Days of the Newgrass
Once the folksy domain of old timers and fringe musicians, Bluegrass now enjoys a position of popularity among a wide range of fans, especially here in the mountains. Acoustic enthusiasts, jam-band converts and even the fickle youth follow bluegrass now, and John Cowan is part of the reason.Cowans former band, New Grass Revival, featured such talent as Sam Bush, Pat Flynn and the vaunted Bela Fleck; their experimental, technical take on the age-old medium of bluegrass pushed it in new directions and into the pop sphere. Some would say it spawned a new genre built of its very name: Newgrass.Its pretty darn difficult what we were up to back then, Cowan said on his website. We werent really playing bluegrass. We were playing contemporary music on traditional instruments. Our vision was to take acoustic music somewhere new. After a string of successful albums and explosive shows, New Grass Revival disbanded when emerging superstar Fleck took a turn toward jazz and a solo career. John Cowan kept playing and recording, but often took detours into rock, blues and even R&B soul. But even during his diversions, bluegrass kept calling him back, and at the beginning of the new century he pursued it again in earnest. This incarnation of my band is the first time since New Grass that Ive felt we could get back to that special place and make magic happen, he said. For me its coming back to something I know really well Its been a coming home of sorts. Weve had this line-up of the band for over a year now and the response from the crowds has been overwhelming. Backed by Jeff Autry on guitar, Wayne Benson on mandolin, Shad Cobb on fiddle and Noam Pikelny on banjo, Cowan still handles his bass duties with deft skill. But the hallmark of the John Cowan band remains his high, clear tenor: Unlike many bluegrass singers, Cowan favors rich, soulful vocal runs colored by rock n roll and blues melodies. Cowans voice bears more in common with classic rock tenors like Journeys Steve Perry than Del McCoury.
On The John Cowan Bands latest, New Tattoo, they revisit the territory of New Grass Revival but refrain from simply churning out a retread. Songs like Misery & Happiness and Hurting Sure channel the ache of Delta blues through a Kentucky bluegrass lens, and Red Birds (In A Joshua Tree) begins with a rolling, wagons-west fiddle lead and yearning vocal from Cowan that connects to the loneliness of an outlaw. It sounds like a soundtrack song for Deadwood that got lost in the dust, blood and mud. Cowan acknowledges New Grass revivals legacy in the bluegrass world, but hes also open about his rock n roll leanings: The John Cowan Band performs the classic Runnin With the Devil on Strummin With the Devil, a bluegrass tribute to Van Halen.In New Grass we busted our asses riding around in a van we were so different musically and we were knocking down walls and making windows for future musicians to crawl through, like Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band, String Cheese Incident and the Dixie Chicks, Cowan said on the Strummin With the Devil official web page. We were really some of the architects of bluegrass music. I said to our producer Garth Fundis recently that bluegrass music has touched so many lives and the 50,000 albums we sold must have all been bought by musicians!Despite Cowans wide range of influence, that doesnt keep him from ploughing forward into unexplored avenues, like the dirt-poor country inflections on New Tattoo. We can safely expect to see a whole new generation of bluegrass slingers adapting elements of Cowans style for as long as hes making music, whether its bluegrass, newgrass or new-newgrass.Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or email@example.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado