John Cowan talks New Grass Revival and his new album

John Cowan – photo © Zdeněk Hataš

It would be difficult if not impossible to overestimate John Cowan’s role in bringing bluegrass to a wider and more diverse audience. Given the role he played in the New Grass Revival, arguably the first band that crossed the boundary between the traditional and the contemporary, he, Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Pat Flynn, Courtney Johnson, Curtis Burch, Butch Robins, and Ebo Walker helped find new horizons for those archival sounds, and bridge the gap between those that stayed true to tradition and younger musicians who had a reverence for the past while visualizing the possibilities for the future.

Cowan has continued that quest ever since, both on his own and in tandem with other artists who are part of today’s newgrass vanguard. He’s also a longstanding member of the Doobie Brothers, which has provided him further opportunity to reach a more diverse audience, Yet, his efforts are not limited to any particular genre. An exceptional bassist and vocalist, he freely travels between any number of different genres and finds his skills and satisfaction applicable to each.

One example transpired when he kicked off the traditional album covers concert on the Hilltop Stage at MerleFest last month by singing a powerful version of Amazing Grace to kick off the proceedings. It was a stunning way to initiate the set, and yet another example of Cowan’s ability to wow a crowd through his demonstrative abilities alone.

Bluegrass Today caught up with Cowan at the festival and took the opportunity to discuss his impressive 50 year career, and catch up with his current activities. 

It’s a little known fact that you were in a short-lived group called the Sky Kings, which also included Rusty Young of Poco, Patrick Simmons of the Doobie Brothers, and Bill Lloyd of Foster and Lloyd. That was a pretty powerful combination.

That’s how I got my job in the Doobies.

Nevertheless, that particular band remained well below the radar. really under the radar. You know? I mean, that was in every sense. You made a terrific album however.

Yeah, it was just about timing. Timing is everything. At that time when we came out, country music was really about hat acts as we used to call them.

Cowboy hats.

Yeah, like guys with cowboy hats. But at least it was country music, which you can’t really say it is anymore. So yeah.

Rusty sadly isn’t with us now, but have you have you ever considered any kind of a reunion with the other guys and reigniting the group?

I don’t think I would do it without Rusty. Really, he’s too important.

Well, you seem to be very busy regardless. I’m amazed even to see you here now because the Doobies are always touring.

Yeah. It’s a wonderful job.

Of course it brings you to a totally different audience

It’s kind of night and day really.

Do they still record?

Yes. But now we’re in streaming land. I’m not sure that people put out albums anymore. What’s really funny is, I don’t even own a CD player. There’s not one in my car. There’s not one of my house, which I hate. I fell victim to streaming as well because it’s just so easy.

And yet there’s no takeaway, nothing you can put on the shelf and call a collection.

I’m pretty voracious reader. But it’s funny. Most of my friends that are readers use kindles or iPads. I always buy hardcopy books because I like having them in my house. I lament the fact that I got rid of my records. I hate that. But they were kind of a pain to drag around, if you remember. The orange crates. Remember how heavy they are when they’re loaded?

Speaking of records, do you have a project planned for the foreseeable future?

I just finished a record that’s pretty much like New Grass Revival. Really? No drums. It’s just me on electric bass and singing lead. Scott Vestal plays banjo. He’s one of the greatest. Oh, a young man named Jonah Horton is playing mandolin. Cody Kilby played acoustic guitar and Tim Crouch is going to be playing fiddle. It’ll be out before the new year. In fact, It’ll be out very soon.

You’ve been witness to a lot of music history.

I have. I recount it in a book I have coming out later this year. That book started out as a series of peer-to peer-interviews, much like what we’re doing today. I had a peer-to-peer interview show on WSM in Nashville where I was doing one show a month. The guests I had were outrageous. I had the lay of the land. Chris Hillman, Jim Messina, Rodney Crowell and Loretta Lynn, Bonnie Bramlett, Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues. They said, ‘We can’t pay you but you can own all this stuff.’ So all 14 interviews were mine and they got made into a book. The book is also a partial memoir of my life. It goes from pretty much when I started playing music ’till when New Grass Revival ended.

You of course were on the two Moody Bluegrass albums. I suspect that’s how you got to know Justin Hayward. 

It ties into my life story in that I was a huge Moody Blues fan. 

You were interviewed for that recent book about Leon Russell, were you not?

We stayed friends for 50 years. So I said, Leon, I want to do this radio show with interviews with musicians. And if you would consent to do it, I could probably get the show. He said, ‘Sure. I’ll do it.’ So I went to them and I said, my first guest is Leon Russell. And they were sold. Okay, we’ll do it.

