Over their careers in and around bluegrass, many people have commented on the parallels between John Cowan and Ray Cardwell. Both men have high tenor voices, play bass, and made their names in the early days of newgrass music.
Now we have another. Ray has taken a job with rock icon Dave Mason, while Cowan had been working with The Doobie Brothers of late. And to close that circle, it was Cowan who recommended him for the job.
Bluegrass fans who haven’t followed the rock and pop world this past 50 years may not know Mason’s work, but he has been prominent for some time. He first came to attention with the band Traffic in the late 1960s, though he was in and out of the group over the next few years. There he worked alongside fellow icon Steve Winwood. Since those days he has enjoyed an enduring solo career.
Mason was also a close friend of Jimi Hendrix, and was perhaps the only other guitar player to record with him, playing the 12 string on All Along The Watchtower, and singing harmony on Crosstown Traffic, two early hits for The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
When we spoke with Cardwell this afternoon, he had been immersing himself in charts and audio files, trying to be ready for the launch of the Dave Mason tour, February 9 at The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. He was back home in Jefferson City, MO where he has lived a good bit of his life.
Ray told us that his world had been repeatedly rocked this past few years, with one thing after another forcing adjustments on the fly. But he said after accepting this new gig, he couldn’t sleep for two days.
“My life changed when I left Nashville after my ex-wife died from cancer. I’ve always been a family man, and the only way I could go to Nashville to do music was because my wife could take care of the kids.
I went back to teaching music, and caught COVID from the kids last year. Then the schools shut down. So I figured, I had loaded trucks for years as a stage hand, so I could do it at Dollar General. Then I got hurt on the job so that was out.”
He was working in Jefferson City as a substitute music teacher, and said that one day his phone started blowing up with texts during class.
“I looked when I had a break, and there were texts from John Cowan and Pat Flynn. So I told the kids I had to deal with a family emergency and went out in the hall to call John. He told me he was unable to do a tour that he had scheduled before going out with The Doobies next year. He said that he wanted me to do it, and that I would be a great fit. Then he told me it was with Dave Mason. I almost dropped the phone.
So I told John I needed to talk to the girls first. My 26 year old lives me me, with her two daughters, and they know how bummed I had been with all the shows being cancelled this past two years, so they told me to go for it!
So I called John back and he told me that I should expect a call from an unlisted California number, and that I should pick it up. I talked with Dave Mason, and he was the nicest guy, and said that he had watched my videos and loved my voice, and that he wanted me to do the tour.”
For much of the 2022 tour, the Dave Mason band will be supporting The Marshall Tucker Band, who will be celebrating their 50th anniversary. Ray said that due to COVID, the band will have to follow quarantine procedures, where they get tested at the beginning of each 3-4 day run, and then be restricted to the bus, the venue, or the hotel until they return.
“We will have four days of rehearsals before the Ryman show, and I feel like I’ll be ready.
I will try to get some Tennessee Moon shows in there, but this will be my main priority.
I just love music – my favorite is bluegrass with rock edges, so this is perfect. I’m also looking forward to playing with a drummer again, where I’m not the main guy setting the beat.”
Ray then addressed how much of an influence and a mentor Cowan has been in his life.
“John calls me his little brother, and he has always been so kind to me.
When I was a kid playing bluegrass with my family’s band, I most sang harmony with my sisters. And they always complained that I sang too loud. The I heard Fly Through The Country from New Grass Revival in 1975, and first heard John sing. I thought right away, ‘Hey… I can do that!’ It showed me something I could do on my own.”
Here’s video of Ray singing with Cowan a few years back, joined by an all-star cast at Nashville’s City Winery, performing the NGR classic, Angel Eyes.
If you are inclined to frequent rock concerts, look out for Ray Cardwell on bass with Dave Mason next year. Ray said that Dave plans to feature him on a song every show, and he’s thinking of choosing Hurricane Rain from his 2019 album, Stand On My Own.
Cardwell also expressed his sadness over the recent passing of mandolinist and vocalist, Kyle Wood.
“I played with Kyle the first year I was in Nashville, and he was such a wonderful guy and such a talented singer and player. It broke my heart to see him go so soon. He was such a great songwriter too, one of the best.”
I’m sure our readers will join us in congratulating Ray Cardwell for getting called up to the big leagues. Give ’em hell, Ray!