Infrequently here at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, I reach into the archive to feature an album that was released several years ago. This time out, I'm only going to 2009 for Sam Bush's most recent recording, "Circles Around Me." Upon listening today, I've updated and expanded my original review published upon release.
Sam Bush "Circles Around Me" Sugar Hill
Is it really possible that "Circles Around Me" represents only the sixth solo album of fresh material from New Grass Revival founder and all-around mandolin wizard Sam Bush?
Playing bluegrass mandolin, Bush is without equal. He is loose and laid back, a proverbial Jimmy Buffett for the Telluride set, and yet he remains astonishingly precise and rhythmic in his playing. Coupled with a distinctive voice and a coterie of musical friends built over forty-plus years as a leading figure within newgrass, bluegrass, and acoustic circles, Bush's recording projects are always welcome.
On "Circles Around Me," six years later still the most recent recording we have from the four time IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year, Bush concentrates on what he does best: enlivening acoustiblue music with brightness and hominess. Even on the most urbane material- "Junior Heywood" a chamber-like trio performance with Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas and "The Old North Woods"-Bush and his cohorts approach things as they might a living room jam.
Live, Sam Bush always appears to be the happiest fellow on stage and on this 15-cut album he seems positively euphoric. A charging bluegrass spin through "Roll On Buddy, Roll On" (sparked by a lead vocal turn from Del McCoury) leads into a banjo-punctuated account of the failed robbery and murder of Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw regular David Akeman. "The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle" is a masterfully constructed and engaging tale (written by Bush with Fervor Coulee favorites Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson) and (another Fervor Coulee pal) Jeff Black's aching "Gold Heart Locket" receives the performance it has long deserved. New Grass Revival fans will appreciate the album's closing track, Ebo Walker's "Whisper My Name."
A few traditional songs are renewed-"Diamond Joe" and "Midnight on the Stormy Deep" (on which McCoury again appears) along with an archival 1976 take of "Apple Blossom" featuring Courtney Johnson-and provide the album's foundation. The new Bush original, "Blue Mountain," is a standout, instrumental performance. Songs from Pete Kuykendall and Tom Grey and Jerry Stuart are also included; the title track is a powerful Black-Bush co-write. A hidden bonus track is included, a lively, straight on, and decidedly non-bluegrass take of "They're Red Hot."
"Circles Around Me" bridges the philosophical chasm between traditional bluegrass and more progressive sounds in a manner that debunks the argument that the gulf is significant. It was nominated as IBMA album of the year in 2010 (losing to "Dailey and Vincent Sing the Statler Brothers!"), and "The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle" was tagged as a nominee for Song of the Year. The album was nominated for the Bluegrass Grammy in 2011, an award that inexplicably went to Patty Loveless for "Mountain Soul II."
If you don't own "Circles Around Me," it is a wonderful album. If you have it, give it a fresh listen.