The New Grass Revival: Pioneers of Progressive Bluegrass
This month, the New Grass Revival will be inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame. For people who are aware of their early history, this is a remarkable event that few could have envisioned when the band formed fifty years ago. It’s a story of how talent, persistence, and the pure love of playing together can result in a seismic shift in contemporary music.
Charles Samuel Bush grew up on a large farm outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky, with lots of music around. His father Charlie was a fiddle player who organized a lot of local jam sessions, and Sam learned the fiddle early in life. Watching the Flatt and Scruggs television show one night, Sam watched a seven-year-old blonde kid walk on stage and play several tunes on his mandolin with the legendary band; it was a young Ricky Skaggs. Sam asked his dad to buy him a mandolin. He lived six miles out of town, and he’s said that he felt that the fact that he had few distractions helped him develop a disciplined way of learning fiddle and mandolin. His dad began taking Sam to festivals and fiddle contests, and he won the junior championships at three national competitions. At one of those contests he met a banjo player from Oklahoma, Alan Munde. The seventeen-year old Bush was taking lessons from his music teacher, Wayne Stewart, and together they convinced Munde to move to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, to form a three-person band they called Poor Richard’s Almanac. They recorded an album of instrumental tunes in 1969, but soon after Munde received a draft notice and left to return to Oklahoma. The album, later released by the American Heritage Music Corporation, was a look into the future. Munde’s precise, lyrical and tasteful banjo-playing influenced a generation of banjo players and still does. Going on to play with Jimmy Martin, switching genres and joining the Flying Burrito Brothers, and then on to remain the driving force behind County Gazette for over twenty years, Munde remains a bluegrass legend.
That same year, Sam Bush attended the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina. There he heard a unique band, the New Deal String Band, who did both traditional bluegrass songs like “Groundspeed” and “Pike County Breakdown” mixed with Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Bob Dylan covers. Leroy Savage, the lead singer in the band, remembers how impressed he was with Bush’s playing given his young age. As Bush later said:
I saw these hippie guys jamming like mad in this field and I went up and made friends with them. They were pressing the boundaries big time, converting rock and roll songs into bluegrass. I remember them playing the Rolling Stones “No Expectations.” Meeting them was eye-opening for me.
Bush was working as a busboy in a Bowling Green Holiday Inn in late 1970 when Lonnie Peerce and Ebo Walker, two members of an established Louisville band called the Bluegrass Alliance, asked him to join them. The band was founded by Louisville flatpicker Dan Crary in 1968. Lonnie Peerce, a marginal fiddle player and singer, was the only original member who carried the name forward until the band disbanded in 1978. His single greatest attribute was his ability to recognize young talent, and his worst attribute was his inability to keep a band together; he was a difficult person to get along with. But a remarkable number of band members went on to great acclaim. Dan Crary became one of the early legends of flatpicking. Jack Lawrence played with the New Deal String Band and was Doc Watson’s sideman for twenty years after his son Merle passed away. Garland Shuping played with the Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse, Jimmy Martin, and Bill Monroe. Glen Lawson went on to play with JD Crowe and Spectrum. And then there’s Vince Gill, who joined the band in 1975 for several years. He left to replace Craig Fuller in Pure Prairie League and on to superstardom after that.
But in 1970, Crary was leaving the band, and although Sam was primarily known as a fiddler and mandolin player, Walker and Peerce wanted him to play guitar. And at the same time, country legend Roy Acuff, a friend of his father’s, wanted him to join his band. Sam had intended to study classical violin in college and suddenly had two other options. He wasn’t interested in traditional country music, even with a huge Opry star like Acuff, so he went with the Alliance. Shortly after, while playing at the Reidsville, NC Camp Springs festival in the summer of 1970, he jammed with a skinny guitar player that he convinced to join the band so he could switch to playing mandolin. The guitar player was named Tony Rice.
