Whenever a band switches from an independent record label to a major one like Capitol, there's usuallysome talk about how the change will affect its music. In the case of New Grass Revival, it's strictly business as usual.
Well, sort of.
The last NGR single, "Unconditional Love," nearly broke into the Top 40 on the country charts, making it the band's hottest single so far. But apart from increased distribution, airplay and promotional clout -- pleasant perks, to be sure -- things aren't all that different, according to mandolinist and fiddler Sam Bush, who will perform with the group at the Birchmere Friday and Saturday nights.
"Musically, I don't think it has affected us at all," he says, noting that the band's next single "Can't Stop Now" is "one of the most typical-sounding New Grass songs going." The only change is that, "we're trying to get a few songs, within what we do, on the radio more ... Ricky Skaggs, the Whites, the Dirt Band, the Judds -- all the people using acoustic instruments to open up the airwaves can't help but pave the way for us."
Since Bush cofounded the group in the early '70s, NGR has been on the cutting edge of the progressive bluegrass movement. From the start, the band sought to play all kinds of popular music using traditional bluegrass instrumentation. Despite personnel changes, the current group -- which consists of Bush, banjoist Bela Fleck, bassist John Cowan and guitarist Pat Flynn -- is widely regarded as one of the tightest and most eclectic string bands in the country, with a repertoire that extends from bluegrass, country and gospel to R&B, pop, jazz and even reggae.
The reggae influence, Bush concedes, is his own doing. "I love reggae, especially Bob Marley and some other forms of it -- the Police. I think I'm beginning to hear 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' as reggae."
But the other ingredients that go into the NGR mix aren't so easily traced. John Cowan, for example, sings R&B material with soulful authority. But Bush says that Fleck, the most jazz-oriented member of the group and a remarkable instrumentalist and composer in his own right, has brought more than a few of those R&B songs to the band's attention. Likewise, arranging the songs is a give-and-take process shared by all the members.
"It takes a little longer that way, but we have a rule now," Bush explains. "We try out everyone's idea before we make a decision ... We've learned to have good manners with each other as we try to be creative."
In addition, each member of the band has always been free to pursue other interests on his own solo albums. Fleck, alone, has recorded five solo albums.
Pop and rock audiences were introduced to NGR when the band toured with Leon Russell in the '70s. It was during that association, Bush says, that they discovered what it was really like to entertain an audience, "not just focus on your instruments."
But for Bush, at least, the initial appeal of playing pop and rock music came much earlier, in the mid-'60s. By then, he was already a junior division fiddle champ, growing up in Bowling Green, Ky., listening to the "Grand Ole Opry" and the recordings of Tommy Jackson, Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns.
"I really wasn't attracted to rock and roll until I heard the Beatles," Bush recalls. "I heard 'Rubber Soul' and 'I've Just Seen a Face' and I thought, well, that sounds like bluegrass to me. So the Beatles really started New Grass."
Several years ago NGR's future was placed in doubt when Bush learned he had cancer. After word got out, bluegrass and folk musicians from around the country banded together and held fund-raising concerts to help cover the cost of his treatment. Several of the concerts were organized by autoharpist Bryan Bowers.
"I was a sick boy and we had to take care of it and we did," Bush says, looking back at the support he received. "I was very lucky in that my cancer was caught in time to arrest it and cure it. I've gone through my five years now, and they say I'm cured. So my doctor tells me I'm just like everybody else now: I can get it again."
Bush laughs and then turns serious. "No, I just found out that I had a whole lot of friends when I lived through that. It was all the good feelings -- knowing all these people wanted to help me out ... I might not have thought much about bluegrass, but it was really the bluegrass musicians who helped save my life."