NEWGRASS, OLD GRASS, BORROWED GRASS, BLUEGRASS
By Barry Barnes (Edited by Derek Halsey)
John Cowan is a major player in the world of bluegrass music. From his days with New Grass Revival in the 1970’s and 80’s to fronting his own band today, his spirit is alive and well as he continues to pump out fantastic new music. These days he is also involved with an organization called Safe Place that helps teenagers that are living troubled lives. The weekend before I interviewed John I saw him perform at an Opry Plaza Party show at Oprymills where he played many new songs from his latest album called “New Tattoo.” I had the pleasure of talking with John at Caffeine on Demonbreun Street in Nashville a few days later.
I enjoyed your Plaza show. On the song "In Bristol Town," you really held the note on that one, and then the band came in behind you and thumped it right along. I thought that it was a very powerful song. What was your reaction to it when you first heard it?
To me, it’s such a well written piece of music. The words are so eloquent it’s almost, for a lack of a better term, it’s a little bit Shakespearean. It’s written by our friend Robbie Fulks. We try to give it in an old timey mountain treatment, though on the record it does go into a part where there are some pretty loud Scottish sounding tribal drums. When we do it live, it’s equally as powerful.
Scottish drums come from mountain people as well. The song is set in Bristol, which has the state lines of Virginia and Tennessee running through the middle of it. There was a lot of musical history made there.
Absolutely, a lot of times when I’m introducing the song, I talk about Bristol being the true home of country music.
The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers both came there to record those famous sides for Ralph Peer.
They made those historic recordings in one week in Bristol in 1927. To me, if you trace country music back, even the contemporary stuff, if you go back a generation and go from Brooks and Dunn to Merle Haggard to Lefty Frizzell, it all leads back to Jimmie Rodgers. It just does. Then, the Carter Family influence is equally as far reaching, especially if you consider the Johnny Cash connection. The Carters, A.P. Carter, Sarah, Maybelle, so much of the material from them has survived in folk music and country music. You know, it’s just amazing.
Was Chet Atkins from that area?
He’s from Knoxville, he and Jethro Burns, who became a part of Homer & Jethro. They married twin sisters.
The same way Jeff Hanna and John McEuen married twins?
Another song that received a good response from the crowd at your show the other night was "Tomorrow Morning." It seemed like there was a nice banjo exit in it, then the bass kicked in, then the rest of the band chimed in, and it turned into an extended jam session. The crowd loved it.
Well, that’s another tune that was written, literally, by a Scotsman. He is a guy by the name of Paul Buchanan. His band is called the Blue Nile. They’re actually a pop band and they’re still going. I’m just a big fan of theirs. That was just one of those tunes that I kept going back to. As a fan, listening to their music and their albums, I kept going back to it. One day I thought, ‘maybe we can do this song,’ and I took it to the guys. We started goofing around with it, with Jeff Autry playing the little thing on the guitar. By the time we had played it for a while and went into the studio with Jay (Joyce), we decided to do a banjo intro on it. It’s kind of funny how things morph from one thing into another.
It’s all experimentation. You can’t be afraid of "this is how it is written, so that’s how it’s got to be."
That’s always tricky when you’re reinterpreting other people’s songs. You always want to be respectful to the intent of the writer, then the trick is how do you make it your own.
You performed quite a few songs from the new album the other night. How do you gauge the response for the newer tunes; through feedback from e-mails, the sound of the audience, or talking to the fans directly?
People will send in and put stuff on the board about what songs they like, or I’ll talk to people at shows. You can always tell from the response and applause or lack thereof (laughs).
Do you have those sensors in your brain that tell you which song is going to work, or be a favorite ten years down the road?
Nah, only because I don’t have a frame of reference for that. I’ve kind of gratefully toiled in the underbelly of successful music. We are, for lack of a better term, in the bluegrass world. It’s really no different than the chitlin’ circuit for R& B people, the blues people. One of the good things about it is you have the freedom to do music that’s really meaningful to you. Now, the other side of that is you’re not going to be on the top of the charts, riding around in limos, but that’s fine.