Courtney Johnson was born in Glascow, Kentucky. According to Curtis Burch, Johnson was a country boy who had rarely traveled outside of his home county, Barren County. In fact, his entire life, even during all the years with the band, he never lived anywhere except in his home county. He didn’t start playing the banjo until he was 25 years old and was influenced by Earl Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers and later by Alan Munde and Bobby Thompson, players who were experimenting with newer styles to augment the traditional Scruggs-style banjo rolls. Johnson added more chromatic scales, and at a blistering pace. When Alan Munde left Poor Richard’s Almanac, Bush called Courtney Johnson to take his place. Johnson was thirteen years older than Bush. They played together for a year until Bush left to join the Bluegrass Alliance. In 1971 when Buddy Spurlock left the Bluegrass Alliance, Sam and Lonnie Peerce called Johnson to join the band.
Curtis Burch grew up on the Georgia coast near Brunswick. He learned to play guitar from his dad when he was 10, and when he was 13, he attended a Louvin Brothers show at his local high school. The opening act was the legendary Jim and Jesse. When they started playing, Burch said he came out of his seat; he was hooked. A few years later he was listening to the Flatt and Scruggs song “Foggy Mountain Rock” and heard a new instrument he didn’t recognize; it was Josh Graves playing the dobro. He even had his dad call the radio station to find out what it was. He didn’t have access to a dobro so he converted a flat top guitar with a high nut and learned on that, finally getting a dobro when he was 18. Two years later he was playing in a band that opened for the Stanley Brothers in Jacksonville and was called up on the stage to play by Carter Stanley, a memory he still cherishes. Burch had heard the 1968 Dillards album Wheatstraw Suite, a change in direction for the band after the loss of Doug Dillard and considered by many to be a trailblazing album in progressive bluegrass music. He was also inspired by the guitar playing of Clarence White on the legendary Appalachian Swing album. After starting a family, he worked as an electrician with music on the side and at one point went to a Bluegrass Alliance show and jammed with the band that included Lonnie Peerce, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Ebo Walker and Courtney Johnson.
First time I saw Sam Bush was at Camp Springs the year before I joined, in 1970. I heard him playing and I said to myself ‘I have got to play with this guy’. He thinks like I think. Never dreamed I ever would, that he’d be calling me a year later to join his band. But for me it was exactly where I wanted to go.
Burch wanted to change directions and location. The now legendary luthier Randy Wood went to high school with Burch and had moved to Nashville to work with George Gruhn and another friend from near his hometown, Tut Taylor; they started GTR, later to become Gruhn Guitars. Burch decided to take a risk and move to Nashville in 1971. He did electrical work and odd jobs for GTR. One day he got a call from Sam Bush asking him if he could come to the Camp Springs festival in 1971. After playing with the Alliance for one year, Tony Rice was leaving to join JD Crowe and the New South. Burch auditioned and got the job; he felt that the fact he played dobro as well as guitar was an advantage. Rice told him “not to let them tell you to play the guitar like me.” Burch said “I can’t do that; I have to play it my own way,” and Rice said, “That’s what you should do.”
The Camp Springs Festival in Reidsville, NC in 1971 turned out to be a momentous occasion for several reasons. In fact, Sam Bush later said “This was the weekend it all changed.” For one thing, it marked the transition period for the Bluegrass Alliance as they lost Tony Rice and added Curtis Burch the same weekend; in fact, Rice played with the band on Friday and Saturday, and Burch on Sunday. For another, a filmmaker named Albert Ihde had almost stumbled into being paid to make a documentary about music, and he ended up at Camp Springs, courtesy of the festival owner, Carlton Haney, the “PT Barnum of bluegrass music.” Haney was quite a character, and he knew how to publicize. It didn’t hurt that giants of bluegrass were all there that weekend, with the exception of Bill Monroe, who ran his own festivals. The line-up included Earl Scruggs, The Osborne Brothers, Ralph Stanley (with Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley), Chubby Wise, Mac Wiseman, J.D. Crowe, and Jimmy Martin (with Alan Munde on banjo), plus The Country Gentlemen, the New Deal String Band, and Del McCoury. Ihde found himself at the junction of changing times in bluegrass, with traditional legends and up and coming more progressive bands. Haney himself described the festival as “the mixture of the short hairs and the long hairs.” The subsequent documentary, called Bluegrass Country Soul, was the first bluegrass documentary and captured this historic moment in time. This year is the 50th anniversary of that festival, and a special boxed set is available with a remastered video and several CD’s including music, along with an extensive 168 page book.