He set the bar pretty high. But it sounds like you met the bar with everybody else.

I had Sam Moore from Sam and Dave.

You’re obviously a real record enthusiast. 

I would just pour over every record I got. I wanted to know who engineered it. Who played bass. Who played the solo. Where did they record it? This new record I’m doing is going to be on vinyl and CD. And you also can stream it.

New Grass obviously played a large role with guys pioneering the whole newgrass/Americana thing. There were the Burrito Brothers and Poco and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but your band had as much as any band in terms of bringing music where it is today. At the time, did you have any idea that you were taking a major leap in the overall trajectory?

We knew that we were good. At that time, though, like when I first joined in ’74, there was a big chasm in the bluegrass world, one that we couldn’t bridge for some reason, because we were young. We all admittedly smoked some dope. We were hippies. We wore teeshirts on stage. And the traditional people just weren’t having it.

But that was part of the culture of that time, because I can remember having the same arguments with my parents that were happening throughout the music world. They said they shouldn’t do it that way. They should do this and they should that. So that’s the long answer to a short question. Did we know what we were doing? We knew that it was really unique. And it was really good. And our commitment was just to be artists. And thank God, we grew up in a time when you didn’t have to be on the hit parade to have to make a living. Nobody was gonna play that shit. But our fans bought it.

Did you see the light on the horizon, before the band came to an end?

Yeah, it was very sad. Because we just got the door kicked open all the way. And then Béla decided he wanted us to move on. You can’t replace Béla. And Sam and I had been on the road at that point for 15 years. For him, he was in three different incarnations of the band.And the other thing is that he was the point person, the guy that had to talk to the booking agents, and the managers and the publicist. So when I’d come home from the road, I could do whatever the hell I wanted. When Sam came home from the road, he had to spin off on the phone. And at that point after 16 years, that was it for him. He was like, “Man, I don’t want to be a bandleader anymore.” So he went to work for Emmylou Harris.

You had scored a major label deal with Capitol Records. That seemed like a good start. 

They did the best they could. Just the fact that we even were on a major label was pretty cuckoo. Before we made their first record for them, they brought us all into this conference room at Capitol Nashville, and they said, “Boys, we’re really excited about having you on the label, and we have a song that we think is going to be a big hit. And we think you should record it.” So they pushed the play button on the cassette player, and they played this song called Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On, which later became a big hit for Mel McDaniel. So after the song was over, they hit stop and they looked at us and they’re like, “What do you think guys?”

All four of us were sitting together at a table facing them. The four of us looked at each other at the same time. And every one of us burst out laughing.

So what did the company guys do after that?

They never asked us to do anything again. They just left us alone. A good thing, you know?

So did you miss the big opportunity to please the suits?

It’s just one of those things. That was my identity for almost 16 years. That was all I knew. We spent years and years on the road, especially when we were in our early 20s. We did 300 days a year on the road, just driving ourselves around in vans. The last year we were together was the only time we ever had a bus. It was one of the very last tours we ever did. When I joined in ’74, we slept on people’s floors.

So are you a sentimental kind of guy. You’re writing a memoir after all. Does nostalgia factor into it?

I’m nostalgic in the sense that I’m 70 years old. And there’s a lot to be grateful for in my life. There’s a lot of things I wish I’d done different that I can’t take back. My personal take is, when I go out to eat with guys my age, we fucking tell stories. That’s something you can’t avoid. There’s something about being this age that makes you look back a lot. And hopefully, there’s more. I think the things that stick out for me are just the great things that I’ve been able to do and be a part of and witness. I was in that band for many years. It’s a long time, especially the way we did it, one gig at a time.

So do you have a bucket list? Are there people you’d still like to work with that you haven’t already?

I don’t wish for that in particular, because it either will or won’t happen. I’m at that age where I don’t know how long I’ll live. I’m in really good health. I’m an avid distance swimmer, so what when you ask about my bucket list, my bucket list is more on a personal level. I’ve been in recovery a long time and it kind of guides me. It’s my north star. So my bucket list is more about how can I be of service to people — friends, family, that kind of shit.

That sounds reasonable.

I don’t do anything alone. What I’m trying to say here is that I try not to take myself too seriously, because I’ve been the benefactor of musical help, personal help, recovery help. My theory about life is I’m not big on taking credit myself for stuff. I know what I’ve done. I know that I do things well. I was singing when I came out of the womb. I fall short all the time, because we all do. We aren’t perfect people. What we say in recovery is it’s all about progress. Not perfection. Progress.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.