The John Cowan Band
Bluegrass. Newgrass. Rock N’ Rollgrass. True innovators defy easy categorization and John Cowan is the ultimate innovator. His ability to move easily between music styles and blend and bend genres into creative new forms has made him one of the most significant voices in acoustic music over the past thirty years.
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After making a name for himself as one of the most in-demand vocalists in the early 1970s’ music scene in Louisville, Ky., Cowan rose to fame when he became the lead singer for New Grass Revival. He and bandmates Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn introduced a new generation of music fans to an explosive, experimental brand of bluegrass.
After inspiring and entertaining fans for nearly two decades, New Grass disbanded in 1990. Cowan immediately gave chase to his creative muse following it all over the musical landscape with a series of critically acclaimed albums. The Evansville, Indiana-native wrapped his expansive voice around tunes that ran the gamut from rock to soul to blues and beyond. As the 21st century began he found himself circling slowly, inexorably back to the acoustic music that he knew so well. He began to surround himself with some of the finest acoustic musicians working.
When the current line-up of his band, Jeff Autry (guitar), Wayne Benson, (mandolin) Shad Cobb (fiddle) and Noam Pikelny (banjo), came together, he knew he was on to something special. The music began to take a natural, organic turn back to Cowan’s acoustic roots. “For me it’s coming back to something I know really well,” he says. “It’s been a coming home of sorts. We’ve had this line-up of the band for over a year now and the response from the crowds has been overwhelming.”
The response may be overwhelming, but it shouldn’t be unexpected. Fans are hungry for the inventive experimentation and world-class musicianship that New Grass Revival offered. There haven’t been many bands capable of carrying the torch that NGR lit. Cowan, for one, thinks he knows why.
“It’s pretty darn difficult what we were up to back then,” he says. “We weren’t really playing bluegrass. We were playing contemporary music on traditional instruments. Our vision was to take acoustic music somewhere new. This incarnation of my band is the first time since New Grass that I’ve felt we could get back to that special place and make magic happen.”
Cowan knew this band was capable of making a great record so he began writing and finding the songs that would become New Tattoo, his first studio album in almost four years. In keeping with his think-outside-the-box nature, he turned to noted rock producer Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, John Hiattt, Tim Finn) for help in recording the new disc.
“We’ve known each other since he moved here in the 80s,” says Cowan. “Some of my favorite records are ones that Jay has produced. He is such an architect and hands-on producer. He was huge part of the conceptualization of the album. The interesting thing is that he doesn’t know much about bluegrass or acoustic music. That was a bonus. Because he’s not steeped in the tradition of that art form he didn’t have any worries about what we could or couldn’t do.”
New Tattoo, which lands in stores on June 13th, is his first release for Pinecastle Records. The label, known for releasing very traditional bluegrass music, might seem like an unlikely home for an artist as musically adventuresome as Cowan. He says the label’s passion for great acoustic music and willingness to make his project a priority made the decision to sign with the label an easy one.
The album features some of the best work of Cowan’s storied career. It also contains one of the most important songs he’s ever recorded.
It opens with “Carla’s Got A New New Tattoo,” where fun never sounded as exquisite as it does with these breakneck instrumentals and inspired vocals. “New Mine” harkens back to old school bluegrass, with a driving tempo, stellar picking and acrobatic vocal harmonies. “Back In Your Arms” and “Hurting Sure” are modern country masterpieces that would sound right at home on country radio. The soulful “Misery & Happiness,” a lamentation on the bittersweet experience of finding love and losing it, features gorgeous harmony vocals from Patty Griffin.
The emotional centerpiece of the album, however, is the closing track, “Drown,” a harrowing and graphic revelation about the tragedy of child molestation. It’s the most difficult song Cowan’s every recorded because it’s based on his own experience as a survivor of child molestation.
“For men this has become a taboo subject,” he says of his decision to include such a personal song on the new record. “One reason it’s not talked about by men is that it is a source of shame for us. Art has a responsibility to put things like this out there. I’m not waving a flag or beating drum or proselytizing. It’s just a story about something that happened and trying to figure out a way we can keep this from ever happening again.”
True art takes courage and requires the artist being willing to break open his heart and share the pieces with the world.
“You have to be willing to tackle the most difficult subject matter,” says Cowan. “Art has to be fearless. That’s the only way it can make a difference.”
On New Tattoo, Cowan is fearless. You can hear it in the eclectic mix and blend of styles and the unblinking willingness to bare even the most private recesses of his soul. New Tattoo is a bold and important statement from one of the most important voices working in American music. John Cowan is, in every sense of the word, an artist. And he’s just created a masterpiece.
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