Your band is a who’s who of young bluegrass musicians. Tell me about your band.
I’ll tell you what’s interesting, Barry, is I think…well I don’t think, I know…that because of my association with New Grass Revival for so long, and that band had such an impact on young players for this kind of music, that honestly I’ve been able to attract great musicians to this band. They know they’re going to have more freedom doing this than if they go work for a James King or somebody like that where you’re just going to do their songs and play straight up bluegrass music. It’s not for everybody. There are some people where that’s all they want to be able to do, but I’ve been able to attract really great musicians. Jeff Autry is a renown flat picker in the world of bluegrass. Jeff and I have been together eight years. Wayne Benson came with us from IIIrd Tyme Out, which is a hugely successful bluegrass band. They’re still going. He’s a wonderful mandolin player. Shad Cobb, our fiddler, I came to know him from the Mike Snider band. Actually, I’m a loyal Grand Ole Opry listener, so one of my favorite bands ever that I hear on the Opry to this day is the Mike Snider Band. He always has just amazing musicians with him, which is funny because Mike is known for his comedy.
Mike Snider is a good musician himself.
He’s a phenomenal musician. He’s a great mandolin player, an amazing banjo player, great fiddler, and he’s been doing both things for the last ten years, so that’s how I found Shad. Noam Pikelny, our banjo player, he’s the youngest guy at twenty-four. He’s kind of a new young hot dog in the bluegrass music world.
There are lots of comparisons with him and Bela Fleck. They both started playing at roughly the same age. That has to be a plus.
Exactly. It’s actually a little strange, to be honest. They’re so alike it’s kind of scary.
You mentioned Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers during the Plaza show. What was the name of that gospel song you sang?
Jesus Gave Me Water.
Not everybody can pull off gospel music. You play it convincingly. You have the bluegrass thing going, yet can play gospel as well. Where does that come from?
I was raised in the church. My Dad sang in the church. He had a barbershop quartet, so singing gospel is not something that is foreign to me because of my roots. I didn’t grow up in bluegrass, you know. I grew up with the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, all those people. Almost every great R & B artist that you can name, from Sam Cooke to Jackie Wilson to John Taylor to Aretha Franklin to Dionne Warwick to Maphis Staples to Gladys Knight, all those people started in gospel.
I read somewhere about the New Grass Revival getting scorn from the bluegrass community, yet you guys still gained a loyal following of new listeners. That’s the whole key isn’t it, getting the listeners?
Yeah, I think that’s every person’s goal, the ones that make a living being musicians. As you know, you can’t make any money playing for your family. I think NGR was unsettling, scary, and threatening in the early days to the older bluegrass guys because they felt we were destroying their music or something.
What were the changes in John Cowan from the time you first auditioned for NGR in 1974 to being on the other side of that and conducting the NGR auditions in 1981?
I think it was just kind of a natural thing. By that time, I had already been in the band six years. The two former members of New Grass, Courtney Johnson and Curtis Birch, left in 1979. Sam (Bush) and I spent part of the years finishing out our duties as Leon Russell’s side band, then we went earnestly looking. We decided we wanted to keep New Grass Revival going and we’re going to keep the name. We had done so much already at that point. Sam had started the band in 1971, I think, so he had already been there nine years. I’d been there six years. We said, ‘Let’s keep going, let’s find some other guys to play with.’ We already knew we wanted Bela. He, like Noam is now, was the new hotshot kid where everybody was going, ‘Have you heard this guy play?’ so we went after him. We met Pat Flynn out in Colorado, probably a couple years prior, maybe ’78 or ’77, something like that. He was just an obvious choice. We kind of knew we wanted him, too. Actually, we didn’t audition any guitar players. Pat had the gig. We did audition a banjo player or two, but just to amuse ourselves. It’s like we knew we wanted Bela, it’s just whether he was willing to leave the band he was in at the time and make that jump. It was cool.
