The Acoustic Café sets the standard for sylvan concert settings in these parts. John Cowan is peerless when it comes to performing sophisticated acoustic music. It’s about time these two got together.
As bassist and vocalist for the rolling revolution that was the band called New Grass Revival, Cowan was part of a sea change in American song. Founded in 1971, NGR fomented rebellion in the staid ranks of vernacular music, presaging Outlaw, cowpunk and any other variation on a country theme that’s played out since.
After NGR furled its flag in 1990, Cowan soldiered on through many subsequent musical adventures. His latest, the John Cowan Band, makes its Hayden debut this weekend.
BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: Your band is a lot like the classic string bands of yesteryear, offering entry-level experience to some really great players.
JOHN COWAN: Yeah, I’ve been blessed. It’s not like people make a lot of money playing with me, but all the people who’ve come into the band have been well above average musicians. We have a mandolin player by the name of John Frazier, and he comes from a band that he had with his wife, Hit & Run Bluegrass out of Colorado. Shad Cobb [fiddler] is amazing, he used to play with Mike Snider. Then Jeff Autry, who’s been playing with me 11 years, he plays acoustic guitar and sings. And we have a drummer now that joined us in the fall, name of Brian Larrence. He’s a jazz drummer, an amazing guy. He writes for Modern Drummer and he has a master’s degree in jazz studies, so he really knows his stuff…
So much of what comes out of rock and soul and bluegrass music, the creativity forms in the form of power. Not necessarily volume, but the whole idea of giving everything an oomph. What I’m finding us doing constantly is pulling back and getting quiet and creating in that space. It’s really different.
I’ve read about your early influences, from church music and your dad’s barbershop quartet singing to your garage band career, but where did you make that crooked left turn into playing acoustic traditional-style stuff?
It was all just serendipity, honest. I was living in Louisville… and I had some mutual friends in the guys in New Grass Revival, and they were looking for a bassist, and this friend of ours said, ‘This guy is a rock guy, but he plays and sings really well,’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll audition him.’ So I drove from Louisville down to Barren County, which is kind of down in the sticks in western Kentucky, and I played about two songs and they hired me on the spot.
The very name “New Grass” and the way you guys looked and played suggested that you were out to upset apple carts. Did you realize at the time that you were making those historic junkets across the country what an impact your group’s approach was having on the customary way of playing bluegrass?
Yeah, we knew. [laughs] Yeah, it was real clear. But our goal wasn’t to piss people off. Our whole thing was, we were a bunch of young guys who grew up in the ‘60s musically, and the ‘60s were kind of a renaissance period of pop music, because there weren’t any formats. On AM radio when I grew up, it would go from Stevie Wonder to Buck Owens to Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Jimi Hendrix to Sam and Dave. Radio was just golden then.
So the subversion of that pop music was the kind of subversion practiced by New Grass Revival?
Yeah. I’d agree with that.
Partly because of that great electric bass you were playing and partly because of the New Grass attitude, you won a lot of converts to your music on the rock and roll concert trail. I still think one of the smoothest crossover moves ever was when New Grass went out on the road backing up Leon Russell in 1979.
Yeah, that was wonderful. It’s kinda sad to me that in the pantheon of rock and roll he’s been forgotten and that a lot of people don’t know about him, except people in our age group. To work with as a musician, he was just so inspiring…
After New Grass folded, you got some pretty good gigs on your own. You helped bring back the Doobie Brothers and you’ve done half a million sessions in Music City as a first-call bassist and singer. Does any one particular studio session stand out in your recollection?
The Will The Circle Be Unbroken second record that we did, that was pretty amazing. At one point, we were in there with June Carter and Johnny Cash and Bruce Hornsby, Marty Stuart, the Dirt Band — I can’t remember who all exactly — Roy Huskey, Jr., everybody and his brother was on that.
You’ve cut sides with other people you admire, like Delbert McClinton, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash. Are you able to overcome the idolatry when it’s time to lay down the tracks?
Yeah, but there’s some situations. Like I saw Emmylou Harris at Merlefest this year and we ended up singing a tune together. It’s funny; I’ve probably performed with her a hundred times over the years in New Grass and in Sam [Bush]’s band in various places — I don’t know if it’s because she’s so beautiful or I have every record she’s ever made, but I still get completely nervous and tongue-tied around her.
So what should we expect from the John Cowan Band this weekend?
Just some really stunning music and singing and playing. These guys are phenomenal instrumentalists and it’s just a really, really good band. It’s great in ways I never even expected. We’re kinda turning corners as a band that I didn’t see coming, to be honest.
The John Cowan Band entertains Saturday afternoon on the pastoral spread at The Acoustic Café, a festival with a listener’s vibe that no one who appreciates the art of performance should miss.
Advance tickets to Acoustic Café cost $40; you’ll pay $50 at-the-gate. You can buy tix at Fretted Instruments in Homewood or Sojourns in downtown Birmingham, or online at www.theacousticcafe.com. The website also has directions for driving from Birmingham to Hayden’s Corner.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org