Sam Bush Band 9.20.20
Maggie Valley Festival Grounds
Maggie Valley, NC
Words by Jason Mebane
Photos by John A. Zara
About halfway between Asheville, North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park sits a sleepy little vacation town called Maggie Valley. Normally the only reasons to visit Maggie Valley are to ski at the nearby Catalooche ski area or to test your luck picking through the myriad of antique shops located there. However, this past Sunday night Western Carolina live music lovers were given another reason to make the trek out to Maggie Valley. Along the main drag, amongst the kitschy motels, miniature golf courses, and souvenir stores sits The Maggie Valley Festival Grounds. Normally this property is used for things like car shows, and craft fairs, but during a global pandemic it is also a quintessential venue for socially distanced drive up concerts. It's tucked away, barely noticeable from the road, and the way it is surrounded with hills makes it feel as if it was tailor made for events like these. There is a permanent stage structure that's ideal for large scale music events, and there is plenty of space. Enough space that each of the hundred and fifty or so vehicles have ample room to spread out and tailgate while also keeping a safe distance from their neighbors. The Maggie Valley Festival Grounds property seems so perfectly suited for concerts that I'm actually shocked it took the forced closure of traditional music venues for it to be utilized in this manner.
The architects of this event were the team from Asheville's Grey Eagle Music Hall. In my opinion, they should be commended for the work they did at not only effectively adapting to our current climate, but also for safely putting forth a near flawless experience for the attendees. Judging by the excitement of the crowd I'm sure they'll be very successful with the rest of the upcoming shows in their Drive In Series. For this, their inaugural event, they brought newgrass legend Sam Bush and his fantastic Sam Bush Band to town. As someone that has made a career out of taking something everyone is familiar with, in his case bluegrass music, and mutating it to the point it's barely recognizable, Sam was the perfect musician for the task at hand.
As the sun began to set behind the hills and the jubilant fans settled into their "pods," the Little Feat house music faded out and a local Maggie Valley singer named Tricia Ann emerged center stage. Not having seen a supporting act listed on the bill I was little surprised to see her saunter out. However, she was not there to perform a traditional opening set, but rather to sing the National Anthem. In all my years of concert going I'd be hard pressed to remember a time when another show kicked off with a rendition of the National Anthem, but if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we should expect the unexpected. Don't get me wrong she did an incredible job with it, it's just that a few hundred bluegrass aficionados with their heads bowed and their hands over their hearts isn't normally how events like these begin. However, as we are learning these days, nothing is really normal anymore is it?
When she was done Sam and his comrades took to the stage and hit the ground running with a stellar version of John Hartford's "I'm Still Here." Not only was opening a show with a Hartford cover a good omen for things to come, but it also doubled as a mantra for those of us in attendance. No matter what the universe chooses to throw at us, we are still here and will continue doing whatever is necessary to push onward. Sam's original "Ridin' That Bluegrass Train" and his version of "They're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone" followed and served as sort of a warm up for the band before they settled into the meat of the set. Next on the docket was an instrumental number that served as a warm up for us in the crowd who had started to feel the crispness of the cool autumn night. I’m not familiar enough with Sam’s catalog to know what it is called but the song got nearly every person in the field boogying. Bass player Todd Parks and guitar player Stephen Mougin led their band mates through the first exploratory number of the evening, seemingly getting lost in the jam. Another pair of covers followed, "Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie" and "Roll On Buddy, Roll On." The second John Hartford number of the set paired with the more traditional feel of "Roll On" provided a perfect juxtaposition of Sam's range of style. Not only has he taken his role as genre blending bluegrass pioneer to heart, but he hasn't forgotten the tradition of the music whose humble beginnings were etched generations ago, not too far from these very same hills. Harkening back to another point of his storied career Sam then led his musical partners through a duo of Leon Russell songs, "Stranger In A Strange Land" and "One More Love Song." After the walk down memory lane it was time for Sam to hand the spotlight over to guitarist Stephen Mougin, who stepped into the bandleader role for a version of his own tune "I'm Gonna Ride." It is a masterful song that also sounds like it could've been written about these odd times we all currently find ourselves in...
"The future waits for no one, what will be, will surely be."
The collective used the next few tunes to showcase the more traditional side of Sam's cannon. Sam's own "Circles Around Me" and a cover of The Dillards' "Dooley" proved that while he is known for exploring the unknown outer limits of bluegrass music he is still steeped in the traditions of his musical forefathers. What followed was probably the least bluegrass moment of the night "Great Balls Of Fire." Seeing the bluegrass elder statesman belting out the classic 1950's rocker was quite a sight to be seen. Not what you'd expect from the mandolin legend, but he pulled it off masterfully. Another instrumental followed that essentially served as a vehicle to showcase banjoist Wes Corbett's amazing chops prior to launching into the Sam Bush staple "Howlin' At The Moon." Sam joked to the crowd beforehand “Come on, you've all been waiting six months to howl at the moon." There was only a sliver of the celestial body hovering over us, but it was enough for us all to do just that as the music pouring from the stage egged us on. Another quick instrumental that again had me wondering if this band should actually be called the Wes Corbett Band, bridged into the electrified closing portion of the set. As Sam added another layer of clothing to fend off the dropping temperatures, he also traded his mandolin for his fiddle as Stephen and Wes each switched to plugged in versions of their instruments. What followed was a version of the Buddy and Julie Miller song "River's Gonna Run" as well as a set closing instrumental that had zero traces of bluegrass music, but was more a straight rocker that proved Sam is also able to leave the entire string band genre behind and explore drastically different types of music as well.
While Sam Bush's act may have mellowed out some over the years, one can't deny his place as a forefather of the jamgrass/newgrass genre. I think it’s safe to say, that without the defying risks Sam has taken over the last few decades, the bluegrass universe as we know it would be barely recognizable today. Without Sam's trailblazing style, the world may have never had the pleasure of watching someone like Jeff Austin bring newgrass to a whole new generation of music fans. Someone like Leftover Salmon's Drew Emmitt, may have never been given a platform to continue to blend music genres while taking bluegrass music down different avenues.
Similarly, without the ability of production teams to adapt we may be forced to live in a world with no live music until we are able to figure out a way to dig out of the deep dark hole that is the Coronavirus crisis. I for one am glad that so many of the major players in the Asheville music scene are forcing themselves to explore new avenues rather than just sit and wilt away as the virus wreaks havoc on the industry. Without adapting, the entire live music landscape could just vanish, and I for one am not willing to let that happen. So yeah it may be weird to drive 30 miles out of town to sit in a field with a cooler while your car stereo doubles as a PA system. Additionally, it may seem foreign to not have the collective energy one gets from the communal aspect of a sweaty packed room. But hey, at least we have something, and something, like they say, is better than having nothing at all. So kudos to the Grey Eagle and their partners for finding new ways to push on. Cheers to artists like the Sam Bush Band for taking the risk, and getting out on the road to do the only thing they know, playing music to starved music fans. I'm already looking forward to returning to Maggie Valley as often as there is a reason to do so. Heck my next time out there I may even give myself enough time for a round of putt putt before the show.