John Cowan has always been something of a maverick in, and on the fringes of the bluegrass music world.
His first introduction to bluegrass fans came when he joined New Grass Revival in 1974, where he held forth as bass player and lead vocalist until the group disbanded in 1990. Championed by legions of remaining fans, NGR pushed their share of boundaries, and John’s rock and blues-inflected vocals shaped much of their distinctive sound.
Since then, he has worked with Sam Bush, The Doobie Brothers and others while continuing to release solo projects, eventually forming his own group, The John Cowan Band, whose recording career began in 2002. Cowan’s band and his current sound owe much to the “newgrass style” he helped pioneer, and his road show reflects that vibe as well.
His latest release, Comfort & Joy, was released October 13 on Koch Records, and it may come as a surprise to a lot of his fans. It’s a Christmas CD that pairs John’s soaring vocals with some familiar and beloved favorites, arranged for acoustic stringed instruments.
John shared some thoughts with us about the CD, starting with what led him to this theme.
“It was an idea that had been floating around since I sang Please Come Home for Christmas by Charles Brown for a Christmas record produced by Chuck Rhodes last year for Koch records. I had been very familiar with Charles’ original version, though most people nowadays may associate that song with The Eagles. I really enjoyed it, and it sort of set me to thinking about a Christmas CD.”
I wondered if it struck him as odd to be recording Christmas music “out of season.”
“Perhaps, but music is everything to me, it’s mostly what I think about 24/7. Other than it being early July, it was just part of the creative process for all of us.”
Speaking of “all of us,” I asked who recorded with John for Comfort & Joy.
“Our band, primarily: Jeff Autry on acoustic guitar and vocals, John Frazier on mandolin and vocals, Shad Cobb on fiddle and vocals, and our wonderful drummer Bryon Larrance. We had quite a few guests: Charlie Chadwick on upright bass, John Mock on gut-string guitar and pennywhistle, Jim Hoke on autoharp, Kenny Malone on percussion, Tom Britt on acoustic finger-picked guitar/slide.
Our producer Walter Carter arranged all the music and led the mandolin quartet with Matt Flinner and John Frazier. We had some amazing guest vocalists. My step-daughter Jenny Anne Mannan wrote a new tune Little Match Girl which she sang as a duet with me. Also Mike Farris joined me, Bonnie Bramlett, and her daughter Bekka on Let’s Make A Baby King and Go Tell It On The Mountain.
It was quite hectic actually as we (JCB) were on a month long tour during the pre-production phase of this record. I got great suggestions from my wife, Carol, and then Walter had a few song ideas, as did I.
I basically asked Walter Carter to do the lion’s share of the work – songs, arrangements, players – as I was swamped at the time. I already knew what songs I wanted to sing, but I was very open to Carol and Walter’s suggestions.”
The songs include a mix of sacred and secular – The Christmas Song, O Holy Night, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, I’ll Be Home For Christmas – but the one that really stands out for me is John’s plaintive rendition of Schubert’s Ave Maria.
I am a huge Luciano Pavarotti fan, and most people associate this song with his amazing rendering of it. That was one reason we decided to do it in English. Also being a Christian, I found the translation to be so simple, yet revealing. It is basically just the simple Catholic prayer Hail Mary Full of Grace.”
The John Cowan Band will start a 2009 Christmas Tour shortly where they will perform music from the new CD.