By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The 23rd annual Four Corners Folk Festival is just three weeks away, taking place on Reservoir Hill in Pagosa Springs Aug. 31-Sept. 2.
This year’s world-class musical lineup includes The Dawg Trio (featuring David Grisman, Danny Barnes and Samson Grisman), Nahko And Medicine For The People, Amy Helm, We Banjo 3, Sam Reider and the Human Hands, Front Country, Darling West, Jon Stickley Trio, The Jacob Jolliff Band, The Western Flyers, Bonnie and the Clydes, Tallgrass, Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton, and this week’s featured performers: Sam Bush and The Accidentals.
If joy were a person, he’d bring both peace and frenzy. He’d be full of music, light and energy that soothes even as it stirs us up. Eyes closed, wire-rim glasses in place, mandolin pressed against his ribs, joy would be Bush on a stage.
“I feel fortunate that when it’s time to play, no matter how I feel physically or mentally, once the downbeat starts, my mind goes to a place that’s all music,” said Bush. “The joy of the music comes to me and overtakes me sometimes –– I just become part of the music.”
That rapt merging of life and art fills Bush’s new album, “Storyman,” a freewheeling collection that gleefully picks and chooses from jazz, folk, blues, reggae, country swing and bluegrass to create a jubilant noise only classifiable as the “Sam Bush sound.” Many of the songs are stories –– several of them true — and the legendary mandolin player co-wrote every one of them with friends including Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Jon Randall Stewart, Jeff Black and others.
“I’m hoping it just kind of flows for people and makes them go, ‘Hey. It’s a Sam record. It sounds like Sam and the band,’” Bush said. “But for the first time ever, I also find myself thinking, ‘I hope you enjoy the stories.’ It’s my singer-songwriter record.”
The father of newgrass and king of Telluride has long since established himself as roots royalty, revered for both his solo and sideman work, which includes time with Harris, Lyle Lovett and Béla Fleck. But instead of kicking back and soaking up honors such as an Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award and suite of Grammys and International Bluegrass Music Association trophies, Bush still strives relentlessly to create something new.
Raised on a farm just outside of Bowling Green, Ky., Bush grew up plowing tobacco fields in the southern summer heat alongside his family. He started playing mandolin when he was 11 years old.
“I believe growing up on a farm probably helped me channel my energy into learning music and being so interested in it,” Bush said. “Me and my sisters, we all loved it. I’ve often wondered if that’s because growing up on a farm, you couldn’t go ride your bike all over town and horse around like the other kids.”
For Bush, a lifetime of channeling his energy has led to stylistic innovations that have changed the course of bluegrass and roots music alike.
Bush returns to the Four Corners main stage on Sept. 2 at 5:30 p.m.
Named among Yahoo Music’s “Top 10 Bands to Watch in 2017,” The Accidentals’ adventure began in their hometown of Traverse City, Mich., when Katie Larson, a sophomore cellist, and Savannah (Sav) Buist, a junior violinist, were paired for a high school orchestra event.
The gifted young musicians became fast friends and, before long, bandmates. Having both grown up in musical families with professional pianists for fathers and vocalists for mothers, their shared influences bounced between classical, jazz, bluegrass, country, alt-rock and the obscure.
Dubbing themselves after the musical notes that fall outside of a key signature, The Accidentals recorded and released a pair of independent albums in 2012 and 2013, the latter funded by a hugely successful Kickstarter. Their original songs revealed a band with wide-ranging influences but always true to their orchestral roots. National applause and attention followed, as did acclaimed collaborations with some fellow local artists and independent filmmakers.
Other career highlights included scoring arrangements for a 75-piece orchestra to accompany them on their original songs as well as arranging pieces for an opera/dance production with Jennifer and Ryan Lott (Son Lux).