This is one of the clips from that movie, showing the Bluegrass Alliance with Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, Tony Rice, Ebo Walker and Lonnie Peerce, from Saturday that weekend. By Sunday, Rice was playing with J.D. Crowe and Curtis Burch had joined the Alliance.
By late 1971, the Bluegrass Alliance consisted of original band members Lonnie Peerce and Ebo Walker (whose real name was Harry Shelor), plus Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, and Curtis Burch. According to Burch, shortly after he joined the band, conflict developed between Peerce and Bush when Peerce copyrighted the band’s name. The conflict resolved when the entire band quit together, leaving Peerce the name and no band.
They had no name for their new band; in fact, Burch told me that for a few weeks they had some business cards printed up that said “Walker, Bush, Johnson, Burch”. Realizing that wasn’t really a great name, they thought about the last album the Bluegrass Alliance had recorded. The album was called Newgrass, a name that Ebo Walker had proposed. The new group liked it, and they added “Revival,” in part referencing the Creedence Clearwater Revival. They knew they had to have new material; they sure didn’t want to do songs like “One Tin Soldier.” And according to Burch, they each contributed material for their eponymous debut album. They had been playing regularly, and by the time they went into the Starday Records studio in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, they were a very tight band. Burch says that they didn’t need to rehearse. “I don’t even think we overdubbed anything except some vocal harmonies; it was all recorded live in the studio.” Burch also told me that Charlie Dick, Patsy Cline’s husband, was a fan of theirs and came to watch them in the studio numerous times. The album contained material from a variety of sources: one of Ebo Walker’s songs , “Whisper My Name;” a Norman Blake song, “Ginseng Sullivan;” a song written by one of their friends, Vassar Clements (“Lonesome Fiddle Blues”); and a song from the Dillard and Clark Expedition (“With Care from Someone”). And foreshadowing future events, a Leon Russell tune, “Prince of Peace.”
But the attention-getter for many, including me, was the opening cut. Sam Bush had wanted to record the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Great Balls of Fire” for several years and now he had a chance. The blistering breakneck speed, the amazing chromatic banjo runs, and the rock sensibility went beyond just making bluegrass versions of contemporary songs. This was actual bluegrass rock and roll.
Curtis Burch said their recording style was similar to the Allman Brothers. They played so well together and so much that they were very tight, and like the Allmans, their goal was to make their albums like a live performance. Burch loved every bit of it.
When I got in that band, I decided I was going to give it all I could. It was a chance for me to do something I’d never been able to do before. When we played together on stage, we could always count on each other, we were always there backing each other up. It was a great feeling; it was so comfortable it was almost hypnotic.
And as they played together, the songs evolved. They added and took away constantly, changing harmony parts and leads. And they stretched their musicianship. Bush played mandolin, fiddle, a resophonic mandolin/dobro, and, later, an electric mandolin. Burch played both guitar and dobro. Johnson, who had been influenced most of his life by more traditional banjo players, started exploring more chromatic Bobby Thompson-inspired banjo-playing that became a hallmark of their early sound.
I first met Courtney Johnson at the Ozark Music Festival in Mountain View, Arkansas in the mid 1960s. (He became my connection to Wayne Stewart and Sam Bush and the recording of the Poor Richard’s Almanac album.) At that time he was a fine player and a fine fellow. As a member of the Bluegrass Alliance and more importantly the New Grass Revival, he became an eye popping, wonderful banjo player. All of Courtney’s solos on their first album became standard fare for banjo players to emulate to move to a next level of banjo mastery. Courtney and his contributions to the bluegrass musical world are well deserving of a place in the IBMA Hall of Fame.
After the release of the album, things weren’t easy. It was hard to get gigs. Their long hair, contemporary material, and use of a drummer put them at odds with all the traditional bluegrass bands. In addition, Peerce had been disparaging them among promoters, and they were not on the list at many festivals until Carlton Haney began booking them at Camp Springs.
