The wildly influential progressive acoustic group New Grass Revival will be inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame during the organization’s virtual “World of Bluegrass” celebration, September 28-Oct. 3, 2020.
It’s quite an honor, considering that during the band’s early days, mandolinist extraordinaire and original member Sam Bush says he got used to the sound of snapping chairs when New Grass Revival first began playing at bluegrass festivals. “Some of the purists had trouble embracing what we were doing,” Bush says. “The musicians and promoters liked us, but for people wanting to hear traditional bluegrass, well, that wasn’t us.”
It wasn’t just the long hair and informal clothing that was hard for the purists to accept. From it’s founding back in 1971, New Grass Revival pushed a progressive style of acoustic music that blended bluegrass to rock, country to jazz, blues to reggae. While traditional bluegrass adhered to a certain rulebook, New Grass Revival did not. “Our reason for doing the newer-type music wasn’t pretentious or irreverent or sarcastic or disrespectful,” explains guitarist / dobroist Curtis Burch. “We just felt like people were ready to see that you could really expand the sound, using those same instruments.”
The group was founded by Bush along with Burch, banjoist Courtney Johnson and bassist Ebo Walker, when the four split en masse from a group called The Bluegrass Alliance. After their first album in 1972, Walker departed and was eventually replaced by bassist / powerhouse singer John Cowan.
Early New Grass Revival recordings — New Grass Revival (1972), Fly Through The Country (1975) When The Storm is Over (1977), Barren County (1979) and Commonwealth (1981) — turned the acoustic world on its ear.
In 1981, visionary banjoist Bela Fleck and songwriter / guitarist Pat Flynn were enlisted when Johnson and Burch left the group. With the new lineup, New Grass Revival released one more independent album, On The Boulevard (1984), before it entered mainstream success, releasing three acclaimed albums — New Grass Revival (1986), Hold To A Dream (1987) and Friday Night In America (1989) — on Capital / EMI America before breaking up.
Known for their stunning musicianship, New Grass Revival’s incendiary live shows were legendary as they anchored some of the biggest festivals in the country, including The Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Telluride, Colorado. Their final appearance together was opening for The Grateful Dead at the Oakland Coliseum in San Francisco on New Years Eve in 1989.
Arguably the most influential acoustic band since Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys, and Flatt and Scruggs, New Grass Revival amassed multiple awards and nominations and built a devoted following that reads like the seating chart of the Grammy Awards (including members of The Grateful Dead, Hootie & The Blowfish, Phish, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks, Leon Russell, Steve Earle and more). Three decades after the group split, its influence is still obvious in the work of such bands as Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Phish, Leftover Salmon, among others. The band was even name-checked by Country Star Eric Church on his hit “Record Year.”
New Grass Revival has left an indelible mark on the musical landscape. After 30 plus years since their last appearance, the induction of New Grass Revival into the IBMA Hall of Fame is a testament to the staying power of the music they helped create.