A half a century ago, it was inevitable that the 1960s generation was going to put its mark on American roots music. It is hard to believe, but by 1970, bluegrass music was only 25 years old, having started when Earl Scruggs and his innovative three-finger style of playing the banjo was joined by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys in 1945.
As the times changed during the ’60s and ’70s, however, music of all stripes went through an open-minded revolution and that was also true of bluegrass. Scruggs had split from Monroe in the 1940s and then formed the legendary Flatt and Scruggs band with Lester Flatt. About 20 years in to that amazing run, Flatt and Scruggs split up in 1969. Then, Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Review with is young, hippy-influenced sons and a new musical direction was explored.
This was a heady time for progressive bluegrass music. In 1971, John Hartford sent a shot across the bow with his album “Aereo-Plain.” That same year, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was in the process of recording the landmark three-album project “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” where they recorded songs with old school bluegrass and country artists in an attempt to cross the very wide generation gap of those times as well as the redneck-hippy divide.
The year 1971 also marked the beginning of the Kentucky-based group New Grass Revival. With Sam Bush leading the way on the mandolin, the band solidified the new progressive roots music movement and the group’s name became the name of the fledgling genre, now known as “newgrass” music.
New Grass Revival went through a few personnel changes during their tenure, which lasted until 1989. Along the way, the band featured acclaimed musicians such as Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker, Curtis Burch, John Cowan, Bela Fleck, Pat Flynn and Butch Robins.
Since then, Bush has fronted the Sam Bush Band and has continued the open-minded way of mixing bluegrass music with other genres, from reggae to rock to the blues.
On Friday, Nov. 22, the Sam Bush Band will perform at the Appalachian Theatre in Boone.
Sam Bush is no stranger to Boone and Deep Gap, mainly because he befriended our local and late music legends Doc and Merle Watson many years ago. Bush toured with Doc and Merle on a Western run of shows in 1974.
“That was our first experience with them, when New Grass Revival toured with Doc and Merle Watson and Merle’s band Frosty Morn 45 years ago,” said Sam Bush. “We would open up the show and then Frosty Morn would play, and then Doc and Merle would play. Later on, members of Frosty Morn and some of us in New Grass Revival would join together at the end of the show. Plus, during that tour I got to play with Doc, Merle and Michael as well. We were caravanning together. We started in Winfield, Kan., at the Walnut Valley Festival and then went through Colorado and onto California, from San Diego all of the way up to Redwood. It was quite the experience, and it led to Courtney and me playing on the Doc Watson album Memories.”
Most people remember Doc Watson as a Moses figure of sorts when it comes to his career, especially considering that he lived to the age of 89 before he died in 2012. But in 1974, Watson was only 51 and finally making good money on the road after his appearance on the aforementioned “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which was released two years earlier.
Bush remembers him as that younger man, happy to be performing with his young son, Merle.
“What is fascinating to me about Doc was he was playing a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar on the streets and in venues back in the day,” said Bush. “People who wanted you to play square dances, they wanted you to play electric back then and Doc was a very good electric guitar player. When we recorded his “Memories album,” we actually did a cut of the old instrumental tune ‘Nagasaki,’ and Doc played a Gretsch Chet Atkins model electric guitar on it and it sounded great. Yet, the decision was made to not to include the one song on electric guitar on the record. But, I got to cut ‘Nagasaki’ with Doc playing a Gretsch Chet Atkins model electric guitar, and I just thought it was marvelous.”
As old as Watson would get and as deep into the roots music of the Appalachian Mountains that he would go during his career, Bush still found the Deep Gap legend to be a flexible artist.
“Doc Watson was a very progressive musician,” said Bush. “When you saw him play onstage, that is when he presented his ‘good ole country picking’ side. But Doc was not just a country musician, by any means, as he was a well-rounded and highly progressive musician. He had one of the most open minds of anyone I have ever met, musically and personally. During that trip together in 1974, we would be in their camper and Merle, Michael, Doc and myself would be listening to music by the Allman Brothers Band. Doc was digging on the guitar playing by Duane Allman. With Doc, it was all just music to him. He didn’t care for labels and he would say, ‘You put your own label on it. I’m just playing music.’”
Bush is a regular at the annual MerleFest music festival held in nearby North Wilkesboro, which was created in honor of Merle Watson and formerly hosted by Doc Watson before his death. But this weekend, he is looking forward to coming to Doc’s real home area.
“Doc had a great sense of humor and he loved to have fun,” said Bush. “The world saw him in his later years as the grandfather figure that was there to teach us all. But, I fortunately got to know him as a younger man.”