One of Sam Bush’s favorite memories of the Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival doesn’t have anything to do with being on stage, though he’s been on it plenty.
It has to do with a chairlift.
One year — Bush doesn’t remember which, but it had to have been before 2001 — he took a ride up on the chair on the last day of the festival, a Sunday, to see the Tetons, or, in his words, “what some of us call the Ansel Adams peaks.”
After getting his alpenglow fill, Bush turned around and rode back down to the sounds of the John Hartford playing the main stage.
“It’s just a great life snapshot of the beauty I was seeing and hearing him play and seeing it at the same time,” Bush said. “I think other people have experienced, you know, similar things.”
Bush seems to have hit the nail on the head.
The Infamous Stringdusters will join Bush and Greensky Bluegrass as the nightly headliners at this year’s bluegrass festival, which will kick off Friday afternoon. Andy Falco, the Stringdusters’ guitar player, said he always tries to take a ride on the lift as well.
While riding the lift stands out as memorable for both Falco and Bush, that’s not the real reason they pick and fiddle their way out to Grand Targhee. For them it’s all about the “vibe,” made possible, in part, by the fans, many of whom travel a long way.
“You’ve really got to sort of earn it to get there,” Falco said, “and so the people that are there are really the super cool, super chill people and, you know, really psyched.
“It just makes a great recipe for a festival.”
A generational thing
The fans, of course, are only one part of the recipe. Other ingredients — the setting, the vendors, the chairlift — are important as well. One thing’s for certain, though: It wouldn’t happen without the bands, but people like Sam Bush might balk at you saying that.
Bush, the Bowling Green, Kentucky, native set to headline the festival Saturday night, was honored by Kentucky’s state Legislature as the “Father of Newgrass” in 2010. He’s also unmistakably humble, even in the face of his 13 Grammy Award nominations and three wins.
So, when Bush took a break from unpacking an honorary doctorate bestowed upon him by Western Kentucky University to talk to the News&Guide, he jovially dismissed any allegations of genre-based fatherhood.
“The only thing I’m a father of is a girl named Jessica,” Bush said, “who’s now a grown woman.”
All claims of musical lineage aside, Bush’s legacy in the bluegrass community is undeniable. The mandolin player opted out of college to pursue a gig with a Louisville, Kentucky, band, Bluegrass Alliance, which soon became New Grass Revival, a progressive band that bucked bluegrass traditions when its members wore long, hippie-length hair and brought rock ’n’ roll, reggae and blues to the music.
But Bush wouldn’t have called New Grass Revival all that “new.”
“We were just reviving a new type of bluegrass that was already established in the ’60s,” he said.
Still, a few years down the road, all that revival caught the eyes of a self-proclaimed “next generation” of musicians: groups like the Infamous Stringdusters, who picked up a Grammy of their own in 2018, and Greensky Bluegrass, which has developed a devoted, touring fan base, much like Phish and other bands in the jam scene.
“I mean, s---, we all, you know, learned bluegrass listening to Sam Bush and records that he’s made over the years,” Falco said. “There’s a tradition there, but there’s also an innovation, and you have to sort of make your own mark on it.”
It’s bluegrass, after all
Green sky Bluegrass and the Infamous Stringdusters have both set out to make their mark, in ways that are similar in some ways and, in other ways, not.
Both bands straddle the divide between the jam and bluegrass scene — that nebulous region called “jam grass” — and dedicate a significant portion of their energy to their live shows. Both play in front of intricate light shows, both record and post their songs to the jam-centric website Nugs.net, and both have attracted the ire of bluegrass traditionalists at times.
Their main complaint? Bands like Greensky and the Stringdusters are deviating from the bluegrass genre’s Appalachian roots, much like Sam Bush and New Grass Revival did years before.
Falco brushed off that criticism.
“That’s been a discussion since the ’60s — traditionalist versus contemporary, what is and what isn’t bluegrass and all that,” Falco said. “But really, when it comes down to, it’s just an evolution of music, just like rock ’n’ roll evolved.”
Now, just like there’s all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll, there’s all kinds of bluegrass. And, similar to how the Beatles are different from Led Zeppelin, which was, in turn, different from The Who, Sam Bush is different from Greensky and the Stringdusters, both of which take different directions.
The Stringdusters are more open, more light, and seem to draw heavily on the Grateful Dead’s jam tradition, which might be in part because musicians like Falco drew so heavily on Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass project, Old and in the Way, when they were getting their start.
Greensky, on the other hand, is slightly more atmospheric, curated for huge outdoor spaces.
“In our minds, we’re like an arena rock band,” said Anders Beck, Greensky’s dobro player. “We’re getting closer and closer to creating that sonically, you know?”
He said a song like “Wings for Wheels” is an “arena rock song in our mind.” To other people it might sound like an acoustic ballad, but never mind that.
“That’s not the way we hear it,” Beck said.
Still, there can’t be Greensky without the bluegrass. However hard the band tries to break the mold, it is still stuck with the basics of that bluegrass tradition: a guitar, mandolin, banjo, Dobro, upright bass, some vocals and nothing else. It’s a tried-and-true formula that bands like Greensky can’t shake — and don’t want to.
“It’s in the name, homes,” Beck said. It’s not going anywhere.
Warm, twangy feelings
That bluegrass sound will rage — or dance — up and down the ticket this Friday, Saturday and Sunday as acts like Railroad Earth and the David Bromberg Quintet play earlier sets. Falco and Beck count members of both bands as among their major influences, and they’ve had the unique pleasure of sharing the stage with them.
Falco, for one, said Bromberg was “one of his heroes,” so in recent years, when he’s been lucky enough to share the stage with him, he has had to adjust his playing a bit.
“It’s funny, because when you’re playing with David, I’ll hear him do something and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I stole that lick from him. I can’t play that right now,’” Falco said.
Unlike musicians in other genres, bluegrass players seem to be able to play with their heroes all the time. Greensky opened for Railroad Earth and other bluegrass icons like Yonder Mountain String Band for “months at a time” while it was on the come up. Bush has toured as a backing musician with the Infamous Stringdusters, as well as Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (Fleck played in New Grass Revival) and Emmylou Harris.
And, though Bush is someone the younger generation of musicians has looked up to, he doesn’t think of himself as a mentor or anything like that.
“I tend to think of us as pals on the same job and contemporaries,” he said.
“It’s a family,” Falco said, describing the bluegrass community. “We’re all equally insane to try to do this as a living, but we really do all have a love for the music.”
The musicians set to take Targhee stage also have a love for something else: one another.
With the passing of Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin still fresh, Falco and Bush will take part in a true community event: the Targhee Allstars Jeff Austin Tribute, set to take place at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Joined by Larry Keel and members of Railroad Earth, which lost its multi-instrumentalist and co-founder, Andy Goessling, in 2018, Bush and the Stringdusters will honor Austin’s memory, as Greensky has been doing every night on its summer tour.
“You don’t know how long someone’s going to be here for,” Beck said. “You can take for granted the relationships they have and forget that everyone is on this planet for a relatively small time.
My message to people is love someone, give them a hug, and don’t forget it.”
Forr Bush, who beat cancer and had another health scare earlier this year, Targhee’s all about the community and doing what its members do best: playing music for people who love it.
“I’m just so happy to be up there playing,” he said. “More than ever, I enjoy every time. I don’t take this for granted. I know that crazy things can happen to you and you might not play anymore.
“If I’m smiling, it’s real. I’m very fortunate and thankful, and I am a happy little fella.”
A subheading in this article was updated to reflect that 2019 was Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival's 32nd year. — Ed.