From the Bluegrass Festival held on campus every year to Denison’s Bluegrass ensemble, which lures huge crowds to Swasey Chapel every time they take the stage, bluegrass music—that lively sound of the banjo and soulful wail of the fiddle and voices—is a part of Denison’s DNA. So, really, it wasn’t much of a surprise that when Denison’s Vail Series announced that it would be hosting Grammy-winning mandolin player Sam Bush, the concert quickly sold out.
In addition to his Grammys, Bush has been honored by the International Bluegrass Music Association, received the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award, and has collaborated and played with Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, and Béla Fleck, among others.
“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,” says Bush. “The joy of the music comes to me and overtakes me sometimes—I just become part of the music.”
And on March 4, he was. His finger work and strumming were a whirlwind of joyful music, showing off all the ways a mandolin could be used to play newgrass, a progressive form of bluegrass, and anything else that he, his fellow musicians, and his 1937 mandolin could imagine. For nearly two hours, Bush played everything from bluegrass staples and country ballads to the unexpected and non-traditional, like funk with a deep bass backup.
Denison's own bluegrass ensemble had the pleasure of an afternoon sound check session with Bush and his band, when the students had a chance to visit with him as well as play for him. Later that evening, the ensemble had the honor of opening the show for the crowded house of Sam Bush fans.
Bush’s appearance was the last Vail concert of this academic year, which also saw Wynton Marsalis, Gabriel Alegría and the Afro-Peruvian Sextet, and the NOW Ensemble. Other artists that have visited Denison through the Vail Series since its inception in 1979 have included Poets Laureate Robert Hass and Billy Collins, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Renée Fleming, pianist Yuja Wang, and singers and musicians Bobby McFerrin and Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Bush’s concert was a perfect close to the year, and just more proof that the arts are thriving at Denison. As the college breaks ground for the new Michael D. Eisner Center for the Performing Arts, the artistic opportunities, the artists and their collaborations with students, faculty, and the community will just keep coming.