I love the Bonnaroo site's opening line for this guy's bio: "Grammy Award winning multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush doesn't seem old enough to be a musical legend. And he's not. But he is." (1) What a compliemnt! and (2) How the hell do you live up to that?
An honoree of the Americana Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association, as well as being known as the King of Telluride and the King of Newgrass, he's already got a lifetime achievement award from AMA. This album, even, is a question of how he's gotten this far and this much. He's only 57 (younger than my mom). As the years have gone by, he's just grown to love music more and more. He's played with everyone on everything, and is still going.
"Circles Around Me" is the title and kick-off track. We're led in with this incredible guitar line that's just breathtaking. Then his voice starts going, and for someone at this age, the guy is so amazing. I know someone back home who I'm sure fancies himself a young Sam Bush, but the first minute of this song along completely proves him wrong. The lyrics are gripping in a dreamer's way - the song's mostly asking how we got this far, and being in amazement of it. It's a great intro to an introspective album on a life so far.
"You Left Me Alone" is the deep southern man's heartbreak song if I've ever heard one. The vocals are what anyone would make fun of when they're mocking the style, but that just mean they're very well done. The lyrics are actually pretty damn meaningful and full of hurt. You'd never know it if you weren't listening intently to those lyrics though - the voices sound somewhat chipper and upbeat, especially with those instruments just strumming right along with the whole thing!
If the other songs have had a southern porch feel, this next one has a cabin in the woods feel (and not the movie) for "The Old North Woods," perhaps even mixed with a little Italian villa feel. The strums are there, but the trill on the string (I'm very frustrated - I don't actually know what that sound is labeled...) is what brings you down the canals of Italy a little ways. It really is an interesting sound that doesn't make complete sense to the ears, but between all of these and the violin strains in the background that come in a little later, it just makes for this string mixture that's totally interesting to think on. And there's an Asian flair on the end, of course. The roles that a mandolin can play are astounding.
The title of this next song intrigued me from the moment I looked at the playlist: "The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle." Interesting right? The song has a deeper feel to it as things get started, telling us a story of the death of these two in Hilltop, Tennessee. There were thieves, just planning on robbing the banjo man, but things went wrong and there was more of a struggle than they expected. They got greedy for more than they originally planned on taking, and Stringbean wound up shot dead, right before Estelle. 23 years later, when the house was being torn down, $20,000 was found in the chimney, hidden from the robbers, really showing how pointless this whole struggle wound up being for someone. It's a story to hear for sure.
"Blue Mountain" has a very rock bass line at the start, but it picks back up into a good mountain pickin' theme. The start is up an octave, then comes back down in the next minute of the song, creating movements in the piece. A guitar takes over for its part next. This is some really cool arranging throughout the strings, with more truly impressive work. There's even this wild little jazz/blues work around the three minute mark, just showing how diversified this music can really get. Here's a video done in Lexington, KY - crappy visual quality, but the music's still there.
"Gold Heart Locket" presents a sweet sound, with just an ease of strings and a wish of a guy to get back home. It's a tough journey, but he's going home to his true love, so he'll do anything to get back there. It's really just so ridiculously sweet of a notion, let alone the sound of strings just playing us back out there. It's a simple love somehow, despite the hardship of getting back there.
Judging on the track length alone, I'm going to guess that "Junior Heywood" is another instrumental track - those just always seem to be longer. This one's interesting again, as it employs a slight Asian theme, as well as some Western elements. I really hope someone other than me is hearing that in this. It may just be in the way the strings are being played, and the fact that just a slight sound of steel is giving a sound of its own. There is a definite structure throughout, carrying the song in a very organized way. The mandolin (I'm guessing) seems to be what's carrying the primary melody for a long time, but then this cello comes in that just changes everything. I've never heard one take such prominence in a bluegrass song before.
"Midnight On The Stormy Deep"is straight out of "O Brother, Where Art Thou" (I still haven't seen that movie - I know, I know... But I've heard the soundtrack!) with its full band effort, relying on the instruments to play just as much of the song as the words to. The rhythm is cute and steady, with a fiddle to keep the folks moving on the dance floor. It's great background music, but not necessarily something I could loose myself in on an intent listen.
Next up is a pretty sweet sound of a fiddle for "Apple Blossom." This particular stringed instrument takes center stage and plays on out through the orchard in this minute and a half little interlude. It's a nice addition to the album, as we've sort of heard every other string player have their moment in the sun.
"Souvenir Bottles" is sort of funny, but I don't think it's meant to be. If you've ever heard the joke about the guy who saves every bottle he drinks, then the funny sentiment might hit you like it does me. This song's about a guy who's saved bottles from his travels and rough times with women throughout the country. Pretty sure he dies at the end of the story, or else someone else does. The music's just slightly darker, giving the right elements throughout. The beats don't cut altogether cleanly in the bridge around 2:30, as they seem to be trying for, but this song isn't quite as crisp as some of the others anyway. It's a bit more raw. For an eight minute long song, I wouldn't have expected the words to begin with. It's sort of a brilliantly constructed story though, I have to say.
Final song time - "Whisper My Name." They throw their absolute all into this last, fast number. The movement on those strings is insane, and the fact that they keep it up quite so long (the song stands at about seven minutes) is really impressive, and almost makes my fingers hurt a little bit. Can you imagine the calluses on this guy's fingers?? Oh, shoot, yah know what? I spoke too soon. The song actually cuts off at about 2:30, takes a break, and there's a hidden track! Huh, go figure - I haven't heard that in a while. I would guess the name is "Hot Tamales and They're Red Hot," since that's the repeat line. It's a nice little closing number as we head on down the road at the end of the day (oh the visuals that pop into my head - thanks for bearing with me on those!).
Anywhos, here's the first song!
- "Circles Around Me"
- "Blue Mountain"
- "Out On The Ocean"
- "Gold Heart Locket"
- "Souvenir Bottles"
Obviously really impressive work happened throughout this album - some unforgettable stuff. It's awesome to experience the epitome of a genre's talent.