The Long Journey Back: John Cowan Returns to His ‘Grass’ Roots

John Cowan Returns to His 'Grass' Roots

John Cowan has traveled down a lonesome road or two in the past decade, encountering obstacles but willing to try new directions.

The passionate lead singer and bassist for progressive acoustic band New Grass Revival, which disbanded in 1990, signed to Atlantic Records as a rock act but was dropped without releasing an album. He took a five-year detour into mainstream country with the now-defunct Sky Kings, recording an album for RCA and a second for Warner Bros. Neither was released, although a single, “Picture Perfect,” cracked Billboard‘s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in 1996.

Along the way, Cowan put out an EP of old soul chestnuts, reissued in 1997 as a full-fledged album, Soul’D Out, and he spent a couple of years touring with rock mainstays the Doobie Brothers.

Cowan never forgot his eclectic beginnings, however. A self-titled album released last month affirms the musical values he espoused in his years with New Grass Revival. He combines acoustic and electric instruments, dipping into a hodgepodge of styles including jazz, blues, rock, soul and the enigmatic style he helped define, newgrass, melding them all into music that defies categorization.

Many of Cowan’s jamming buddies and some of Nashville’s finest session players contributed their time and talents to the project. There’s fellow New Grass bandmate Sam Bush, Dobroist Jerry Douglas, banjoist Scott Vestal, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, guitarists Kenny Greenberg and Jim Hurst, keyboardist Reese Wynans and multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott (who co-wrote a track), among others. He also enlisted the vocal talents of pop’s Karla Bonoff, country’s Jon Randall and wife Bobbie, to name a few.

Cowan admitted recently in an interview in the country.com offices that the road less traveled is the one for him.

“I realized in doing the Sky Kings thing, I’m not a country singer, I never have been, and it’s not really the right place for me because there’s too many concessions I’d have to make,” he explains. “I just made my own record, and now I’m back doing what I did in the ’70s and ’80s, which is riding around in a van. You make your audience one person at a time this way.”

Cowan and Bush teamed up to form an act, Sam and John, and played together during the last year Cowan was involved with the Sky Kings. Bush then decided to make a solo album and asked Cowan to join him on the road.

“What happened was, I got reacquainted with that audience, because he was still playing the same venues and the same festivals that we did in New Grass,” Cowan says. “So that really led me back there. I got around to playing that kind of music and playing with Sam — we did a lot of New Grass songs.”

Cowan began recording his solo album in 1998, cutting the tracks in Nashville and later mixing them at producer Wendy Waldman’s home studio in Encino, Calif. Waldman, a noted singer/songwriter, produced a number of albums in Nashville in the ’80s including projects by the Forester Sisters, Suzy Bogguss, Matraca Berg and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. She produced the last New Grass Revival album, Friday Night in America, in 1989. A friendship with Cowan ensued, but their paths crossed less frequently after that. A chance encounter led to a renewal of their partnership.

“My wife was going to L.A. in ’97 for a business trip, and I was just going to go tag along. I called somebody and got Wendy’s number,” Cowan remembers. “We just kind of hung out one day, and the next day I went back and we tried writing a song. It went really well, and we just started writing.

“Our professional relationship started to blossom, and I was already thinking, ‘God, I’d really love it if she made a record with me.’ But I was kind of real nervous about asking her. On one of the trips I finally said, ‘Well, would you want to make a record with me?’ and she said, ‘I thought you’d never ask!’” he laughs. Waldman co-wrote three songs for the album, and she plays keyboards and sings background vocals.

Cowan recorded John Cowan in two stints, in May 1998 and February 1999. In between, he and Waldman continued to work on each batch of songs in her studio in California. Scheduling with all the various musicians presented a challenge. He, wife Bobbie and Waldman initially financed the project, releasing the CD themselves. The first eight months, Cowan himself fulfilled mail order requests for the disc.

“I’d get out a silver pen and sign all the CDs, box them and take them to be mailed,” he recalls. “Between the live shows and the website, we sold about 4,000 copies.”

In order to reach a larger audience through radio and retail outlets, Cowan felt he needed the clout and capital of a record company. After shopping the album to various labels he landed again on Sugar Hill.

There were musical challenges as well. Cowan recorded “Dark as a Dungeon,” the Merle Travis classic which laments the hard life of coal mining, live in Nashville. “It was kind of tricky to record actually,” he says, “because there’s no meter to the song, and the way the verses go, it’s just guitar and vocal. The guitar follows me, then when we sing the chorus the whole band comes in and plays.

“We got out there [to Waldman's studio in Encino] and realized even though the vocal was great, there were all sorts of instruments bleeding into the [vocal] track. So I start from scratch, and all that was there is guitar, and it’s supposed to be following me. I had to guess where the guitar was coming in, and it was a nightmare.” Cowan, however, was pleased with the end result — one of the most moving songs on the album.

The funk-rock song “Roll Away the Stone,” co-written by Cowan, Waldman and Greenberg, was built on a computerized Motown drum loop. “I think it was ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ or something,” Cowan recalls. Greenberg found the loop, and together they layered acoustic instruments on, one by one, to build the song. Grammy award-winning gospel singer Ashley Cleveland and country’s Harry Stinson add fiery background vocals to the unusual mix.

There was a method to the collaborative madness of Waldman and Cowan. “Pretty much we knew, when we wrote the songs and started looking at them, Wendy and I would say, ‘Who would be really good for this song?’ It was kind of nice, it was something to look forward to, because you knew with all those people [who played and sang on the album], they’re going to come in and do something really special,” Cowan enthuses.

Some of the songs were years in the making. Cowan had recorded the Eric Elliot/Scott Poston song “All I Wanna Feel” years ago but put it on the back burner until this album. “When we went to record it for this session, we listened to the tape and tried to play it that way, and it just didn’t sound right,” he remembers. “Greg Morrow and Michael Rhodes and Kenny Greenberg, they all started coming up with ideas. ‘How can we make this really cool?’ Not ‘how can we make it commercial?’”

For now, Cowan is content to reclaim his more roots-oriented identity. He recently played several sets and did a vocal workshop at the flagship Americana festival MerleFest. He consistently tours and has dates lined up into next year. The John Cowan Band includes Jeff Autry (guitars and vocals), Randy Kohrs (Dobro, lap steel and vocals), Posi Leppikangas (drums and percussion) and Vestal (banjo and vocals).

“I think I’m just gonna keep doing this. I’m going to be like Ernest Tubb and die in my bus,” he laughs with a sense of irony. “When we grew up, the idea of somebody our age playing music was kind of strange, and what we learned from Bill Monroe and Ernest Tubb and Merle Haggard is that just because you get older, doesn’t mean you quit playing. That’s what I do. And I thank God every day I get to do it.”