Sam Bush - Circles Around Me Album

Mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush returns with his latest album of splendid bluegrass tunes which features guests like bassist Edgar Meyer and Del McCoury.  Does the record live up to Sam Bush's status as a legendary artist?

At the point Del McCoury joins in to sing on “Roll on Buddy, Roll On”, it’s a welcome occasion because McCoury is a distinctive singer, whereas Bush is merely a passable one. McCoury also lends his lungs to “Midnight on the Stormy Deep”. Bush is at his best during “Blue Mountain” because it is an instrumental where his musical prowess shines most brightly. Byron House’s electric bass on this track is also especially noteworthy -- a surprising instrumental highlight for such a bluegrass-themed track. This one gets out of the gate fast, and never lets up. On it, House takes a solo that is both jazzy and funky at the same time. It’s the sort of impressive playing that may make you wish Bush would have just stuck with letting his mandolin do all the talking, instead.

Bush’s finest vocal performance is found on “You Left Me Alone”, which is track that is saturated in deep sadness and features a melody that may leave you feeling heartsick. Although the special guests are on this CD are few, Jerry Douglas lends his fine dobro to “Gold Heart Locket” and “Junior Heywood”, where the latter also features bassist Edgar Meyer, who co-wrote the song with Bush. “Gold Heart Locket” is another sad one like “You Left Me Alone”, by the way. “Junior Heywood” finds Meyer bowing at his bass, instead of plucking it, and this effect transforms it into a moody instrumental.

This project’s best original song is “Souvenir Bottles”, one Bush co-wrote with Stephen F. Brines and John Cowan. With a jazzy groove to drive it, this song’s lyric tells the tragic story of man whose only souvenirs from a life on the musical road are whiskey bottles, which – in his case – are souvenirs that ultimately killed him. This is also the best overall track on the disc, as it combines a moving storyline with compelling instrumental interplay. Bush’s own mandolin performance here is simply stunning.

Bush also plays a mean fiddle -- in addition to the mandolin -- which he puts to great use during the traditional, “Apple Blossom”. On this track, he is accompanied by Courtney Johnson on banjo.

In the end, this is an album with a whole lot of great playing, even though it doesn’t add up to a great album -- due to a lack of stellar songs. Some of the disc’s weak spots make me long for a Sam Bush all-covers album where he is free to take on some truly fine material. After all, it’s always enjoyable to hear Bush’s playing on other people’s projects. And maybe that’s the best way to experience Bush. Still, the back-of-the-mind thought of Bush covering Bob Dylan, for instance, has a comforting buzz going for it.

If you can experience Circles around Me by allowing its amazing musicianship to move you, without the aid of additionally noteworthy lyrics, this CD may well be worth your time.  For me, at the very least, it made me want to seek out more Edgar Meyer music – the man is unbelievable! Therefore, how about a collaboration between you and Edgar next time, Sam? Perhaps, you two could take on a set of Bob Dylan songs, eh?