The past five years have seen The Accidentals perform more than a thousand live shows, including headline dates, festival sets and shared stages along such like-minded acts as Martin Sexton, Brandi Carlile, Andrew Bird, The Wailers, Joan Baez and others. 2015 saw the band embark on its first full-scale national tour, funded in part by an Indiegogo “online garage sale.” That year’s SXSW debut saw them hailed by Billboard for “displaying a genre-hopping range of influences and some smart songwriting skills to go with their abundant musical chops.”
Now, at long last, The Accidentals unveil their most compelling and finely honed work to date. Co-produced by Buist, Larson and Michael Dause with engineer Jason Lehning (Mat Kearney, Guster, George Jones, Alison Krauss), “ODYSSEY” sees the band joined by such friends and fans as acoustic guitar maestra Kaki King, bassist — and fellow Michigander — Dominic John Davis (Jack White, Beck), Carbon Leaf guitarist Carter Gravatt, Keller Williams and The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee, who spent three days in the studio alongside the band, lending her distinctive organ to a number of the album’s key tracks.
“It was a really collaborative process,” said Larson. “A lot of these songs had been hashed out at our live shows over the past few years, so we had a very strong idea of what we wanted in the arrangements. Jason helped us get outside the box with recording techniques, putting a fresh spin on the songs.”
“I’m so glad we’ve been able to collaborate with musicians who are so receptive to working and playing together,” Buist said. “They added their own artistry to some of the older songs and it gave them new life.”
The Accidentals’ inviting spirit of shared creativity is perhaps best represented by the album’s audacious first single, “KW,” showcasing the inimitable guitar work of Keller Williams, whose own virtuosic genre-agnostic approach towards music making inspired the song in the first place.
From the orchestrated rock of “Memorial Day” to the album-closing “Ballad Tendered Gun” — surprisingly, The Accidentals’ first instrumental to be included on an LP — “ODYSSEY” is a strikingly dynamic work, both layered and unhurried, bittersweet yet life-affirming. Rich with literary references, whispers of nostalgia and an unstoppable sense of forward motion, its songs were written independently by Buist and Larson and then arranged and refined by the group, creating a perfect yin/yang between individual introspection and dynamic cooperation, each artist bringing her own unique perspective to the process.
“We rely on each other to create a balance,” Buist said. “I think that’s the key to this band. Our styles of songwriting and arrangement are very different, so when they come together, they create this variation that couldn’t happen any other way.”
Multitalented guitarist/keyboardist Jake Allen will join The Accidentals on stage as a special guest, filling in some of the colors and textures of “ODYSSEY” in live performances. The goal as ever is to experiment and experience, exploring new ideas and approaches while always staying true to their roots. With “ODYSSEY,” The Accidentals have conjured a truly one-of-its-kind sound and vision, booming with free-thinking musicality, wisdom and an understanding that growth is a process, not something that happens overnight. The Accidentals are already moving forward on their amazing journey, rolling down the windows on an open road towards someplace that’s both true and transcendent.
“I don’t think there are really any limits in terms of genre or instrumentation,” Larson said. “We just really enjoy making music that connects.”
“For us, it’s about the experience and collaboration and trying to learn as much as we can,” Buist said. “We want to be able to walk into any room with confidence in our craft, but in the end, we’re total nerds that just enjoy learning new things. Every day is an opportunity.”
The Accidentals have a closing set on the festival main stage on Aug. 31 at 8 p.m.
The Four Corners Folk Festival is a family-friendly event, with free admission for children 12 and under (when accompanied by an adult) and lots of free activities and entertainment at the Kids Tent offered throughout the festival.
The festival takes place rain or shine, and a central feature is the 10,000-square-foot tent with general admission seating for 1,300 people, available on a first-come basis. The meadow and trees outside the tent provide ample room for tarps, blankets and low festival chairs.
Additional information about tickets, performers and schedules can be found online at www.folkwest.com. Tickets can also be purchased by phone at 731-5582. There is information available on the website about volunteering for a festival ticket (ages 17 and up).
Bio information provided by Sam Bush and The Accidentals.