By David Royko
GLAMOUR & GRITS
Sugar Hill SHCD-3849
Whayasay/Same Ol' River/All Night Radio/Stingray/The Ballad Of Spider John/Watson Allman/Is This Love/Brilliancy/Spooky Lane/Ol' Joe Clark/The Lord Came Onto Me/(One Night In Old) Galway
For a guy whose standing in the bluegrass world is equalled by few of his generation, and surpassed by none, Sam Bush's solo album output has been sparse. "Glamour & Grits" is either his second, third, fourth, or fifteenth, depending on how you count them. Technically, his only other one is "Late As Usual" (Rounder, 1984), though a case could be made that "Sam And Alan Together Again For The First Time" (Ridge Runner, 1977), with Alan Munde, is a Sam Bush album, along with his 1969 debut as a high school hot shot in the context of the Poor Richard's Almanac group, also with Munde (last reissued on Ridge Runner, 1986). Some might even consider the eleven albums by the group he lead, New Grass Revival (1973-1989), as Sam Bush albums, though that would be a stretch.
But no matter how you count 'em, Bush's charismatic presence and extraordinary abilities have hit the mark again with "Glamour & Grits." Those expecting the potpourri of guests and styles that defined "Late As Usual," however, should know that "G&G" is cut from more of a piece, with the same core band on most tracks, though that in no way limits its diversity. That nucleus is ex-NGR bandmate John Cowan (bass, harmony vocals), and ex-Emmylou Harris Nash Ramblers Jon Randall (guitar, harmony vocals) and Larry Atamanuik (drums), with other pals dropping in here and there. For this review, assume that Bush plays mandolin unless otherwise noted.
The program is evenly split between vocal and instrumental tunes, and begins with the six-minute "Whayasay," co-written with Bela Fleck, who guests on this and two other tracks. The tune's up-tempo, 4/4 opening section is the closest to straight bluegrass that the album comes, and soon veers into typical Bush territory with a haunting 6/8 exploration of the 4/4 theme, striking a tone reminiscent of earlier Bush compositions like "Diadem" and "Crooked Smile," before returning to the fast 4/4. It gives Bush, Fleck and Randall opportunities to construct compelling solos in different moods, and is one of the strongest tracks on the album.
"Same Ol' River," written by Jeff Black, and "All Night Radio," by Tim Krekel, feature Bush's warm and friendly voice, and while both are very radio-friendly, the latter is the obvious first choice for a single, with it's nostalgic theme of coming of age with the soundtrack of the hit parade. Al Kooper's prominent piano and organ intensifies the evocative atmosphere of the tune, and Cowan's high harmonies rouse memories of NGR. "Same Ol' River" rolls along with Sam waxing philosophical on the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and includes Fleck's banjo in a back-up role.
Bush's "Stingray" follows, in a more polished, though no less exciting, version than that which appears on the 2-CD various artists "Live In Telluride" set from 1992. It is a scalding mandolin showcase, with an unaccompanied introduction that Bush cleverly incorporates into the main body of the piece.
Willis Allan Ramsey's lovely "The Ballad Of Spider John," about an ex-outlaw turned hobo hunting for his lost love, brings Bush (on guitar and lead vocals) and Cowan (on vocals only) together with Jerry Douglas and his resonator guitar. Next up is Bush's jaunty "Watson Allman," a tribute to two of his slide idols, Merle and Duane, giving him a turn on his slide mandolin, again with spare accompaniment, provided by Atamanuik and Mark Winchester on acoustic bass. It is a swampy blues with an irresistible hook and spicy soloing from the leader.
Bob Marley, another Bush deity, is represented by "Is It Love," and Bush once again asserts his position as the king of reggaegrass. Al Kooper's organ reappears, and Bush and Atamanuik lock with Cowan in a fat and funky groove that should induce widespread dancing when performed at festivals. Bush follows this with a skittering, unaccompanied mandolin traversal of "Brilliancy," which leads into "Spooky Lane," another original that features electric fiddling by the boss. Though rightly lauded as perhaps the greatest mandolinist alive, Bush's dark and snarling sound on fiddle is equally distinctive, as this menacing track demonstrates.
This Darrel Scott/Vernon Thompson version of "Ol' Joe Clark" is a knockout. Bush's vocal delivery is impassioned, and the tale it spins is further illuminated by his soulful fiddle and slide mandolin. Bush collaborated with Cowan and Jim Roberts on "The Lord Came Onto Me," a twin guitar gospel trio track featuring Cowan, Bush and Randall, bringing NGR's "You Don't Knock" to mind. The disc wraps up with "(One Night In Old) Galway," an Irish rocker that finds Bush and Fleck, the tune's co-authors, trading hot licks on electric mandolin and electric banjo.
As eclectic as "Glamour & Grits" is, one never gets the feeling of a dilettante indulging his whims. Sam Bush is one of those rare artists who walks the walk and talks the talk of all the styles he plays as if he were born to play them all. From the ever-mounting evidence, he clearly was.
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