Q & A with John Cowan
John Cowan’s voice is unmistakable, and though it’s best-known for fronting the New Grass Revival band during the mid-’70s up until the late ’80s, his rock ‘n’ roll/gospel/soul-edged voice is back. Originally John was hired on to play electric bass (an instrument still unique to bluegrass at the time) for New Grass Revival in 1984. As the story goes, for those first few weeks Cowan kept mentioning that he could sing fairly well, but at the time Sam Bush was considered NGR’s lead vocalist. Finally, Cowan sang a version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days.” He couldn’t have been half-bad, because immediately Bush himself named Cowan as the lead singer.John has found his way back home after a 15-year hiatus from NGR that was filled with diverse rock and country projects, Cowan is back in acoustic music, this time fronting the John Cowan Band and recording the recently released, self-titled solo disc. In a recent interview with the Vail Trail, Cowan talked about his musical history, his new roles as bandleader and songwriter, and his plans for the future.VT: Some have described your sound/music as “new grass.” What does that mean and tell us about your style of music?JC: In New Grass Revival we considered “New Grass” to be contemporary music played on traditional instruments.My current style of music is absolutely “New Grass” music. I feel like I’m carrying on the tradition that we and others started in bluegrass music in the late ’60s, early ’70s, i.e. putting our own modern stamp on a traditional art form.VT: Tell me about the newer additions to the band and how their influences are affecting the music.JC: When Wayne Benson joined this band on the mandolin I decided to quit using percussion/drums because I had finally found someone who’s rhythm sensibilities and musicality were as strong as Sam Bush’s.Noam Pikelny, at age 23, plays with the fire of Bela Fleck and also has great knowledge of the Scruggs tradition of bluegrass banjo playing.Luke Bulla is an amazing fiddle player, singer and songwriter.Oddly enough, because of their age, their influences were and are in fact the New Grass Revival, David Grisman, Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor and others that are my peers.VT: Have you played any shows in the Vail Valley or nearby? Are you looking forward to playing the area?JC: As a member of New Grass Revival I played Vail many, many times. They used to have a festival called Bar-b-Que, Balloons and Bluegrass that we played many times and it was always a lot of fun.Musically, Colorado has been a second home to me since 1975. New acoustic music has always been received openly by the hearts and minds of the people of Colorado. I can’t say why but I’m grateful that it has been.VT: Tell me about your time with New Grass Revival and the subsequent break you took after that ended.JC: The 16 years I spent with The New Grass Revival were up to the inception of this current band, the most important, proudest moments of my life as an artist. After the band broke up on New Year 1990 I got off the road and focused on my recovery as an addict. I got deeply involved in the 12 steps and doing service work as a member of Narcotics Anonymous (taking meetings into prisons, treatment centers, and doing volunteer work with adolescents here in the Nashville area). In 1993 I became a touring member of The Doobie Bros. That led to the formation of a band called The Sky Kings with my friends Pat Simmons (Doobie Bros), Rusty Young (Poco), Bill Lloyd (Foster and Lloyd). We made two records, one for RCA and one for Warner Brothers for the country music market. Neither was well received by country music radio and we were subsequently dropped from both labels.Around 1995 I became a member of the Sam Bush Band for two years, which brought me back into the fold of acoustic/bluegrass music.VT: Your lyrics seem to be very introspective. What are your main influences when you write?JC: Some writers are great storytellers, like Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch etc. As someone who just started writing his own music in the mid 80’s, I’ve tried to follow the advice of other great songwriters, which is write the truth (what you know).Having said that, I’ve tried to find ways to write about my own personal experiences and the journey I seem to be on as a human being.VT: What role does spirituality play in your life?JC: I grew up singing in the church, so obviously I was raised in the “Christian” tradition. I got clean and sober in 1987 and through that process I was able to develop a relationship with the God of my understanding, (or misunderstanding as I like to joke), I never imagined that we would be living in as scary times as we seem to be at this moment as a world. The choice for me everyday seems to be love or fear. I stumble a lot and make the wrong choices. But my overall belief is that man and womankind are destined to love one another. For me personally changing the world means addressing the parts of myself that need changing the most and I believe that I can only do this with the help of God.VT: How are your plans for a book project proceeding?JC: Right now I have a title, which is “I Believe To My Soul” which is an old Ray Charles song. I have talked preliminarily to some of my friends about their participation in this project including Del McCoury, Emmy Lou Harris and Alison Krauss; they have all expressed a keen interest in participating.I have a wish list of 30 to 40 singers that goes from people like Mavis Staples, George Jones, Al Green, Robert Plant, Paul Rogers, Chris Cornell, Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, etc.Basically the idea is to have a dialogue in print with people I consider to be the greatest singers who’ve touched many lives about the art, physically, emotionally, and spiritually of song and singing. VTJohn Cowan will perform with Vassar Clements at the Vilar Center for the Arts in Beaver Creek on September 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $32. For more information call the Vilar Center at 845-TIXS.