Lack of New Grass Revival reunion rankles John Cowan

Monday should have been a lifetime highlight for John Cowan and other members of the New Grass Revival as they videotaped remarks that will be played next month when the seminal band is inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.

Instead, Cowan said he felt like he was mourning. “It was really sad because it felt like I was burying my best friend, forever.”

At the heart of Cowan’s grief was Sam Bush’s decision, restated that day in a Bluegrass Today article, that a reunion tour or even a one-off performance marking the induction, was off the table.

“There’s no performances, and none are planned,” Bush told me. “Those days are over.”

It wasn’t exactly news to Cowan and other surviving members of the band. Bush had made it clear earlier that he wasn’t interested. Still, Bush’s comments pretty much chiseled his position in stone.

“I’m not sure why he gets to dictate all of this,” Cowan said, noting that the band’s contract relied on the democratic process, with at least three of four members needed to make decisions.

Cowan said the decision not to play again left a “ridiculous number of opportunities” on the table. He also called it “offensive and hurtful, and it devalues the contributions of other members of the band.”

Plus, “it says f*** you to the fans. It’s because of them we were able to exist. They came to our shows, they bought our music. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we made enough money to not have to work other jobs.”

Another member of the band, Pat Flynn, used some of his induction remarks, pre-recorded Monday for the virtual awards show in October, to criticize the no-reunion decision. He said, according to three people who were present for the taping at the Ryman, that those remarks would probably be edited out of the show. It will be interesting to see what happens next month.

Cowan said he carefully weighed whether to speak out. But he decided he had to after Bush’s decision, and his comment that as the only member of the band for all 18 years of its existence, it was “my” band.

“It’s kind of a no-win situation for me,” Cowan said. “Any response I’m going to have is going to make him mad at me. But I really don’t understand the ‘my band’ thing. It’s four guys. You can’t separate them out. There’s no weak links in the chain. That’s just revisionist history.”

Cowan, who performs with the Doobie Brothers, retains some fond memories of the days when NGR pushed the edge of the bluegrass envelope, and recorded music that still gets played on the radio, as well as at jam circles.

Those memories include good times with Bush.

“He taught me almost everything I know. I just love him,” Cowan said.

“But I don’t understand how he can speak for all of us.”

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.