John Cowan’s Musical Instincts Lead to Sixty

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Lest there be any question, the old adage “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” is equally applicable to music. Ask John Cowan. He’s just released Sixty, an eclectic album that marks the milestone birthday of its title.

But he was first introduced to the acoustic scene in the ‘70s as a fresh-faced, longhaired, powerfully projecting singer and electric bassist with a mandolinist who occasionally reverted to fiddle, a banjo player and an acoustic guitarist for bandmates.

“It’s bizarre,” says Cowan. “That band broke up on New Years of 1990. Twenty-four years later, that’s still how I think I’m thought of more than anything. People think, ‘Oh, I remember John Cowan from New Grass Revival.’”

The other thing to keep in mind about Cowan is that he’s a fantastically broadminded musician, the kind of artist who’ll find ways to embroider outside elements into a seemingly straight-ahead gig and stock his album with ‘grassy, prog-rock, folk-rock and jazz-pop flavors.

CMT Edge: I’m used to seeing musicians celebrate their 20th, 40th or 50th year in the business, rather than a landmark birthday. Why did you go that route?

Cowan: I had a really cool birthday party last year. It was kind of like my record. Everybody that I’d ever known in Nashville showed up [and performed]. As we were working on this record and everybody ended up calling [and asking] to be a part of it, it seemed like it was [a significant] event, and that just seemed an appropriate thing to do. There are no original songs on it. It’s a snapshot of everything I’ve ever done since I started playing music.

You’ve got a bunch of songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s — the Beatles, Marty Robbins, the Burrito Brothers, the Youngbloods. Even the Jimmie Rodgers song came from a Doc Watson album from the ‘70s. And then there’s a Fleet Foxes song.

There’s a bunch of everything. There’s stuff that I grew up with, stuff that I continue to listen to that’s contemporary. That’s kind of how I am. I’ve always been kind of schizophrenic musically.

Since your background was in Southern rock, boogie rock, that sort of thing, what possessed you to audition for a hybrid acoustic band like New Grass Revival?

I dropped out of college to pursue music. I knew when I was 14 that I wanted to be a musician. And they were a band that had already made a record. I was working at a car wash, and it was like, “Oh, you mean I can go play music for a living with a band that makes records? OK, where do I sign?” …

I had seen them play, since I lived in Kentucky, and someone had dragged me out to see them. I knew who they were, and I thought they were cool. If someone had said to me at that point, “Here’s a million dollars. Go make the music you want to make,” that [style of music] wouldn’t have been it. However, I thought they were cool. They looked like me. They just played banjos and mandolins.

I’ve seen people who aren’t fans of acoustic music take an interest in it because of hearing you sing, especially folks whose tastes run to R&B or rock.

I’ve heard that my whole life. In New Grass, we heard that a lot: “I didn’t really like bluegrass. I didn’t want to like it. And I heard you guys, and there was a touchstone there I could relate to since I was a rock ‘n’ roller.”

Why do you think it’s still rare to see a vocal style like yours paired with a string band decades later?

Because I think it doesn’t necessarily make sense on paper. The truth is, I grew up listening to Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, the Allman Brothers and Bonnie Bramlett. When I sang, this gospelish, R&B voice came out of me. Here I am in a band with a banjo, a fiddle and a mandolin. They know I can sing, I know I can sing, so the obvious thing was to go, “Let’s let him sing. Maybe it’ll make it even cooler.” But on paper, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I think what the Allman Brothers did was very close. They were a bunch of young, hippie guys that liked jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. They were a template for us. They took blues and injected rock n’ roll into it. We took bluegrass and did the same thing.

You’ve gone on to work with a number of foundational country-rockers, guys from Poco, the Eagles, the Byrds, the Burritos, the Doobies. What role did New Grass play in introducing you to those musicians?

Here’s the truth about that: My tenure in New Grass Revival opened a million doors for me. It’s really curious because though we never had any hits, we were so well thought of by our peers. It just opened so many doors for me. Musicians always knew who New Grass Revival was, and we were always on the periphery of being successful, though we never actually were.

I read an interview where you said that you learned you weren’t really a country singer during your time in the Sky Kings. Can you tell me more about that realization?

My singing was already in place at that point. With New Grass, when we were putting singles out on Capitol, and they were 100 percent behind us and we had a couple that made little dents here and there on the charts, I was just singing the way I sing.

Here’s what happened when [the Sky Kings] tried to do this country deal with RCA and eventually Warner Brothers: I continued to sing the way I sing, but we were trying to get on the charts and compete with everything that was contemporary in country at that moment. …

This is kind of interesting for me to say to the press, but something seemed inauthentic for me about it. I don’t know why. I just know it didn’t work. It could have been about timing. I think that was a really good band, and I think we did some really good work.

It was interesting to hear you sing Marty Robbins “Devil Woman” on this album.

Here’s my take on that: I love Marty Robbins, and I love Jim Reeves. If you listen to Hank Williams Sr. or Lefty Frizzell, really, Marty Robbins was not a country singer.

More of a crooner, really.

Yeah, he was a crooner. He had a beautiful voice. He sounded like a trained singer, but he wrote these amazing songs. I’m glad he had so many hits in country music, you know. But he’s not a traditional country singer.

For me, it’s not a stretch to try to sing “Devil Woman” because, really, we’re the same kind of singer. We’re guys that are blessed with really pleasing, beautiful voices that are like an instrument. So that’s not such a stretch. I don’t envision myself singing a John Anderson song or a Hank Sr. song because I think that’s too much a stretch for the ears.

Because you’ve done so many things since New Grass Revival — the Sky Kings, solo R&B albums, the John Cowan Band, the Doobies — people have described that time as an era when you were figuring out what it was you wanted to do. Do you look at it that way?

Honestly, I’ve always been led by musical instincts. That’s the truth. I’ve just been led around the nose by what appeals to me, by what I like.