Bush’s friend Butch Robins was also a studio session player, known for his innovative banjo styles; he was playing on Leon Russell’s experimental shift from “rock into county” album Hank Wilson’s Back. Russell was a huge star at that point, having played with the megastars at the Concert for Bangladesh and three years earlier had become a cult figure with his performance as the musical director for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and movie. He mentioned to Robins that he might be looking for a bluegrass band to tour with, and Robins immediately said he had just the right band. He told Russell that they had even recorded one of his songs on their first album. He played it for Russell, who asked him if he could get in touch with the band and see if they would be interested in touring with him. Burch told me that he was in Sam’s apartment when they got a call from Robins asking them if they would be interested in a tour with Russell. Burch said they were even listening to a Leon Russell album at the time the call came. Burch says when they hung up the phone, they were jumping around the room in disbelief.
This was a whole other world, according to Burch. “We flew to Tulsa, and there was this big limo waiting for us and took us to this huge mansion. That was a great tour. They were so organized. I’d never seen anything like it. He had a chartered plane for us to fly.” Burch has tried to find any photos or videos available from that tour but has been unable to do so. Butch Robins played dobro with them on the tour.
After the tour, Ebo Walker left the group in 1973 and was replaced on bass by Butch Robins, who was willing to give up the banjo for a while; he lasted a year. In 1977 he joined Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and played banjo with them until 1981.
Although they had recorded some cuts for Starday, the only releases of that band were on a double CD set called Grass Roots: The Best of the New Grass Revival. One cut off that album, which has long been out of print and is hard to locate, has become legendary among banjo players; it’s a version of the old Jimmie Skinner song “Doing My Time,” but it features dual banjos with Johnson and Robins playing harmony banjo parts. Although it’s a bit long, the clip also shows the syncopation and rock stops and starts that set their music apart from any other bluegrass band active at that point.
In 1974 the New Grass Revival were playing in Louisville in a club on Washington Street. Around the corner there was a blues band playing, and the girlfriend of the lead singer told him that on his break he needed to come with her to see this band that was playing down the street. He asked her what kind of band it was, and she said, “Well, it’s kind of bluegrass,” to which he said “I’m not going to listen to that.” But she convinced him. His comment to her after he saw them was something on the order of “that was not what I expected at all.” That singer was named John Cowan. In the fall of that year, when Butch Robins left, Cowan was recommended to them by a friend named Ken Smith. Legend has it that the band didn’t even know he could sing when they hired him. As Cowan said to Bluegrass Today in 2016:
I was smart enough even at that age not to push it. I had never played bluegrass music before and the day they hired me, they fired the drummer. They were like, “You play good enough, we don’t need a drummer.” But I never played without drums for one thing, and I didn’t know anything about bluegrass music. I simply said: just tell me what to do. So, we practiced about eight hours a day for a long time. They gave me a couple of records, a John Hartford record and a bunch of others, and they told me to go to school. Between listening to Norman Blake, John Hartford, Doc Watson and the Dillards and practicing eight hours a day, I never got around to singing.
Every once in a while, I would say, “You know, I can sing a little bit too,” and, they were like, “That’s okay; let’s keep practicing.” Finally, they let me sing harmony on something. Then, about four months later, we were rehearsing, and Sam was an Allman Brothers fan, and I was too, and we both had a Gregg Allman album that had a Jackson Browne song called “These Days.” We were sitting around practicing, and I asked if I could try singing that song. They were game. So, I sang “These Days,” and they looked at each other like, “Damn, this guy is pretty good.” That is when Sam said, “I guess I am not the lead singer anymore.” That is a bit of an exaggeration, though, because we always shared vocal duties. I did not replace him. He is an awesome singer!
John Cowan’s impact on the band was immediate. Cowan shared lead singing chores with Bush, and Burch was glad to give up his tenor parts. With rock sensibilities on bass and one of the great voices anywhere in popular music, he helped set the stage for the next 16 years of the band’s existence. They all had very similar influences. All of them were fans of the first Will the Circle Be Unbroken album and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The Country Gentlemen were the first band that did bluegrass arrangements of contemporary songs, and the Dillards’ Wheatstraw Suite was a major influence, as were John Hartford, the New Deal String Band and Eddie Adcock’s band II Generation. Sam Bush loved Jefferson Airplane and Cream. Bush later said, “There were already people that had deviated from Bill Monroe’s style of bluegrass. If anything, we were delivering a newgrass style that had already been started. Our kind of music tended to come from the idea of long jams and rock and roll songs.”
It did not go down easily for traditional bluegrass fans.
There were major bands that would refuse to play at festivals unless they guaranteed that the Revival wasn’t playing there. They played small gigs in small towns and continued to struggle. As Burch told me:
In the beginning, the traditionalists didn’t like us. Monroe didn’t like the name or the band. But Birch Monroe liked us. He’d book us at Bean Blossom in the barn and get up and play a few tunes with us. We didn’t play to big crowds at first. Now they’ve got websites and cell phones and advertising agencies and tour buses; we didn’t have any of that. Sometimes we’d drive into a town and drive by the theater we were playing at that night, and they still had the name of band from the night before on the marquee. It drove us crazy. Financially it was a real struggle. Looking back, I’m amazed we were able to pay rent and utilities. There were several years I didn’t even have a car. We didn’t have anyone pushing advanced publicity, but the people that did come liked us, and the word spread more by word of mouth. Back then we weren’t worried about rewards; we were just playing the music we loved to play.
Cowan later talked about their challenges in the Smoky Mountain News.
I think the only statement we were trying to make was in response to being offended by the older people. Because you’ve got to remember — at that time — there was this huge cultural chasm in the late ’60s and early ’70s in our country. It was “us versus them,” “them” being our parents’ generation. It was so broad, culturally speaking, that it worked its way down into the bluegrass world we lived in. There was this whole thing about, “those kids are on drugs, they’re ruining our music, they’re plugging their instruments in.” We were kind of offended, because we loved Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe. But we also loved Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, The Allman Brothers Band, and Jackson Browne. We were bringing what we heard and saw around us into the music.
Their first album with Cowan was Fly Through the Country on Flying Fish Records, a label that specialized in folk, blues and bluegrass. The album included an updated studio version of “Doin’ My Time,” John Hartford’s “Skipping in the Mississippi Dew,” an NGR version of “These Days,” and a song that would be Cowan’s showstopper for years, “Good Woman’s Love.”
This selection of songs was representative of their catalog, which was impossible to categorize. Over the next seven years they added three more albums on Flyin’Fish: When the Storm is Over (1977), Barren County (1979), and Commonwealth (1981), along with a live album recorded at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. They played original songs, most written by Bush and Steve Brines, but there were songs by such diverse writers as Bruce Cockburn, Jesse Winchester, Peter Rowan, Gene Clark, Bernie Leadon, Townes Van Zandt, the Burrito Brothers’ Rick Roberts, Orleans’s John Hall, and many others. Three of the four albums had a John Hartford song, and every album had at least one traditional song, including one by Bill Monroe. And on two of the albums there were extended jam songs, “Crooked Smile” and “Sapporo.” Instrumentals lasting over 7 minutes with jazz/rock phrasing and bass lines had never been heard before in “bluegrass.” By 1979 they had a great following, ranging from traditional to rock fans. This clip from 1977 with Johnson, Bush, Cowan and Burch is representative of their Flying Fish years, with Burch on guitar, Bush and Johnson playing twinned breaks on mandolin and banjo, and Cowan’s strong tenor singing.
They played a gig in Tulsa in 1979, and when Leon Russell found out he came down to the club and asked if they were interested in another tour with him. They jumped at the chance to have a steady income. The tour started in the fall of 1979 and lasted until 1981. It spawned a record album and DVD and brought the band even more acclaim. But it wasn’t that fulfilling for everyone.
As Burch told me:
It started out with us opening for him; we’d do our set, then he’d come out and we’d do his set. We could play his music, but he couldn’t play ours, and as time went on, our sets got shorter and shorter. None of us were really happy about that, and Courtney was probably the most unhappy. By 1981 Courtney and I were run ragged. Leon wanted to stay on the road all the time, and we just decided we couldn’t do it anymore.
After Burch and Johnson left the band, Cowan and Bush played some gigs as a duet which they jokingly called the Two Grass Revival, but they knew they had to put together a new band.
