Lonesome and a long way from home: John Cowan on bluegrass, life
They wanted to shake things up.
In 1971, a young Sam Bush aimed to create a new kind of bluegrass music. The legendary mandolinist was a teenager when he formed New Grass Revival. In the “classic lineup,” the group brought together the likes of Curtis Burch, Courtney Johnson and John Cowan (and later Bela Fleck).
And it was Cowan — barely 20 years old when he joined in 1972 — who found himself traveling to the rural mountains of Kentucky to audition for Bush. Cowan was hired on the spot as a bass player, atop his distinct vocal skills that also led to him becoming the lead singer of New Grass Revival.
With long hair, bushy beards and shaggy clothing, the band stuck out like a sore thumb at the old-school conservative bluegrass festivals and national touring circuits. But, all skepticism quickly faded away the moment New Grass Revival plugged in their instruments and kicked off their wild and exuberant style of that “high, lonesome sound.”
In the true spirit of bluegrass — and of time itself — the members of New Grass Revival held steady and kept pickin’ away, and now they’re viewed as a crucial link between the neo-traditional and progressive camps of a genre constantly in flux.
Smoky Mountain News: When you look back on New Grass Revival being the outsiders early on, is it weird to be considered one of the pillars of the genre nowadays?
John Cowan: It’s not weird. It’s kind of nice, actually. To my 25-year-old self back then it may have seemed weird. But now, it’s more of an organic, natural movement of time and space.
SMN: What was it about bluegrass that stuck to you in the beginning? When you started out in the late 1960s and early 1970s, bluegrass might have seemed like outer space in an era when rock-n-roll dominated everything…
JC: It was. It wasn’t necessarily that it was appealing to me. The job came available to me. I had some mutual friends that knew New Grass Revival was looking for an electric bass player. And then I had some mutual friends in Louisville that knew Sam [Bush], and they told him there’s this guy he should check out that sings and plays well (Cowan). So, they just called me out of the blue. I went to Western Kentucky to audition. They hired me and I never left.
SMN: What sets bluegrass apart from other genres?
JC: I just think that it’s so deep — culturally. It’s an art form. It’s kind of always the opposite of pop music. Not that I don’t like popular music, but bluegrass is encased in the same ideals as Dixieland, jazz, be-bop and the blues. It’s roots music. It’s very earthy. Whether you’re a jazz musician or a bluegrass musician, you can’t make a living in this business if you can’t play your instrument. And that’s not necessarily true in pop or rock-n-roll music. It’s pretty much the 10,000 hours concept. You’ve got to learn, to sit around for years and learn your instrument. There’s a whole pedigree you have to learn.
SMN: You guys were really young when you started New Grass Revival, and at a time when a lot of dinosaurs were walking around bluegrass. Were you aware of how important it was at that time to have new blood in the music?
JC: Yeah, and that’s the reason behind the name. It had already “been done” in traditional bluegrass — The Dillards, Country Gentlemen, The Osborne Brothers. Our name said we were going to take the music and revive it, to keep it going and keep the torch lit.
SMN: Were you looking to make a statement right out of the gate?
JC: I think the only statement we were trying to make was in response to being offended by the older people. Because you’ve got to remember — at that time — there was this huge cultural chasm in the late 60s and early 70s in our country. It was “us versus them,” “them” being our parents’ generation. It was so broad, culturally speaking, that it worked its way down into the bluegrass world we lived in. There was this whole thing about, “those kids are on drugs, they’re ruining our music, they’re plugging their instruments in.” We were kind of offended because we loved Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe. But, we also loved Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, The Allman Brothers Band and Jackson Browne. We were bringing what we heard and saw around us into the music.
SMN: Do you see that divide today between neo-traditional and progressive bluegrass?
JC: I don’t, but I’ve also always lived on the periphery of the genre. What I saw going to the IBMAs (International Bluegrass Music Association awards in Raleigh) this year was that everything seemed really balanced. And we’re part of the old guard, with Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury, and none of us would say that the next generation is ruining the music. I don’t get that. I see and love the whole openness about the music.
SMN: What does bluegrass mean to you these days, as someone who has dedicated his life to the music?
JC: It’s nice to have done something that was about the heart of the matter, which for us, was trying to be really good at something, and trying to think as human beings about other people. We wonder what’s going to happen to music [moving forward]. But, there’s always going to be some kid in their bedroom learning how to play Stevie Ray Vaughan or Bill Monroe or David Grisman or Sam Bush, or even Beyonce for that matter, who knows? Music is going to continue to exist, and we just don’t know what form it will take. That’s something about human nature — people need to express themselves.
Want to go?
Bluegrass legend John Cowan will perform alongside Darin & Brooke Aldridge at the 22nd annual Bluegrass First Class festival Feb. 17-19 at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville.
Cowan will hit the stage at 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18. Other acts include Dailey & Vincent, Seldom Scene, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Town Mountain, The Grascals, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Flatt Lonesome, and many more.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.bluegrassfirstclass.com.