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Published: 2002/07/24
by Michael Lello

John Cowan: Glancing Back, Striding Forward

Confronting the past, learning from it and moving on. Those seem to be the themes of John Cowan’s new album Always Take Me Back, and the current thrust of his career as well.

On the new record, Cowan comes to terms with the memory of his late father on at least two tracks (“18 Years” and “In My Father’s Field”) and dedicates the CD to his late brother Steven Ray Cowan and his family.

Similarly, Cowan looks back musically, tying in elements of his heady New Grass Revival days as well as a few nods to the unlikely prog-rock influence of Yes and King Crimson.

The lead track “They Always Take Me Back” may be a reference to Cowan’s loved ones — or maybe a higher power as well — always welcoming him with open arms despite his transgressions. It may also be a nod to his fans, who have stuck with him through his days with New Grass and Bela Fleck and dabbling in more major-label country and rock affairs. Now he’s on indie label Sugar Hill Records and is touring to promote “Always Take Me Back.” With a whole crop of newgrass/jamgrass bands on the scene he helped create, the new record and a book on the way, Cowan took some time for a phone interview and spoke about New Grass Revival’s continuing influence, the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” phenomenon and the state of the music industry.

You can catch John and his band this summer on the inaugural JamGrass tour, where he’ll be sharing the bill with legends like David Grisman and up-and-comers he’s influenced like Yonder Mountain String Band.

ML-With bands like Nickel Creek (also a Sugar Hill artist) achieving crossover success and the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack still selling tremendously, it seems like a decent time to be in bluegrass again. But you have seen these trends before, I’d assume?

JC- Well, the last kind of high peak was kind of before I was involved in the late 60s/early 70s with the Bonnie and Clyde soundtrack and Deliverance. They seem to be movie- related for some reason. But this is a little different with O Brother Where Art Thou?

ML-How does this perceived upswing in popularity of the bluegrass genre effect an artist like you who isn’t in the traditional bluegrass game but draws heavily from that style?

JC- I think that we're a little bit on the periphery of that. I’ve always been associated with new acoustic music, or newgrass as it is called. So we’ve always been on the top or the bottom or the side of the bluegrass world, because we're not straight-up bluegrass. But it helped everybody, really.

ML-Your CD has not only been reviewed by the country press, but publications like jambands.com. With some of the newer bands on the jam scene, do you see New Grass Revival’s influence coming out a bit?

JC- I think in that regard that’s not so much of a stretch, because Newgrass, in our own way and at least in terms of using bluegrass instruments, we kind of spearheaded the whole jamming thing with mandolin, banjos and fiddles. We certainly were one of the first and we did it for as long as anyone else did.

ML-Have you seen or heard some of the newer jamgrass bands?

JC- We just played with Yonder Mountain (in mid-May) in California. I think they’re great. They really remind me of us. They're very reminiscent to me of the first version of Newgrass Revival which I was in which was from 74-’80, very much so. Everything from the way they approach it to the way they look. It's kind of an old movie of myself. It's very flattering, because as I talk to a lot of those guys, they grew up listening to specific songs of ours and say we saw you guys in 83 or whatever.

ML- I think the fact that you’d cover a song like Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround” shows the approach you take and why there’d be a bit of a crossover in fanbase too. Do you and your cohorts in the scene look for that crossover appeal by recording such songs?

JC- I know that I never was that calculated about it. It was always, what's a really cool tune or how do we put our stamp on it? It wasn't so much “now we're going to do a reggae song.”

ML-Sugar Hill seems like a decent label to be on right now, with Jerry Douglas, Nickel Creek, they just signed Railroad Earth, of course Ricky Skaggs all of the more traditional acts.

JC- That's the good news. Being someone who's gone through it, it's actually been a big circle for me. I started my association with them in '84 with New Grass Revival and I'm back with them again. In the meantime, Newgrass was on Capitol Records, so the point I'm making here is, yeah it's really nice. If they want to sign an artist, they never get involved, at least not to my knowledge, saying you have to play this or don't play that. You have a lot of freedom. You don't have to jump through the traditional hoops so to speak.

ML-Having worked for the majors and now an indie, how would you compare the two?

JC- The creative process is the most enjoyable part now. No one is telling you you gotta get on the radio and in order to do that you have to play this type of music or change that.

The things you don't get when you're on an indie, you don't get hundreds of thousands of dollars of marketing and promotion. But I’ve been involved in this kind of lifestyle for so long, going out and making your audience one member at a time. There were six years where we had the benefit of videos and stuff like that. But a lot of it is till the same here. I’m making calls to Americana stations, thanking them for playing the new tunes. I went to a radio conference in Louisville for AAA non-commercial stations. It's funny, what's happening in Americana is more and more, artists are selling more and more records in that genre, and more of the old stuff too. They haven't started formatting the radio for it yet, but there's major labels that are involved now, they're coming and looking for hit bands. That would not have happened five years ago.

ML-Do you think mainstream MTV radio and major labels don’t give listeners enough credit and underestimate their tastes when it comes to putting something new or different out there?

JC- I think that’s traditionally been the case in that commercial music i.e.., you’re going to deal with MTV, VH1 and CMT, they definitely are usually going for the lowest common denominator. What is curious now is so much is targeted based on their demographic research. And that's what's really crazy to me. Because that’s like taking a poll for politics. Well, who did you leave out? Who didn't you ask? There's an X factor. And maybe it's a good thing. As long as there's an X Factor, O Brother Where Art Thou? is going to happen, or bands like Radiohead are going to happen. Maybe the fact that they're ignoring a big segment of the population is good.

ML-You occasionally play with Tony Trischka, who’s well-known on the newgrass scene, especially as Bela Fleck’s banjo teacher. How long have you known Tony?

JC- Tony and I go way back. I met Tony before I met Bela. Tony was very involved in the early side of the progressive bluegrass scene. There was a band from England he was in called Country Cookin', they were like Newgrass Revival. We were the hippie bands they put on at 2 in the morning at the festivals. He has probably endured as much crap as we have over the years.

ML-Festivals are bigger than ever in the jamband scene, but that’s been going on for years with bluegrass, and continues. Is it still a great way to get your music out there in front of a big, receptive audience?

JC- Yeah, definitely. In some of the festivals that have been around, the event is the festival itself, whether it's Strawberry Music Festival in California, Merle Fest in North Carolina, Telluride, Winterhawk up in New York. Some of them, the same audience will just make plans to go every year. There is some of that. Some of (the festivals) are artist-driven, but the older they are, the more they seem to be festival-driven, like Jazz and Heritage in New Orleans.

ML-The new album seems to delve into seem deep, personal territory, lyrically.

JC- As a songwriter, it’s nice to go deeper. The reward first and foremost is in writing and completing the song. The icing on the cake is when people respond and say they get it, or they like it. or it means something to them. That's nice.

ML- In the bluegrass world, even the “name” artists seem very approachable with their fans, always stay to chat after shows and sign things. Do you see that as the case too?

JC- I think it's part of the world we come from. We are a small world that has largely been ignored by the industrial military commercial machine, as it were. So a lot of our record sales are right there at the shows. Quite frankly, it's hard to find a lot of these CDs in stores and it's always been that way, and hard to find them on the radio. It's getting better with Americana radio. Especially in the 60s, 70s and 80s, all we had that was available to us was our unwritten contract with the audience. Whether it was to meet them, for them to come see us and support us. The only way they could get our music was to come and see us live and if they wanted to get our CD or record at the time they'd buy them directly from us.

ML-Besides touring to support Always Take Me Back, what is in the near future for you?

JC- We're gonna be on this big JamGrass tour. The other thing is, I'm slowly working on a book about singers. I'm literally just going to interview people that in my opinion are icons about the art of singing, which is pretty metaphysical. I'm going to talk to people I admire.

ML-Who are some of them?

JC- It goes everywhere from Del McCoury to Paul Rodgers and Robert Plant, Delbert McClinton, and B.B. King and Mavis Staples and Johnny Cash and George Jones and people like that. Ralph Stanley. All people that to me are some of the greatest voices.

ML-Do you have a publishing deal for the book?

JC- It's pending. I just gotta do some more homework on my end. Unless I screw it up, it's going to happen. (laughs)

ML-It really sounds like a pretty ambitious undertaking.

JC- This book came out in the early 80s that Max Weinberg wrote called The Big Beat and I actually ended up talking to him about that because I had done Conan O'Brien a couple times. He was kinda surprised. He thought I was coming up to him about the E Street Band. I said “Max, I read this book that you put out,” and all of a sudden he kind of softened and got real interested in what I had to say. (laughs) But that book was great. And I think this is going to be broader, because, you know, that was kind of musician geeks that wanted to know about their favorite drummer. I think this has a potentially larger audience. I kind of stole the idea from him.

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