A beloved band that was perhaps ahead of its time, New Grass Revival will be inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame during the IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards on October 1. In the second half of our oral history with New Grass Revival, we hear from band members Sam Bush, John Cowan, Béla Fleck and Pat Flynn. Read the first half of the interview, which is part of our celebration of the 75th anniversary of bluegrass.
In 1981, founding members Courtney Johnson (who died in 1996) and Curtis Burch left the band after a long tour with rock ‘n’ roll star Leon Russell. As a result, New Grass Revival began its newest incarnation with Béla Fleck and Pat Flynn.
Sam Bush: Courtney and Curtis were older than me and John and they were just burned out. We had worked harder on the road with Leon than we’d ever worked in our lives.
Pat Flynn: New Grass Revival had established a following on the circuit in the late ’70s, but Leon Russell had sucked them into his orbit and taken them away from the bluegrass world. So by the time that band [lineup] broke up, they really had to start over.
SB: I had met Béla in a band he played in called Tasty Licks, and Béla had hired me as the fiddler on his first album, Crossing the Tracks.
PF: Béla was a smart kid. He thought, “If I’m going to come out with a solo album and nobody knows who I am, why don’t I hire high-profile people to play on it?” That’s a smart move!
Béla Fleck: I liked the original band when I heard it, but I admit I was attracted to smoother and jazzier stuff at the time. I have matured a bit since then and now I am a huge fan of the early band, their bravery and iconoclastic spirit, and a poetic expression of their time and place. They were committed to the moment and improvising, and taking the music to a new place that resonated with a lot of folks who loved bluegrass, but it didn’t totally represent them.
PF: I’d moved from Los Angeles to Aspen, Colorado, and got to know the band at Telluride. Sam had a hand in writing some songs, but they really didn’t have an in-house songwriter. I had always written songs for the bands I was in. And Béla brought a unique and original instrumental vision. So all of a sudden you had two new people that could supply original material.
SB: They were the two musicians who could bring the next step of another sound for us. I called Garth [Fundis, the band’s producer] and said, “You’ve got to come hear these new pickers we’ve got, this is something, this is really good.” I knew it was too hot for me to handle — I didn’t feel I was qualified to produce the four of us. We needed another ear, an outside opinion, because we had so many ideas between the four of us.
PF: On the Boulevard was the first album we released in the US, but we’d done a live album in France almost a full year prior. Technically Live in Toulouse was the first album we made as a new band.
JC: We’re playing like a well-oiled machine; it’s really a good record. It has one of Sam’s instrumentals on there called “Sapporo” that might be 11 minutes long!
SB: The idea of “Sapporo” started when the band went to Japan for the first time. It was my favorite city over there; it was also my favorite beer. A mandolin player over there taught me a five-note Japanese scale and that is a recurring riff you hear us play as we jam.
PF: It was very fresh. I remember the recording sessions at Jack’s Tracks studio in Nashville. We had a decent budget from Sugar Hill, enough to record comfortably and take our time. I experimented with different guitars and arrangements. We were able to bring the music into the magnifying glass of a studio and really look at it in depth.
JC: The dynamic of the band had changed so much, because Béla was already miles ahead of everybody in terms of his ability to play. He practiced all the time. In the old band, I was in charge of shoveling coal into the engine and Sam was flying around on top painting whatever picture he wanted to paint. Courtney and Curtis, they were kind of like myself, advanced support players. But now you’ve got two other players who can play at the same level of Sam. So we could take this train anywhere. We could get off the tracks.
PF: I had brought some songs with me to the band and I was very happy with “On the Boulevard.” I had written it prior to joining. It was pretty much autobiographical. I’d been living in Thousand Oaks, California, and there’s a boulevard that runs through the middle of the Valley, and as I watched it from the window it was like its own little world, a parade of passing people. It was one of the earliest things we worked out.
SB: My songwriting partner Steve Brines had died a sudden death of a heart ailment he didn’t know he had. So Steve was gone and I was still writing instrumentals, but I lost my enthusiasm for songwriting.
SB: Toni Foglesong told her husband Jim, who was the president of Capitol Records Nashville, “I heard a band that makes a sound like nothing I’ve ever heard before.” So, Jim came to hear us and he said, “I want you guys to record. I don’t know how we’re going to sell you but I want you to be yourselves.”
Two studio albums followed: New Grass Revival in 1986, and Hold to a Dream in 1987.
SB: Every time new people joined, we encouraged them to bring their influences into the music. When Pat joined he was influenced by those Southern Californian songwriters like Jackson Browne, and the country-rock Telecaster picking he knew. One song where I specifically hear Pat’s southern rock influence is “In the Middle of the Night,” on the ’86 album.
BF: This band was full of guys with very different musical influences. If you didn’t want to be challenged, it was the wrong place for you. Some folks surround themselves with people that love all the same stuff they do, and that can work too. But in New Grass Revival, we were all into different stuff, which we brought to the band to see if we could get our favorite stuff included.
