Album Review: Sam Bush – Circles Around Me

Juli Thanki | October 30th, 2009

sam-bush-circles-around-meAt 57, Sam Bush is only getting better with age. With Circles Around Me, he combines old and new sounds in an irresistible blend that ranks among some of his best solo work to date. Though he’s sharply dressed in a suit on the album cover (a far cry from earlier album covers like Glamour & Grits on which he sports an outfit befitting a colorblind transient–albeit one who owned a prewar Gibson F-5)–several songs recall his scruffy days as a member of the boundary-pushing New Grass Revival.

Bush actually gets a hand on instrumental “Apple Blossom” from New Grass Revival bandmate Courtney Johnson (banjo). The thing is, Johnson’s been dead for thirteen years. This 90-second song is from 1976 and previously unreleased; for NGR fans, it’s a treat to hear Bush and Johnson play together again, no matter how briefly.

“Souvenir Bottles,” originally from the New Grass Revival’s 1979 album Barren County is so depressing that listeners might want to spin “Whiskey Lullaby” afterwards as a pick-me-up, because lyrics don’t get much sadder than “He had been a road musician playing banjo with the band/He had a lot of souvenirs of a lot of one night stands/And they all were whiskey bottles/Plain glass and cheap/He poured his life out years ago and saved the memories,” especially when they’re sung by Bush’s warm, weathered voice. NGR’s “Whisper My Name,” the album’s hard driving closer, segues into a hidden track: the buoyant cover “They’re Red Hot” is one of the record’s most pleasant surprises, although invoking Robert Johnson raises a few questions, namely whether Bush made a similar Faustian bargain at a crossroads one night. Could there be any other explanation for such fine musicianship?

When you’re Sam Bush, you have the luxury of getting some mighty fine musicians to play on your record. His band, Byron House on bass, drummer Chris Brown, banjo picker Scott Vestal, and guitarist Stephen Mougin (Bush serves double duty with both mandolin and fiddle) work together like a well-oiled machine, and there are some big name guest stars who seamlessly fit in with Bush and the boys too. Most notably, Del McCoury shows up to sing on a pair of songs that were also recorded by his old boss, Bill Monroe; “Roll On, Buddy, Roll On” is one of the more traditional bluegrass numbers on the album, and the Bush and McCoury one-two vocal punch will likely make for happy fans.

Dobro whiz Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer join Bush on “Junior Heywood,” six minutes of auditory bliss bolstered by Meyer’s bowed bass. Come to think of it, Circles Around Me is something of a family affair for Meyer, as son George and wife Cornelia Heard contribute twin violins to somber instrumental “The Old North Woods,” a song seemingly made for this time of year as the colors of autumn slowly transform into grey winter.

There’s not a bum track on this album, but if there’s one that especially stands out, it’s “The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle.” Co-written with Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson, it’s the story of Hee-Haw musician/comedian David “Stringbean” Akeman and his wife, who were murdered by two men looking for Akeman’s rumored cash cache (they didn’t find much); he and Estelle were found the next day by Grandpa Jones. “It was just a simple plan/To rob a banjo man/But he wouldn’t let go of his Opry pay,” Bush sings, and the senselessness of the crime is further compounded when a stanza reveals that two decades later, $20,000 was found stashed in the Akemans’ fireplace, too rotted to be of any worth.

Bluegrass, newgrass, call it whatever you want. Circles Around Me is damn good music no matter what it’s classified as.

4 Stars

  1. Jon
    October 30, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Jeez, Jamie and Darrin get 5 stars, Sam’n’em only 4? Where’s the love?

    BTW, though it’s not really clearly pointed out in the review, Circles Around Me has far and away the biggest dose of straight-ahead bluegrass that Sam’s recorded, at least since signing with Sugar Hill. And with some help from Mojo (who gets a “vocal coach” credit in the liners), he’s singing better than ever.

  2. Rick
    October 30, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Most bluegrass artists featured here just don’t seem to garner much love from The 9513 faithful, but I do appreciate the variety of music types covered here. I do enjoy hearing Sam Bush when he appears on A Prairie Home Companion, and I’ve seen him live at Stagecoach where he put one fine show until launching into a long and mind numbing “jam session”. I also like the production he did on the Wild Jimbos album but wish he had demanded better material from the artists! Oh well…

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