Béla Fleck was born and grew up in New York City, the son of a public school teacher. His father, whom he never met, loved classical music and named him after the Hungarian composer Béla Bartok. He distinctly remembers the first time he ever heard a banjo; he and his brother were at their grandfather’s house, and The Beverly Hillbillies came on. He later said, “I only remember hearing something beautiful. It called out to me.” But banjo wasn’t the preferred instrument in his peer group. He learned to play guitar, and at age 14 he first heard “Dueling Banjos” when watching the movie Deliverance. “The sound just killed me; it was like hearing mercury.” His grandfather bought him a banjo, and he played for hours every day. He was accepted into the New York High School for the Arts, but there was little interest there in banjo, so he studied guitar. But on the side, he took lesson from Tony Trischka, one of the pioneers of progressive banjo. He never really considered college; he wanted to play banjo, and Trischka pointed him toward a Boston-based band called Tasty Licks. Still a teenager, he began composing his own music. As he told NewMusic USA,
At the time, I was trying to write things that were complex and hard intentionally. I haven’t heard those compositions in a long time, and I’m a little scared of what it would sound like if I listened to it now. If you listen to some of Tony’s music from that time, you would hear where maybe I was just cracking out from what he did a little bit, but it could have been something he did, too. But I was starting to use some of my new techniques, a few licks that were idiomatic to me.
In 1979 Fleck joined Jimmy Gaudreau and Bluegrass Alliance alum Glenn Lawson to form the progressive band Spectrum. Based in Lexington, Kentucky, the band haunted the same area as the New Grass Revival. Fleck was influenced by jazz greats Chick Corea and Charlie Parker and sat in with lounge jazz acts in Lexington. That same year he recorded his first solo album for Rounder Records, Crossing the Tracks. His sidemen included Sam Bush, Russ Barenberg, Jerry Douglas, Pat Enright and Mark Schatz. The album represented his diverse influences: an Earl Scruggs banjo tune, a Chick Corea number, a Fats Waller song, and five original compositions.
I met Bela Fleck in 1980 on a bone chilling February night in Boston, Massachusetts at a Country Gazette concert. After the concert, we snuck off to a side room of the concert facility and played a few tunes. Oh my, what a player of intense technique and breath-taking musicality. He only got better and better after that.
Pat Flynn was born and grew up in southern California. His parents bought him a guitar to dissuade him from playing the drums. He was entranced by surf music; as a kid he lived near The Beach Boys. He wrangled a job as a session player in LA but knew he wanted something else. He relocated to Aspen and helped found a band called Crossroads. A promoter heard them and invited them to play a relatively new festival called Telluride. Flynn asked who was on the bill and recognized very few names. He had never heard of New Grass Revival, who were the headliners. After hearing them he told a member of his band, “This was exactly what I want to do. I have to be in that band.” Bush invited their band to open for the Revival on tour, which was taking place on breaks from their tour with Leon Russell.
Bush knew Fleck from playing on his album and knew Flynn from their tour and called them up and hired them. In October 1981, Flynn drove from California, Fleck from Lexington, and they met Cowan and Bush at Cowan’s mother’s house in Evansville. According to Flynn, as soon as they sat down, they knew they had something.
But in the fall of 1982, just as they were starting to take off as a newly organized band, Bush developed a series of physical complaints. He was referred to a urologist who told him he might have testicular cancer and scheduled surgery immediately. Bush said when he went into surgery he had no idea whether he had it or not.
He did. He was thirty years old.
When I got sick, I was experiencing odd thoughts… I had become a little bit jealous… we had this terrific band, why doesn’t everyone know that? Other friends of ours would all of a sudden do great in the music business, and I realized I was getting jealous and envious, and those are just two wasted emotions. At the time we had no money; I had a little insurance policy that covered almost nothing. We were dead broke. John Hartford and the New Grass Revival started these benefits… and some of the very people I had been envious of were the ones bailing us out. If you can’t learn from that, and if you can’t be happy for your friends, then you’re pretty small.
