Other singers would crawl through broken glass to borrow John Cowan’s larynx for 15 minutes. While Cowan has always remained loyal to the progressive bluegrass he helped define in the ‘70s as the singer/bassist for New Grass Revival, fans of the genre and the pilgrims who make it to the big summer roots festivals know that Cowan can sing pretty much anything. From high-lonesome bluegrass to banshee wails that no one (except maybe Adam Lambert) can touch, Cowan manipulates his diamond-clean skyrocket of a voice with enormous control, timing, and taste. This season, the singer is on a roll. Hot on the heels of a live record from Telluride, Colorado, where Cowan is a superstar, he has recorded his first full-length Christmas album, Comfort and Joy.
Given Cowan’s ability to go big, he could have easily made a string-laden, kettle-drum exercise in yuletide schmaltz. Thankfully, though, Cowan holds true to his roots, and his band, by recording Christmas standards with little more than acoustic guitar (the phenomenal Jeff Autrey), fiddle (Shad Cobb—how Silver Dollar City is his name?), bass (Cowan himself, an underrated player), and mandolin (John Frazier). Drummer Bryon Larrance shows up on half the songs, but this is primarily an acoustic, string-band affair, and it’s a treat to hear the players fill out the arrangements on standards like “The Christmas Song” and “Silent Night” through Frazier’s tremolo playing and Cobb’s drowsy fiddle countermelodies.
The record’s understated beauty is an impressive instrumental achievement. Cowan has always surrounded himself with bluegrass’s most promising young pickers, graduating Randy Kohrs, Luka Bula, Scott Vestal, etc., from his finishing school, and his current group demonstrates remarkable versatility and grace on these songs, particularly on the swing-waltz of “What Child Is This?” and a sultry, jazzy “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is given the most clever rewrite, sounding like a John Cowan Band original, with carefully arranged instrumental lines and hot improvisational breaks.
Elsewhere, there’s less going on, especially on the big, soaring classics like “O Holy Night” or “Ave Maria”, on which Cowan’s voice is accompanied only by quietly picked acoustic guitar and mandolin. Those hoping Cowan will belt these songs out in his signature canyon-rattling call won’t necessarily be disappointed—he’s in exultant voice throughout, and he stabs those high notes like there’s nothing to it—but he also sings these hymns with the restraint that they deserve. The spareness of the arrangements and the unadorned, product-free treatment of Cowan’s voice make for stunning vocal takes that belong in the Johnny C time-capsule.
Comfort and Joy‘s method is to toggle between those standards and peppier, more obscure holiday tunes. The album opens with Smokey Robinson’s jaunty “Christmas Everyday”, which is lots of fun and a perfect match for Cowan. “Little Match Girl” is a new mountain-folk song written by Cowan’s stepdaughter, Jenny Anne Mannan, who sings harmony on the track; the nepotism works just fine as the song—a tear-jerker—holds its own among the chestnuts. “Good News” is a gospel-grass tune that has Cowan playing call-and-response with his band over a backdrop of Autrey’s fingerpicking pattern and a thumping bass drum.
Toward the end of the record, the band decides to rock a little—and Cowan is equally impressive in this mode; one wonders why he didn’t make a fortune on the Sunset Strip in the mid-‘80s fronting a pop-metal band. The song is “Let’s Make a Baby King”, a live staple of Cowan Band shows, and shoe-horned here onto Comfort and Joy. Singing the second verse is the amazing soul-shouter Mike Farris, another of Nashville’s fiercest vocalists, and it’s a hoot to hear these two together. The song feels out of place as too raucous for the record, but that’s really a minor quibble. The fact is, considering the number of treacly Christmas releases every year, Cowan has made not just a terrific Christmas album, but one good enough to transcend the category and perhaps the best of his career. In any case, it’s an album that you’ll look forward to hearing each December. Now pass the nog.