Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien on the Art of Stage Banter

[Editor’s Note: To enjoy much more of this conversation between Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien, check out the Fall 2010 issue of the Fretboard Journal. For more about Jethro Burns, see our feature in the Summer 2010 issue.]

Sam Bush: It’s fun to emcee and all that. Obviously, you don’t want to fail in front of the audience, but part of having fun onstage is [knowing that] sometimes you just might. I’ve become so comfortable with my own band and talking over the mic. One time, I had a soundman at Telluride, he told me, “Dude, do you realize you just talked about eight minutes without stopping at one point?” And I said, “Did I really?”

I started thinking about it, because people, they pay to hear music.

Tim O’Brien: I think they do, but they really want to know you. They like your music, but they want to get to know you, and I think they like that talkin’ deal.

SB: As an audience member, I like it when the person onstage talks to me. But in the last, oh, three or four years, I’ve also tried to concentrate on – and you’ve always been good at this – I’ve tried to concentrate on just making sure I’ve got, at some point, three or four songs in a row – just bang. And, of course, when you’re onstage with a banjo player that needs to move the capo, or, in our case, a bass player that might use a bass fiddle on one song and then switch to bass guitar on the next song, or me switching instruments and there’s a little tuning involved, then that takes a little more careful planning. But then you find out which songs can go together in a row, and it’s a matter of pacing.

But, sure, it’s fun to talk. It’s like Jethro [Burns] used to tell me – Jethro and John Duffey both told me that you have to make fun of everyone equally. You can’t single any one person out. You got to make fun of everybody; otherwise, you’re not doing it right. And Jethro also taught me – and I’ve broken this rule a few times, and he was right every time: “Don’t stand onstage and tell a joke. Just say things.”

TO: Oh, man! Jokes are bad onstage. I had the worst moment in show business, really, for me.

SB: I was in the audience when you did one at Telluride…

TO: Humor should never make fun of anybody, ‘cause you don’t know who’s going to be in the audience. That means the whole world’s your audience.

SB: I’ve done something like that, too.

TO: You know, you might as well be nice to everybody. You better, because it’s gonna come back at ya.

SB: One thing I learned early in life – and it’s a matter of professionalism – and it was actually after hearing, early in the life of New Grass Revival, that there were a couple of bands that would say something weird about you onstage. I mean, you’re not friends; it’s not a joke. And it’s actually been done to me in the last three or four years, and I just thought, Why would they do that? That is the most unprofessional thing you could do.

Because I don’t care if it’s hip-hop, bluegrass, rap, jazz, classical – we’re all on the same bus. We’re all just trying to make a living playing music, and I don’t understand.

But it’s one thing, like Jethro taught me, to make fun of people and have fun with it. John Duffey used to make fun of me from the mic.

TO: Well, you guys had a good rivalry.

SB: Jethro, he’d always butt me around over the microphone. But I came to learn that John Duffey and Jethro would only do it when they loved ya. If they didn’t like ya, they wouldn’t dare even say your name over the mic. But it took a while to realize that, because I wasn’t sure how they felt about me.


Tim O’Brien and Sam Bush, photo by Thomas Petillo