Most of the time testicular cancer is very responsive to treatment, and after major surgery and grueling chemotherapy, he went into remission and stayed there. As soon as possible, he wanted to get back on the road. The band expanded their audience, growing beyond what Flying Fish could offer them. Sugar Hill Records, based in Durham, was a rapidly growing label that had become known as a place where the major labels could scout for talent. Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, Hot Rize, Chris Hillman and Tim O’Brien were just a few of Sugar Hill artists that the label nurtured.
Barry Poss, the owner of Sugar Hill, was glad to work with them:
In a way, New Grass Revival and Sugar Hill grew up in the music business together. We were both known prior to working with one another, but we thrived alongside each other in a particularly exciting time when the roots music world was expanding in new ways. We didn’t discover the band, though we were the first to record them with the new lineup of Sam, John, Bela and Pat; by the time they came to us we were also well underway making our own name as a label for roots based contemporary music, later to be called Americana. I think we cemented each other’s reputation. NGR was a perfect fit! They were a ridiculously tight ensemble of four consummate musicians making thrilling new music with an audacious blend of traditional and contemporary sounds. All this was combined with a powerhouse performance style. Everyone, band members and audiences alike, were equally “in the moment” when NGR played. Some bands never get to that point, others get there and lose it, but NGR always seemed to be in that zone. In hindsight their recording demands were pretty simple and straightforward—adequate studio time and to be left alone once in there. They deserved both. This also was a time when there were festivals and clubs to play the music live, radio stations to play the albums, and record stores to sell the music. New Grass Revival and Sugar Hill worked the system well together; they were headliners and consequently so were we.
The band’s first Sugar Hill release, 1984’s On the Boulevard, included two original songs by Flynn, one by Fleck, a traditional gospel song, and the Bob Marley song “One Love,” combined with Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” The band’s love of reggae-infused songs would carry through the rest of their career, in later songs like “Unconditional Love” and “Revival.” Their next release was a live album that had actually been recorded earlier, in June of 1983 at the first bluegrass festival in France at Toulouse. This clip of a reggae-infused Leon Russell song combined with an extended jam on “Pack of Fools,” a song written and recorded by the West Coast band Seatrain, demonstrates their dynamic stage presence, with Bush’s unequaled mandolin “chop” serving as a drum kit. As a live act, they gave the audience everything they had.
Their albums were very successful, and they were playing to much larger crowds, especially at more contemporary festivals. They decided to try and make a jump to a major label, and in 1986 they signed with Capitol/EMI records. Their albums were produced by Garth Fundis, a highly respected Nashville producer. The three albums released by Capitol were great groundbreaking music, but the albums had started to become formulaic. Each contained a number of Flynn originals, one extended Fleck composition, a Jesse Winchester song, and a collection of newer Nashville songs. The second album, Hold to a Dream, had two singles released that made it to the top fifty country songs. Finally on their third and last album, Friday Night in America, they selected a song written by Dennis Linde, a well-known writer who had written songs for everyone from Elvis Presley to the Dixie Chicks. The song had been first recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys in the late ’70s but was not well known. They applied their signature rock and uptempo changes to the song “Callin’ Baton Rouge.” Released with a video, it became their only Top 40 hit.
Capitol felt they could be marketed as a county band. Jerry Douglas later said he thought that was a mistake and that they should have been marketed as a rock band. But Fleck said that “…the very idea of commercial success for a band like us was ludicrous at that point… it hadn’t ever happened. In order for us to become a success, we’d have to change our sound.” There were also personality issues, especially between Bush and Flynn, and Fleck wanted to explore his own compositions and expand his musical reach. Making each album became challenging and time-consuming because all of them had to have input. They played their last show at the Oakland Coliseum on New Year’s Eve 1989, opening for The Grateful Dead. Cowan said just last year that, after the show, “Sam and I just looked at each other, and we just started crying. It still hurts thirty years later.”
Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band:
I hated it when the New Grass Revival broke up. They were at the top of their game when they went out. If they had been around now, with the landscape of Americana music, they would have ruled it.
Curtis Burch became known as a dobro master. In 1993 he participated in a Grammy-winning album produced by Tut Taylor and Jerry Douglas called The Great Dobro Sessions. In 1997 he was awarded the John Dopyera Award for Achievement and Excellence in Dobro. He helped Norman Blake record on the soundtrack CD for O Brother Where Art Thou?
