Let’s run down the list of things Sam Bush has been up to.
First was an April appearance at the acclaimed Americana summit Merlefest. Then came the May reunion of the Nash Ramblers, the all-star string band assembled by Emmylou Harris in the early 1990s for which Bush was something of a first lieutenant. Next was a return to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June, his 43rd consecutive visit to the mountain gathering. Finally, there was a recording session last week with Alison Krauss. All of this was either on top of, or in conjunction with, tour dates with the genre-jumping band bearing his name.
Not a bad way for the Bowling Green native, longtime regional performance favorite and Kentucky Music Hall of Famer to spend his spring and summer. What brings Bush’s bluegrass back to the Bluegrass, though, will be an appearance for the 899th taping of “The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour,” the weekly Lexington-based music program hosted by Michael Johnathon. Bush, who has been a guest numerous times, will be the show’s only featured artist for this week’s atypical Thursday night taping.
“Michael really wants to help you get your musical ideas across to people,” Bush said. “So I feel honored that he is going to give us the whole hour. That means we can take our time. With me being from Kentucky, it’s a big deal that this show has succeeded. There can’t be enough shows like ‘WoodSongs.’ They are a part of our culture.”
The WoodSongs visit will also mark Bush’s first Lexington visit since the release of his 2016 album, “Storyman.” It’s a typically far-reaching project in terms of the music it presents, encompassing everything from the progressive string sounds that date to his days with the New Grass Revival in the 1970s and ’80s to intensely traditional country adventures and more. But as the album title suggests, every song on the record has a story. Good thing, too, because Bush is something of a master at spinning a yarn.
Take for instance, “Carcinoma Blues,” a sobering “Storyman” portrait of cancer depicting not only the ones afflicted by the disease but those caring for them. Bush co-wrote it with the master songsmith Guy Clark. Both had their battles with cancer to draw on for the composition. Bush, 65, has dealt with various forms since the early ’80s but is in fine health today. Clark died from lymphoma last summer at age 74.
“We actually started writing it together back in, gosh, 2009,” Bush recalled. “I was asking about how he was doing and he asked me how I was doing. Guy was still taking some sort of chemotherapy pills at that time. He wouldn’t really tell me. He’d just go, ‘Ah, I just tell them to give me the pills.’ But the idea was the song would be written by a couple of fellas that had cancer before.
“I remember he was in the hospital before my record was going to be released. I said, ‘Guy, we put this ‘Carcinoma Blues’ song on the record. It’s coming out. It might make some people cringe, and he said, ‘Tough.’ He stretched that word out into two or three syllables.”
On the flip side of “Storyman” is the vastly more whimsical “Handmics Killed Country Music,” a song co-written by and sporting harmony vocals of Harris.
“Of course, it’s supposed to be light-hearted,” Bush said. “I think we have a thriving country music industry, so nothing has killed it at all. But we felt the sound of the music might have changed a little bit when people quit playing their rhythm guitars. You might not think of this as country, but when Elvis quit playing his rhythm guitar, his records sounded different.
“I had the phrase ‘Hand Mics Killed Country Music’ for a few years in my head. I would ask different people that I co-write with but nobody really wanted to write a song around it. Then Emmy and I one day were talking. I said, ‘I have this idea that I want to make into a real country music song. You want to write our next duet together?’”
Supplying the music underneath the “Storyman” songs is the Sam Bush Band — drummer Chris Brown, banjo player Scott Vestal, guitarist Stephen Mougin and bassist Todd Parks. The group’s cohesive but stylistically varied sound, Bush said, is a product not just of the various instrumental instincts involved but of the strong personal bond the members share.
“That’s because we’ve got such a great dynamic,” he said. “Honestly, there isn’t a more comfortable situation for me than walking onstage with these four other musicians because we’ve reached such a comfortable groove. When we go onstage, I just know it’s going to be great.”