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Sam Bush

Storyman – 2016 (Sugar Hill)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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It's been seven years since Sam Bush released a collection of songs (2009's "Circles Around Me"), but Bush has never left the bluegrass/jamgrass consciousness. He tours, mostly festivals, with his first-rate Sam Bush Band and has popped up as instrumental collaborator with Frank Solivan, Taylor Swift, Bela Fleck, David Grisman and countless others over the years.

"Storyman" is a throwback in the sense that it is an album to be listened to and considered as a whole, distinct from the one-song-at-a-time consumption patterns of the popular streaming services of the day. Overall and in most of its constituent parts, "Storyman" delivers strong musicianship, heartfelt vocals and a window into the country music tradition. It's a satisfying listening experience.

From the rolling mandolin introduction emblematic of Bush's playing, the album launches "Play By Your Own Rules," a sentiment that amply sums up Bush's career. A progenitor of the "newgrass" sound since the early '70s, notably in The Newgrass Revival, he has gone his own way in recent years, but always displaying a respect for bluegrass and country traditions.

Bush's throaty tenor vocals are an acquired taste. His musicianship, on fiddle, mandolin, or mandolin variants, cannot be questioned. Time and again on "Storyman" Bush's smooth, crisp and aggressive instrumental lines grab the listener and complement the strong lyrics ("Transcendental Meditation Blues" and "Everything Is Possible").

Scott Vestal, who plays in Bush's touring band, contributes mighty banjo fills throughout, and it would suffer greatly for his absence. Vestal has a light touch on fills ("I Just Want To Feel Something") and neatly tracks Bush's mandolin runs. It's a wonderful collaboration, brilliantly displayed on "Greenbrier," an instrumental that rolls sweetly but with syncopated counterpoints between Bush and Vestal.

Bush, having been in the game for many years, is respectful of country music and its traditions. "Bowling Green," a song nominally about Bush's father and his upbringing in Kentucky, mixes heartfelt lyrics and a smattering of callbacks to traditional tunes ("Soldier's Joy," "Whiskey Before Breakfast"). Bush wrote "Carcinoma Blues" with the late Guy Clark, and the song exemplifies Clark's spare arrangements, but spot-on sentiment.

"Lefty's Song," co-written in the 1970s with Stephen Brine is an old fashioned story about a Sunday semi-pro baseball player who is tied to family obligations. It's authentic and sweet. "Hand Mics Killed Country Music" is another throwback to a form known as a "country shuffle" in which long ago singers are referenced. Pig Rollins, the iconic Nashville session man, lays down the piano licks and Bush sings in tandem with Emmylou Harris, who he backed for many years as part The Nash Ramblers.

"Storyman" concludes with rich, non-traditional songs that feature bluegrass instrumentation. "Where's My Love" perhaps best suits Bush's vocal strength, while Vestal's musical chops are present throughout. "It's Not What You Think" is a loping instrumental with syncopated counterpoints to Bush's fiddle and mandolin work.

"Storyman" is a work pleasing in its individual parts, but meant to be heard in its entirety. Bush may have taken nine years between releases, but it was worth the wait.