There are acoustic guitar solos and banjo solos, and smiles
on your face. It could be an original song about playing at Telluride or a traditional
song about working for a rich man, but it’s sung in a straight-forward baritone
with some delicious high harmonies for emphasis. Pleasure is the order of the
day. And then comes the mandolin solo that sends you flying into ecstasy.
Sam Bush is that mandolin player, the guy who’s been on well
over a hundred records during the last 35 years or more. Nobody else plays the
instrument like Bush, who seems unconcerned that the mandolin traditionally
works within a fairly limited series of styles. Bush can play just about
anything on that little eight-stringed lute.
While he’s best known as a sideman for the likes of Emmylou
Harris or Lyle Lovett, or as a member of the legendary New Grass Revival, Bush
has turned out eight solo albums now, showing increasing interest in stepping
out as a vocalist. Circles Around Me mixes a few traditional bluegrass numbers with some country flavored pop and
some gorgeous nearly jazz-like pieces. No matter the quality of the song – and
the title track is a mite forgettable, while “Souvenir Bottles” is as powerful
a tale of memories happy and sad of an old friend as you’ll find – Bush and his
hired guns give it their all; there isn’t a track on the record that doesn’t
have something to offer, even if it’s merely a good performance.
One song, “The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle,” co-written
by Bush with Verlon Thompson and the great Guy Clark, is simply stunning. It’s
built on the facts of David “Stringbean” Akeman, once of the Grand Ol’ Opry and
also of Hee Haw, and the way he and
his wife were murdered by burglars in their home. This prosaic concept turns
mythic with emphasis on Stringbean’s refusal to give up his Opry pay, the
presence of way more money in the home than the burglars ever saw, and a sadly
ironic twist on the fate of the overalls Stringbean used to wear.
Guest appearances by Del McCoury, Edgar Meyer, and Jerry
Douglas round out the album, showing just how Bush changes his approach to fit
the musicians around him. There’s also a nifty bonus track, a cover of Robert
Johnson’s classic hokum, “They’re Red Hot.”
Standout Tracks: “The
Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle,” “Souvenir Bottles” “Junior Heywood” STEVE PICK