John Cowan (who closes Music City Roots this coming Wednesday evening) was working at a car wash in Louisville, KY, playing in garage bands and listening to a lot of Yes in 1974. He was 21 years old and knew nothing about bluegrass music, though he did own Will The Circle Be Unbroken album. Then, almost out of the blue, came an audition with New Grass Revival, a bunch of area guys who’d made a great head start as the first big band hybridizing bluegrass and rock. Young John jumped at the opportunity, and his stellar, almost operatic voice became a fixture of that band, through the addition of Bela Fleck around 1980, a major label record deal and even hits on the radio. Cowan told me in an interview last winter that Steve Earle’s famous quip about the mid 80s being a “great credibility scare” had much truth in it, and NGR was part of that.
Cowan has had a fascinating and varied musical life since NGR hung it up in 1989. He was part of country/rock super-group The Sky Kings. He’s fronted great soul/R&B bands and made stellar albums in the studio and on stage – from Telluride to George Massenberg’s world famous Nashville recording and audio magic space. Lately he’s been recording and posting fantastically crafty art rock with his trio Secret Agent Orange. But his big gig of the past three years –one that helps support all the side projects and personal stuff – is touring as a member of The Doobie Brothers. Heck, he even did a set with that iconic band at Roots one night, and you can see why his voice fits right in.
For all that, the thing Cowan seems most excited about right now is his interview show on WSM 650 AM called “I Believe To My Soul.” The country music legend is a slightly surprising place for him to be he admits, with hour-long talks with diverse artists including Jim Messina, Leon Russell and Wendy Waldman in the archives. But it’s a music-driven station, and Cow is a music-driven interviewer. His approach certainly sounds familiar to your correspondent:
“I’ve always been a student of music and I still am,” he told me. “I’m curious about each person’s creative process. I talk to them about art – how they made it and what disciplines they have.”
John does perform of course with his own band, featuring Jeff Autry on guitar, Shad Cobb on fiddle, John Frazier on mandolin and Ed Toth on drums. This fusion-ready band is his update on and interpretation of newgrass music, where pretty much any influence can sneak in. You can be assured of instrumental expertise, heavy grooves and that magisterial voice, soaked in soul and hip to pop. It will be a great pleasure welcoming him back to the Loveless on Wednesday night.
There’s more traditional bluegrass in store that night too, with the North Carolina wedded duo of Darin and Brooke Aldridge. They’re IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year nominees (last year) and they have a sweet touch and strong songs. Two songwriter guys occupy the middle of the show. Benjy Davis is a Louisiana man who’s toured with the N. Miss. All-Stars and John Mayer. Adam Pope is a country classicist. And our opening band, firing up the engine with energy and rootsy smarts is that Americana chart favorite YARN. Frontman Blake Christiana and his sextet never fail to entertain.
Only two more chances to catch Music City Roots at the Lovelss Barn before a two-week seasonal break. So come on out. We’ll party till the Cow goes home.