“Circles Around Me” by Sam Bush

Sam Bush
Circles Around Me
Sugar Hill Records
5 stars (out of 5)

The opening guitar chords in Sam Bush’s new CD Circles Around Me signal that this is a new turn in an old story. Sam Bush has produced a fine album of fourteen songs that return to an earlier era while forging into new territory. This is a neat trick, but Sam pulls it off with conviction and his customary high musicality. Sam uses his touring band of Scott Vestal, Byron House, Stephen Mougin, and Chris Brown to set and maintain the Bush sound while inviting a number of guests to share the microphone. Songs by Ebo Walker and an appearance Courtney Johnson reach back to his days in New Grass Revival. Four songs exceeding six minutes in length suggest the importance of the jam in a Bush performance or recording. Three traditional songs and a guest appearance by Del McCoury recall the importance of straight ahead bluegrass music in Bush’s music; the duo presents two Bill Monroe songs. All told, the CD communicates an elegiac tone in which Bush seems to be seeking to highlight and summarize his long, successful, and creative career.

It often seems that at a certain age — Bush is 57 — writers decide to look back at their careers and do some self assessment. These songs (or stories) are usually filled with regret, remembrance, joy, or some combination of these emotions common to people who have gained perspective and maturity. Circles Around Me introduces this CD and serves the purpose of opening the door of memory while leaving it open for still further growth and development. Albums often open with a bang, as if designed to grab and hold onto the listener. This song asks “how in the world did we get this far, holding tight to the tail of a shooting star?” Bush acknowledges the people and forces that have come into his life and suggests that those he’s influenced through the years are “running circles around me now.” There’s little if any regret to this refrain.

One of the most delightful elements of this album is the way Sam includes shades and shadows from his past in new and interesting ways. Songs from NGR days like “Souvenir Bottles” and “Diamond Joe” mix with the new murder song “The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle,” a true story about the murder of Grand Old Opry star David “Stringbean” Akeman. He includes two older Bill Monroe songs sung with Del McCoury, who, along with his current acclaim, sang as a Bluegrass Boy early in his career. Then he writes a “Monroe-like” waltz tune and presents it with Edgar Meyer on bass, along with the rest of his family. The late Courtney Johnson, banjo player with NGR, and an Ebo Walker song help make the historical connection. The combinations and memories running through the disk circle back on themselves, reinforcing the title, “Circles Around Me.”

A highlight of Circles Around Me is Bush’s use of his road band at the center of the album. Scott Vestal on banjo, Byron House on bass, Stephen Mougin on guitar and harmony vocals, and Chris Brown’s percussion complement Bush and create the ensemble sound that grows when a band travels and performs together over a period of years. Guest appearances from Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Edgar Meyer on bass, along with his wife Cornelia Heard and son Nathan, and Del McCoury’s guest vocals are tastefully included and blend perfectly with the band.

With Circles Around Me Sam Bush has presented a brilliant collection of the old and the new, at once looking backward and forward. Still the consummate musician himself, he surrounded himself with others who share his vision and has produced a truly wonderful addition to the overall bluegrass catalog.

by Ted Lehmann

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