If you’re a bluegrass music fan, you likely know that one of the last patriarchs of the genre, Ralph Stanley, died at age 89 two weeks ago. Along with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley, a banjo picker and “high lonesome” tenor vocalist, created the musical landscape that’s been navigated for seven decades by bluegrass artists in America and around the world.
A stage full of all-star disciples — the bands of Sam Bush, David Grisman and Jeff Austin — will perform at the second annual Green Music Center Bluegrass Festival in Rohnert Park this Sunday.
On the phone from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, last month, Sam Bush talked about his early experiences listening to Ralph Stanley and his brother Carter.
“I was fortunate enough to see the Stanley Brothers as a kid,” he said. “I saw them in ‘65 and ‘66 at the Roanoke Bluegrass Festival. Back then, Ralph sang just a few songs. He would sing ‘Little Birdie,’ and ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ and maybe ‘Little Maggie’ and ‘Pretty Polly.’ A lot of us are going to miss Ralph for a long time.”
Bush, who is recognized as one of the chief architects of “newgrass,” the jazzy and sophisticated modernization of classic bluegrass, talked about the importance of his predecessors and their music.
“I think it’s really important for youngsters to first learn bluegrass from the masters of the genre, the people that started it,” Bush said, “and then go ahead and make their own way and try to make their own music.
“That’s exactly what Bill Monroe encouraged people to do. I heard Bill talk with a young man who had written a tune that sounded just like a Bill tune. Bill was proud of him and said, ‘Well, that’s real good, now what can you do on your own?’ Folks like Bill Monroe, and especially Earl Scruggs, expected people to go on and make their own style.
“Now we have a generation of youngsters who haven’t heard the original people, don’t have the advantage I had. Maybe they’re only influenced by the newgrass-style bands. I encourage them to go back and check out the masters who made this music in the ’50s and the ’40s.”
Bush is a triple threat musically: a buoyant lead singer, a champion fiddler (National Junior Champion three years running as a teen), and most famously a dazzling mandolinist. He is known for and widely emulated as a powerful, percussive rhythm player. He is a three-time Grammy winner, and on four occasions has been named the International Bluegrass Music Association Mandolin Player of the Year. In 2009, he was presented the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement for Instrumentalist Award.
For all his musicianship and “Father of Newgrass” status, Bush is just as well-known and appreciated for his energetic stage presence and band-leading. Known affectionately as “Sammy” and “Mr. Entertainment,” he is a joyful and rocking presence in performance.
At age 64, Bush is happy to hear that he neither looks nor acts his age on stage. “If I did I don’t know if I could get up there,” he said. “I’m fortunate that when it’s time to play, music overtakes me. If there’s a problem of the day, it leaves me. I’m able to concentrate on the music at hand. It is a joyful thing for me.
“What we do is travel for a living, playing is the fun part. That’s the reward, and getting to interact with the audience. I’m enjoying the heck out of it. My wife has said many times that nobody’s having more fun than me.”
At Green Music Center, Bush’s bandmates will be Scott Vestal on banjo, Todd Parks on bass, guitarist Stephen Mougin and drummer Chris Brown. Their performance will include songs from Bush’s just-released ninth solo album, “Storyman.”
Sunday, July 10, 3 p.m. The Sam Bush, David Grisman and Jeff Austin bands. $25-$45. Weill Hall at Green Music Center, Sonoma State University. 1801 East Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. 866-955-6040. gmc.sonoma.edu.
Hot Club of Baltimore Sunday, July 17
The Napa Valley Jazz Society (NVJS) presents an afternoon of gypsy jazz with Michael Joseph Harris’ Hot Club of Baltimore. This is Django Reinhardt’s signature style, the fusion of gypsy folk music and American jazz. $25 (NVJS members), $45. Silo’s, Napa. nvjs.org/tickets.