If joy were a person, he’d bring both peace and frenzy. He’d be full of music, light, and energy that soothes even as it stirs us up. Eyes closed, wire-rim glasses in place, mandolin pressed against his ribs, joy would be Sam Bush on a stage.
“I feel fortunate that when it’s time to play, no matter how I feel physically or mentally, once the downbeat starts, my mind goes to a place that’s all music,” says Bush. “The joy of the music comes to me and overtakes me sometimes––I just become part of the music.”
That rapt merging of life and art fills Bush’s new album Storyman, a freewheeling collection that gleefully picks and chooses from jazz, folk, blues, reggae, country swing, and bluegrass to create a jubilant noise only classifiable as the Sam Bush sound. Many of the songs are stories––several of them true––and the legendary mandolin player co-wrote every one of them with friends including Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Jon Randall Stewart, Jeff Black, and others.
The Father of Newgrass and King of Telluride has long since established himself as roots royalty, revered for both his solo and sideman work, which includes time with Harris, Lyle Lovett, and Béla Fleck. But instead of kicking back and soaking up honors such as an Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award and suite of Grammys and International Bluegrass Music Association trophies, Bush still strives relentlessly to create something new.
John Cowan, also known as the Voice of Newgrass, has been singing his heart out for thirty-seven years now, and his soaring vocals have only improved with time. A true innovator, John applies his powerful pipes to genres from country, bluegrass, and gospel to soul, jazz, and rock-and-roll – often within the space of a single concert. His ability to move fluidly through multiple styles, and carry mesmerized audiences on the journey with him, has set him apart as one of the most loved and admired vocal artists of his generation, not just by fans and critics but among fellow musicians as well.
John Cowan was born on August 24, 1953, in Minerva, Ohio, and got his musical start in Louisville, Kentucky, where he played in various rock outfits like Everyday People and Louisville Sound Department in the early 1970s. But his rise to fame began in earnest in 1974 when he auditioned to play bass for the then up-and-coming New Grass Revival. The audition went well, and John was offered the gig. It wasn’t until he’d accepted the job that the shy 22-year-old casually mentioned, “By the way, I can sing too.”
With his distinctive, rock-tinged tenor vocal and heart-thumping electric bass, John, along with fellow New Grass Revival band mates Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, and Curtis Burch, and later Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn, introduced a new generation of music fans to an explosive, experimental and ultimately, eponymous brand of bluegrass. The “newgrass” sound spawned popular jam bands such as Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band in addition to shaping the sensibilities of country megastars Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, the Zac Brown Band, and Darius Rucker.
For the past quarter-century, Colorado’s Leftover Salmon has established itself as one of the great purveyors of Americana music, digging deep into the well that supplies its influences; rock ‘n’ roll, folk, bluegrass, Cajun, soul, zydeco, jazz and blues. They are firmly settled in the long lineage of bands that defy simple categorization, instead setting their own musical agenda. They are the direct descendants of bands like Little Feat, New Grass Revival, Grateful Dead and The Band, born of the heart and soul of America itself, playing music that reflects the sounds emanating from the Appalachian hills, the streets of New Orleans, the clubs of Chicago, the plains of Texas, and the mountains of Colorado.
During Leftover Salmon’s twenty-five plus years as a band they have headlined shows and festivals from coast to coast, released nine albums, and maintained a vibrant, relevant and influential voice in the music world. Over that time, Leftover Salmon’s sound has grown and evolved while staying true to the roots and guiding spirit of the band’s founding members – mandolinist/singer Drew Emmitt and guitarist/singer Vince Herman.
The evolution of Leftover Salmon’s music is influenced by Emmitt and Herman’s keen musical instincts, and follows a musical path that adheres to the deep tradition the duo started when they first formed the group along with deceased banjo player Mark Vann. The addition of new band members over the years has nurtured an unmistakable evolution and freshness in Leftover Salmon’s sound, and has added an edge to the long-lasting power of the band’s music. Today, Leftover Salmon endures as a vital and significant presence and holds an unequivocal stature as a truly legendary band.
Now fueled by the rhythm section of drummer Alwyn Robinson, keyboardist Erik Deustch and long time bassist Greg Garrison, the band is currently enjoying a creative renaissance. The front line trio of Emmitt, Herman and prodigious banjo player Andy Thorn are continually challenged and pushed in new directions as the band collectively searches for new spaces and sounds within their extensive catalog of songs.
The Travelin’ McCourys
The Travelin’ McCourys do not stand still. They are on the road—and online—entertaining audiences with live shows that include some of the best musicians and singers from all genres. It’s always different, always exciting, and always great music.
No other band today has the same credentials for playing traditional and progressive music. As the sons of bluegrass legend Del McCoury, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Rob McCoury on banjo continue their father’s work—a lifelong dedication to the power of bluegrass music to bring joy into people’s lives. And with fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram, the ensemble is loved and respected by the bluegrass faithful. But the band is now combining their sound with others to make something fresh and rejuvenating.
They recently played with the Allman Brothers at Wanee Fest and then brought the house down at Warren Haynes’ Annual Christmas Jam, an invitation only Southern Rock homecoming. Their jam with the Lee Boys was hailed by many as the highlight of the evening, and once word of the live video hit the streets, sent new fans online to watch a supercharged combination of sacred steel, R&B, and bluegrass. They’ve also performed with Warren Haynes, Phish, and have a tour scheduled with the aforementioned Lee Boys. Ronnie McCoury described it as “peanut butter and jelly.” It was just right.
They can push forward so far because their roots are so deep. The band has a confidence that only comes with having paid their dues with twenty years on the bluegrass road. Other groups and new fans hear this immediately—the tight rhythm, the soulful material, and the confidence in taking bluegrass from the safety of the shore into uncharted waters.
Ronnie says, “We like to go in and play traditional bluegrass music the way we do it with Dad, but we also like to be able to step into situations where we can really stretch out. If we need to plug in, we’ll plug in. We’re open to anything.”
It’s that attitude, backed up by talent, that marks great musicians, traditional or progressive. The Travelin’ McCourys are twenty-first century musical pilgrims and adventurers. They’re onto something new, just like Bill Monroe was in the 1940s, but now we can see and hear that adventure live or online. Go see them, or—if you hold still long enough—they’ll come to you.