” offered perhaps the evening’s most dramatic departure from the string music norm: a groove constructed around very credible blues and funk.
The highlight, though, was when Bush circled back to the sound he is perhaps best known for. On the instrumental “Greenbrier” (which, like all of the previously mentioned songs, save “This Heart of Mine,” hailed from Bush’s 2016 album “Storyman”), a darting, dancing mandolin lead led the band through the kind of jazz and groove-directed drive that essentially reinvented bluegrass more than 35 years ago. Last night, it was also the sound of a musical titan returning home.