Bluedazzled: A newgrass look at some old faithfuls |

Bluedazzled: A newgrass look at some old faithfuls

Andrew Harley
Photo special to the DailyJohn Cowan

John Cowan was garage-band prone with strapping young vocals from Minerva, Ohio, when he crossed paths with David Grisman and Mark O’Connor at the age of 22. Cowan and company concocted a new sound for bluegrass that they aptly named “Newgrass.”Since his days with Newgrass Revival, Cowan has sung and played his way around the world, and has found himself singing with many of modern music history’s most influential figures.The John Cowan Band and a true maestro on the fiddle, in Vassar Clements, are making a stop at the Vilar Center Thursday evening at 7:30.Lately, Cowan has put his muscular voice on a live album from Telluride, which uses tracks from as far back as 1998. Five different “John Cowan Bands” are represented on the album. Guitarist Jeff Autry is the exception of constancy.Cowan’s current lineup includes Autry on guitar, Luke Bulla on the fiddle and vocals, Noam Pikelny (formerly of Leftover Salmon) plays banjo and Wayne Benson plays the mandolin.Cowan took the time to chat newgrass-style with the Vail Daily. Here are some of his musings:

You’re coming up here with Vassar. Do you collaborate with him very often?:”Well, I’ve known him since ’77. I’ve been playing music with him on and off since then. About two years ago, he made a solo record, and he asked me to come in and sing on it. And Vassar hasn’t had a band that plays his repertoire for a long, long time. He just kinda goes out and plays with various jambands, and just sits in and plays fiddle. I think we’re the only people that play Vassar’s repertoire, which is nice for him.”Can you define the difference between bluegrass and newgrass?:”Yeah. In the Revival, we always said that we played contemporary music on traditional instruments. Traditional instruments just somehow fit me. I grew up with what was popular at the time (he’s lived in the South since he was 13), which, for me, was Motown. Until I joined Newgrass Revival, I was strictly a garage-band guy that played Hendrix and Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. So, I didn’t know anything about country or bluegrass music. In fact, what’s kinda cool about my relationship with Vassar is that my first real exposure to acoustic music was the first ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’ album. I remember sittin’, lookin’ at it, listenin’ to it and tryin’ to figure out, ‘Who’s this Vas-SAR guy? He’s Cool.’ You know. Then we met and have been friends ever since.”

Let’s talk about where you think newgrass is at today.”I think it’s become a sub-genre of music, which is kinda cool really. I would consider bands like Yonder Mountain (String Band), Leftover Salmon and even String Cheese (Incident) newgrass bands. There’s more out there than that, but those are probably the more well-known ones. I would even put Nickel Creek in that category.”So, you’ve been doin’ it for a long time. How do you keep your voice up and healthy?”Well, I’m pretty big into swimmin’ and walkin’. I take pretty good care of myself. I don’t drink and haven’t done drugs since ’87, so I’ve been sober for a long time. I do smoke, but it’s kind of like my rebellious vestige. I have to have somethin’ to do.”

You smoke and you can still keep those pipes loud and clean?”I try to. That’s why I work out like a maniac. It may be an illusion, but at least I think it’s helpin’.”Do you have any visions, any dreams for newgrass, for your music or with anything you’re trying to do these days?”Yeah. We’re gettin’ ready to make a record. We’re makin’ a record with this guy who’s a producer that I’m just crazy about. He is actually an old friend of mine here in Nashville, and he’s younger than I am. His name is Jay Joyce, and he’s done a lot of really cool records. He did Patty Griffin’s ‘Flaming Red’ album and he did John Hiatt’s ‘Tiki Torches’ record and Robert Bradley’s ‘Blackwater Surpirse.’ So he’s a real sort of modern, ambient kind of producer. We collected some really great songs and I have a really great band right now, so we’re all excited to see what he does with it.”

Got any jokes or stories that you like to tell?”I have a good Bill Monroe story. Apparently, Bill was receiving an award at the Kennedy Center. And this must have been in the mid 70s – and this’ll tell you a little bit about him. Frank Sinatra was there for some reason. And Frank Sinatra came up and introduced himself to Bill Monroe, and he said, ‘Mr. Monroe, I just wanted to tell you I’m a big fan. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ And Frank Sinatra, he stuck out his hand, and Bill Monroe said, ‘What do you do?’ And Frank said, ‘Well … uh … I’m a singer, sir.’ And Bill tipped his hat and said, ‘Well, good luck with it then,’ and turned around and walked away (laughs).”Did you ever get to play with Bill?”Yeah … yeah. There was a time that he hated Newgrass Revival, just hated us. There was a famous story where we were playin’ at some festival with him in about ’75, and our banjo player at the time, Courtney Johnson, was standin’ backstage next to him. And, their banjo player was sick, so Kenny Baker – Bill’s fiddler – was tryin’ to get Bill to use Courtney to play the banjo. And, he was just being kinda weird about it, and he goes up to Courtney. He goes, ‘Now what is it that you call that music that you play, son?’ And, Courtney went, ‘Uh, newgrass.’ And, Monroe goes, ‘Oh yes. I hate that.'”Andrew Harley can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 610, or at Colorado

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