You guys had a heck of a run backing up Leon Russell. I bet you played "Jumpin’ Jack Flash" a time or two.
Yeah, we did it a time or two. We joined him in ’78 with the old Revival, which was Courtney Johnson, Curtis Birch, Sam Bush, and myself. We actually opened his shows and then were his band for his show. That went on for three years.
I have to ask you about the breakup of the Revival. Was there a clinging to it, saying that we got to keep this thing going, or did you embrace everyone going off in a different direction? What was that period like in the early ‘90s?
You know, what happened was Bela left the band and Sam and I, Sam had been on the road nineteen years at that point, I’d been on the road sixteen years at that point, and we said to each other, ‘Do we want to start all over again?’ Our feeling was that we couldn’t possibly replace Bela. There’s still nobody today that plays at his level. It was like, ‘All right, if we’re not going to try to find a banjo player, then what would we do?’ Would we get some other kind of instrument? You know, we looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s just take a break.’ That really is what it was about.
Has the new jam band influence being thrown into bluegrass these days hurt the music?
Absolutely not, because there are more people that want to play traditional than there are that want to experiment. Look at the Grascals. Look at King Wilkie. You still have Ralph Stanley out there, Del McCoury’s out there, Rhonda Vincent. There’s a lot less people that want to experiment with it. It didn’t hurt it at all. The analogy I always make is when I was in my late teens, I was really a huge fan of Eric Clapton and Cream and Blind Faith, the Yardbirds, all the bands that he’d been in. He kept talking about these guys, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters, so eventually I went and bought their records and thought, ‘Well, who are these people that he’s so enamored with?’ He wasn’t playing anything close to traditional blues, really. I think in the same regard that we led people to the world of bluegrass. It might have been through the backdoor, but they still got there.
In other words, they may have seen the New Grass Revival first and then eventually figured out who Ralph Stanley was, yet one way or another it’s still bluegrass music that is being pushed forward.
Exactly. So my personal view is I don’t believe it ever did anything but help.
When you were younger you lived in Indiana and Kentucky. Where is it that you picked up the music bug?
I was living in Kentucky. We moved there when I was thirteen. That’s when I started playing music. I think that’s why I consider myself a Kentuckian. I started playing in a little neighborhood garage band all the way through my senior year in high school. Then my family moved. My Dad got a promotion and we ended up moving to Evansville, Indiana. I spent my senior year of high school in Indiana and then I did about a half year of college there and immediately moved back to Kentucky. I moved back to Kentucky in about ’73, played around, worked in a car wash, played in various little bands there. In ’74 was when I got the call to go audition for New Grass.
Where did you audition for the NGR?
They were all living up in Barren County, Kentucky, which is where the caves are, Mammoth Caves, Glasgow, Kentucky, pretty much. When I got the job, I just moved up there with them, or moved down there I should say. We started coming to Nashville in ’75, making records, then we all moved here in about ’80. I’ve been here ever since.
How do you feel about living in Nashville?
Yeah, well, it’s a good place to live if you’re a musician. You can actually go get loans at banks and stuff, not for much money. I think if you’re in some other city, maybe Cleveland or St. Louis, you walk in and say ‘I’m a musician,’ they say ‘There’s the door.’ (laughs)
How has Nashville changed over the years? What has changed for the better or for the worse from 1975 until now?
(long pause)… I think that, my take on contemporary country music is that they sell less and less records and less and less tickets. I don’t think the labels have figured out how to live in this century yet. They’re kind of doing the same things they always did, which is to send the artists on a radio tour, make a video. The thing that’s unfortunate for young artists today is you only get one shot. There was a time in popular music, too, in rock-n-roll where, mostly in the ‘70s and it lasted up into the ‘80s, that if a label believed in an artist they would put a couple of records out before they dropped them. Now, it’s like, and I’ve had the experience myself when I was with the Sky Kings, if your first two singles don’t do well in the charts, you’re gone. I think that’s bad. What’s different today is country music is kind of a mess and is having a real identity crisis, I believe. But now, I’m a person that lives on the outside of it, so I’m probably not the right person to ask.