SB: Béla is a jazz player and when he came in his favorite musician was Chick Corea. I had his records, but they didn’t make so much sense to me until then.
BF: I think my interest in jazz gave me some cool tools to work with in a bluegrass context. I wrote a tune called “Metric Lips” [on Hold to a Dream], which was partly in jig time. I feel like that main melody had some Chick Corea influence. Sam was highly influenced by John McLaughlin and his great bands. One of them was Shakti, a collaboration with Indian musicians. This seemed to encourage his interest and ability in odd meters, which I also was quite fond of exploring. So if you look at “Metric Lips,” you have Irish music, Indian music, and fusion jazz represented, along with some raging bluegrass. It’s puzzling that it actually works, but in my opinion, it does.
PF: When you’re in a bluegrass band, it’s blend or die! You’re cramped inside a van together and you’re sleeping feet to nose. You’re in a very confined space together more than you are with your significant others back at home.
JC: We called our bus The Bread Truck. We’d bought it from a dry cleaning business. It wasn’t like the 36-footers I had in the Doobie Brothers; it was less than half of that, closer to a van.
PF: John slept half the time, I would be reading a book or writing a song, Sam would be listening to reggae or some weird eclectic thing, Béla was always fiddling with a new tune.
BF: For me it’s the intention and commitment to the ideas that make them work in this band. The same ideas might not work for a band that didn’t play so confidently. Of course we loved bluegrass and that was the common denominator. Each guy also played with a savage fervor or intensity, and perhaps that was another denominator.
PF: We could really charge each other up with the solos. We admired each other, and when somebody threw a flaming ball out there it would be a challenge. And in that exchange, gosh, we became so much better players. I remember listening back to tapes and thinking I lifted myself up and above myself. We all did.
BF: The new band with me and Pat was a somewhat cleaned-up version of the band. We still improvised and pushed hard, but we also were going for a supercharged, seamless tightness.
PF: The thing I remember that we developed between the first two albums was a hardcore consistency. We could turn it on and it would just come on full-bore despite whether or not there was a good sound system or the weather was bad or the crowd was sluggish. We could always count on each other to present a united front. There were no weak links. We just locked into that energy and never lost it.
BF: And we made singles for country radio, which is hard to imagine the early group doing.
SB: We knew we were going into a country market, but I think there’s a misconception that Capitol Records changed us, when in fact the change came from us. We were the ones that said, “We’ll try this song,” and maybe we wouldn’t have tried it in the past.
BF: We were still too out there for it to work, but we were trying to take the music closer into the mainstream, and that was bringing a lot of new people into the scene and showing them what bluegrass could produce.
PF: We would laugh about that in a sad way. The jocks would come to us and say, “I love your stuff, I listen to it at home,” and we’d say, “What about playing it on air?!” They’d say “Yeah, but it’s bluegrass….” We finally got “Callin’ Baton Rouge” into the top 40 which opened up a lot of shows and airplay for us. But we ended up disbanding before we could really bring that home.
SB: For our last album, Friday Night in America, Wendy Waldman became our producer and we really tried all kind of things on that. It’s hard for an athlete to know when to stop, but I really think our last record might be our best one.
PF: I saw a deepening musically. John’s vocals had got better and better, but he also doesn’t get the props for his bass playing. He was a terrific player — listen to his work on Friday Night in America, see how he connected the melodies, the tone he got and the way he tied together the four instruments. They would get noticed, but the glue was John.
SB: John and I had been together 15 years and we were burned out. We lived on the road and I was suffering responsibility overload. And we couldn’t possibly accommodate all that Béla was writing, the type of tunes he was writing. I physically couldn’t play them and neither could the rest of us! We all loved each other, but it was time for him to go on, he needed to express himself. Because at that point it’s not about making money, it’s about musical happiness and your satisfaction.
PF: We’d got together in 1981, and we played our last job as a band on New Year’s Eve, the last day of 1989. We were opening for the Grateful Dead at the Oakland Coliseum, 10,000 people inside and 5,000 outside. That night was particularly memorable — on the right side of the stage sitting nearest Béla was Bonnie Raitt, on the left side, near to me, was Jane Fonda — and I’d always thought what a shame we didn’t release that. Years later someone walked up to me and said, “Remember when you guys opened for the Dead?” I said yes. He said, “Have you got a copy of that set?” I said no. He said, “Do you want one?” A tape of our concert had leaked out among the Dead fans. I contacted a friend at Capitol Records and then that set was remastered and released on a two-CD set called Grass Roots, which has stuff you wouldn’t find on our records. It had its rough spots as a live tape, but you’ll hear that energy and visceral connection we had with each other on stage, you sure will.
(Editor’s note: Read part one of our New Grass Revival Bluegrass 75 feature.)