Sam Bush, it can be argued, is the most significant mandolin player of the last fifty years. From his groundbreaking work with the New Grass Revival and his expansive slate of collaborations in bluegrass, country, folk, and beyond, to his extensive catalogue of innovative solo album excellence and acceptance as the crown prince of Telluride, Bowling Green, Kentucky’s favoured son has long been the bellwether of all things acoustic and ‘grassy.
Storyman comes almost seven years after the exceptional Circles Around Me, an album that signified a high-point in Bush’s considerable solo output. As strong as that album was (it made my Top Ten for 2009 and, in hindsight and perusing that list while listening again this morning, it would now be certain of a Top 5 berth) Storyman is an even more complete encapsulation of Bush’s approach to acoustic, bluegrass shaded Americana.
[FYI- the following paragraph was sketched before I read the one-sheet. Just want that out there!]
When listening to Bush’s music over the course of twenty-plus years, no word has come to mind more frequently than ‘joy,’ and that continues throughout this amazing album. Opening with a double-shot of affirmation (“Play By Your Own Rules” and the island-flavoured “Everything is Possible,”) Storyman is an album that challenges the listener to stare down mortality and embrace the pure positive vibes that surround us. Co-written with Jon Randall Stewart, “I Just Wanna Feel Something” closes the album and while ostensibly about the community of jamming, the song’s message goes well beyond the circle.
A pair of instrumentals is featured. “Greenbrier” is a fully-charged demonstration of the dexterity of the Sam Bush Band including Todd Parks (bass,) Stephen Mougin (guitar,) Scott Vestal (banjo,) and Chris Brown (drums.) With an extended mid-song jam that takes the tempo down for a few, the communication between band members is on display. Equally atmospheric but less energetic is “Not What You Think,” a band composition that plays like a newgrass concerto.
Not everything is completely upbeat and joyous, but Bush shades everything from the optimist’s perspective. Even the album’s most heavy song, a co-write with Guy Clark entitled “Carcinoma Blues,” flips the darkness with the sharpness of the barb: “Cancer, you ain’t rulin’ me.” Bravely, Bush decided that this song needed to be included on Storyman, recognizing that some may feel its inclusion is ‘too soon.’ “Lefty’s Song” dates back to the late 70s and was recently rediscovered by Bush on a cassette; telling the tale of a small town scribe and the delayed gratification that came with a life of obligation, Lefty is able to spend his final years with his long-ago “lost velvet girl.”
Given the album title, it is no surprise Bush emphasizes the story aspect of song to a greater degree than apparent on Circles Around Me, an album that features the magnificent “Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle” and a selection of older material that relay familiar tales. A personal journey of courtship (“Transcendental Meditation Blues,”) a familial tribute (“Bowling Green,”) and a tasteful diatribe against modern (the last thirty years) approaches to country music (“Handmics Killed Country Music”) are among the songs that bind the album into a cohesive document of story and experience.
I’ve never not enjoyed a Sam Bush album. Glamor & Grits and Howling at the Moon bring delight after many years, and I return to Laps in Seven at least annually. Storyman adds a rich chapter to the Sam Bush story. A great start to the musical summer of 2016.