Ebo Walker played with several bands after leaving the New Grass Revival, but his future did not turn out well. In 1981 while watching his home marijuana field, he shot and killed a state patrolman. He served 31 years in prison and was released in 2013.
Courtney Johnson played in some local bands, several including Burch. He died on June 7, 1996, at the age of 56 from lung cancer. A few months later, a benefit concert in his honor at the Ryman Auditorium took place, including Bush, Fleck, Cowan, John Hartford, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, and others.
Pat Flynn returned to doing session work and songwriting and released two of his own CDs. He also toured with Michael Martin Murphey.
Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten formed Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, a jazz fusion group. He joined with Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor to form the bluegrass supergroup Strength in Numbers that recorded one album. He has played and composed a concerto with Meyer that was played by the Nashville Symphony. In 2009 he married well-known musician Abigail Washburn. After leaving the Revival, he has released thirteen albums and been a guest musician on albums by Dave Matthews, Phish, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Hornsby, Ginger Baker, Rory Gallagher, Jerry Garcia and many others, and he has recorded a pair of albums with Chick Corea.
Bela’s career has taken the banjo to world class venues with a host of top musical talents in many genres. Along the way he was a vital member of the New Grass Revival; he’s always inspired those he plays with to new levels of music making. Another worthy addition to the Hall of Fame.
After the New Grass Revival broke up, John Cowan released a cover of R&B songs called Soul’d Out on Sugar Hill. From the late ’80s until 1993 Cowan worked off and on with a supergroup of sorts: Bill Lloyd from Foster and Lloyd, Rusty Young from Poco, and Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers in a band called The Sky Kings. They released two albums that never charted, but because of his friendship with Simmons, he filled in on bass for the Doobie Brothers, including co-writing one song that appeared on one of their albums. He worked as a studio vocalist and bass player and in 2010 rejoined the Doobie Brothers as their full-time bassist and vocalist.
In 1989, Sam Bush joined Emmylou Harris’ band The Nash Ramblers and played with her for five years. He then formed his own band and has released eight solo albums, all but one on the Sugar Hill label. He’s won three Grammys. He has been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Americana Music Foundation, been named Mandolin Player of the Year four times by the International Bluegrass Music Association and was the subject of a 2015 documentary called Revival: The Sam Bush Story. It is currently available on Amazon. Alison Krauss’s comment about Bush:
If you look at someone who defines a genre of music, like Bill Monroe, he also has a lot of rules; Sam is his own genre, except with no rules.
As a long-time fan of this band, in all their different line-ups over the 18 years of their existence, it’s rewarding to see them honored as this year’s Hall of Fame awardees by the IBMA. Curtis Burch:
I never thought that would happen, or at least during my lifetime. In the beginning we had no idea we would have much impact. Most of the people we looked up to in bluegrass didn’t like us at first, and it wasn’t easy. But we never quit, and we just kept playing the music we loved.
But they did have an impact. They are earnest in their description of their early influences: the Dillards, John Hartford, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the New Deal String Band, IInd Generation, the Osborne Brothers, and the Country Gentlemen, all of whom changed bluegrass incrementally from the traditions before. Muleskinner in 1973 and Old and In the Way with Jerry Garcia also moved the bar. Later, David Grisman expanded the music in a different direction. But none of them took this change to the level of the New Grass Revival; they had enough success, enough perseverance, and enough talent to become the innovators of a whole new genre of progressive bluegrass music. There are so many current and popular bands with direct links to their lineage: Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass, Nickel Creek, the Punch Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Band, Alison Krauss, Chris Thile, Infamous Stringdusters, the Avett Brothers and many more.
There is an argument to be made that the New Grass Revival were among the most influential bands in American popular music history. It’s easy to look around and see why. While traditional bluegrass festivals are still popular and well attended, they are dwarfed by massive festivals with progressive bands. Telluride, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Merlefest, and many others draw giant crowds (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass alone has more than 750,000 attendees over three days). Those are comparable numbers to Coachella, Lollapalooza, and other major festivals. That kind of success is a great testament to the talent, innovation, motivation and hard work of the New Grass Revival.