What is even better about Nashville is more and more musicians outside of country music continue to come here and live cause of the cost of living. We have great jazz artists that are world-renowned that live in this town. We have great rock and pop artists that live in this town. We have classical artists that live in this town. There are many inhabitants that make their living playing music, but they don’t necessarily do it here in Nashville. They just choose to live here because the cost of living is great compared to L.A. or New York. Schools are good for their kids, plus there are so many musicians that live here. Edgar Meyer can pick up the phone while making a classical record and have Bela Fleck over to his house in ten minutes, or whoever.
So there have been a lot of changes, apparently. Back then, it would have been country music only.
The bluegrass guys, the Osbornes moved here, Jim & Jesse lived here, Bill Monroe lived here, Flatt & Scruggs lived here, they already figured that out. You know when the Opry was here a lot in the ‘40s and ‘50s, I think a lot of the bluegrass artists moved here for that reason, which is good.
Can I ask you a loaded question?
What is your take on what is going on with the Dixie Chicks? They tore up the 1990s, yet now country radio won’t play their records. Do you want to comment on that?
Yeah, I’m very disappointed in country radio. I just think that patriotism should always include questioning authority. We live in a democracy, and people fought and died for all of our rights so we could get up and say, ‘I’m ashamed of the president cause he’s from the state I’m from.’ That’s fine, big deal, so what. For them to be punished financially because of that, I don’t like it. I think if Daryl Worley and Toby Keith want to make money off of songs that are flag waving, nobody complains about that. That’s fine. Those guys rode those songs to a career. I’m not saying they weren’t sincere about it. If you look at it just for that, then why is it so terrible that the Dixie Chicks write a song about, or whatever their first song on the new record is, ‘Not Ready To Make Nice.’ It’s just unfortunate. I think it’s a really unfortunate situation and my only thing about Natalie was that I was disappointed that she apologized.
Did she apologize?
Well, she did initially after it all first happened. She came back and said, ‘Well, you know.’ To me if you’re gonna take a stand, you better keep your feet on the ground.
Not even looking at it in a political way, when they started saying that they were not country music to begin with, that to me is throwing a hook at the country music fans.
They continue to shoot themselves in the foot. I think the reason they keep shooting themselves in the foot is that they’ve been celebrities so long. I don’t think they have anybody around them saying, ‘That’s ridiculous. Don’t do that. That’s stupid. Why don’t you think before you open your mouth.’ I think that’s just a by-product of celebrity. That’s one of the unfortunate things that happen when people get rich and famous. I think it gets harder and harder to somehow live in reality. (laughs)
Tell me about the Safe Place organization that you’re involved with.
I just came from there. It’s a national organization that’s in 48 states. What it is is literally a safe place for kids to go in crisis between the ages of 13 and 17. Most kids stay there two weeks. They can be runaways. They can be going through substance abuse problems. There can be domestic violence that they’re trying to escape, molestation, emotional abuse, whatever the case is, the kid can walk in from the street to a Safe Place house, get a warm meal, clean bed, and immediate counseling. It’s all about intervention. What we know now about any kind of crisis is that intervention is the most important tool we have, getting in there, looking at it, talking about it, seeing what’s going on. Even though the kids are only there a short time, you just don’t know. We never know, when the seeds of kindness are planted, what’s going to be on the other side of that.
At the end of the week or two, will the counselor go home to meet the parents?
No, they bring them in immediately. Not only that, but they have to have their parents permission to stay there. The goal of Safe Place is to reunite the child with their family, unless it’s not safe, then the Department of Health and Human Services is contacted. It just depends. Each case is different. It’s really just a place for kids to go in crisis.