Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Interview with John Cowan, the 'Voice of New Grass'

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Interview with John Cowan, the 'Voice of New Grass'

Article excerpt


As a singer, John Cowan has always blurred the lines between genres.

In the 1970s and '80s, his rock-tinged tenor vocals helped launch the New Grass Revival to crossover success on pop and country charts.

The long-haired band of rock-inspired musicians alarmed bluegrass traditionalists when they first started in the early 1970s. They wore jeans (gasp!) and moved around onstage while they played (oh my!).

Cowan's instantly recognizable voice and electric bass playing gave New Grass an edgy sound, and the stellar musicianship of mandolinist Sam Bush, banjo player Bela Fleck and guitarist Pat Flynn caught the ear of a younger crowd.

Cowan seemed surprised that his interviewer was old enough to have seen the band in its prime in the late 1980s at a show at the Strand-Capitol in York, Pennsylvania.

"We were really good at that point," he said in a telephone interview from his Nashville home. "We were just a force of nature, and it was just a combination of those four personalities. There was something really serendipitous and special and beautiful about it."

New Grass Revival met with resistance from some traditional bluegrass artists, at first.

"It was kind of rough, especially when I first joined in the late '70s," said Cowan of the band he joined as a 22-year-old. "I joined in '74, so the mid- to late '70s were kind of rough for us. There was a real chasm that was going on. That got better, it kind of eventually healed, but it was pretty brutal, honestly, back in the day."

Some bands refused to play if festivals booked the young band. It was hurtful at the time, Cowan said.

"People would say, 'well, I'm not playing if you're going to have those hippies on the festival.' It's one thing to be critical of someone's music, but it's another thing to take food off their table," Cowan said.

However, some popular folk and bluegrass artists embraced the band, such as John Hartford, Doc Watson, Norman Blake and Earl Scruggs. The others grew to accept them over time, when they realized how much the young musicians loved and respected traditionalists like Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, who were the innovators of their own era. …

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