It’s been a good time lately for John Cowan fans. The singer has been plenty active over the last couple of decades—playing the annual bluegrass and roots festivals, collaborating with old New Grass Revival cohort Sam Bush one summer, joining a Leftover Salmon tour the next—rotating in a series of young bluegrass dynamos over the years, who jump at the chance to join and tour with his own John Cowan Band. In the studio, however, Cowan has been stingier, recording just three albums over the last decade.
In the last eight months, though, we’ve seen the release of three new John Cowan albums, an unprecedented wellspring of production. And although the two albums that came at the tail end of 2009 sounded on paper like filler projects in the absence of original material, both turned out to be rewarding documents of Cowan at the peak of his powers. First came 8745 Feet: Live at Telluride, and it was, er, high time that Cowan released an official document from his home away from home, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where Cowan is a superstar. Then came Comfort and Joy, one of the year’s nicest bluegrass surprises, featuring totally uncrappy progressive-acoustic versions of holiday classics.
Cowan’s streak continues with the release of The Massenburg Sessions, a live-in-the-studio album named for famed recording engineer/inventor George Massenburg, who has worked on albums by James Taylor, Billy Joel, and hundreds of others. The new record was apparently recorded with no editing or overdubs whatsoever, a proposition that would likely scare the hell out of a majority of today’s artists, but one that fits the Cowan Band fine, as their impeccable musicianship and singing, fortified by a life on the road, require little futzing with in the first place.
What we’ve learned lately about Cowan is that his sterling tenor shows no signs of fading and that he sounds invigorated by his current touring band, which includes Wayne Benson on mandolin, Shad Cobb on fiddle, Tony Wray on banjo, and long-time sidekick Jeff Autry on guitar. In addition, Sessions finds a lineup of bluegrass luminaries stopping by, including fiddle savant Luke Bulla, bluegrass jack-of-all-trades Darrell Scott, and banjo wizard Noam Pikelny.
The worst that can be said about the project is that, despite its uniform recording scheme, the record feels quite random in its song selection. Cowan has long prided himself on genre variety and naturally loves to highlight his players’ versatility, but it would be nice to get an album of new material that holds together with a cohesive structure. The western-swingy take on “Caledonia”, for example, is well sung and played, of course, but such a well-worn standard seems unecessary and out of place. Likewise, the band walks through a frowsy version of the traditional “Lakes of Ponchartrain”, and Maura O’Connell’s folk-mama vocals do little to bring it to life.
Also, Cowan strangely cedes lead vocals on Dave Alvin’s “King of California” to Autry. Having someone else sing lead on a John Cowan album is like pinch-hitting for Albert Pujols with the game on the line. Autry may be one of the most dazzling flat-pickers you’ll ever hear, and Cowan’s generosity and loyalty to him is touching, but letting him sing one doesn’t make for a stronger record.
Still, when all pistons are firing, the results are stellar. “My Time in the Desert”, the opener, sounds straight out of the great New Grass Revival songbook, the kind of breezy, spiritualistic newgrass that Cowan helped invent, and no one sounds better singing it. “Jesus Gave Me Water” is a long-time live staple of the band’s, performed a capella, an impressive vocal performance all the way around, especially as a live recording.
“Long Road Back to You” is a showcase for the band, featuring some of their most ferocious soloing on a song that Cowan co-wrote with Drew Emmitt from Leftover Salmon. Furthermore, Cowan sends another love letter to Paul McCartney—he’s already covered “I’m Down”, “Oh, Darling!” and others—by including Paul and Linda’s “Heart of the Country”, the acoustic ditty from the second side of Ram. It’s a cute version that ends with some killer ragtime piano courtesy of Reese Wynans.
The Massenburg Sessions reaches a peak, though, when Del McCoury and sons show up on Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’”. The song represents a meeting in the middle of a high-lonesome bluegrass traditionalist and a rock-influenced bluegrass progressive, each representing the absolute pinnacle of the respective styles, and it’s a treat to hear them lock in on these vocal harmonies, especially when Cowan punches the high-harmony above Del toward the end.
Mainly, Sessions offers another clean document of Cowan singing beautifully, which alone makes this album worth owning. Furthermore, the album finds him remaining committed to acoustic music, even when a career as a rock belter always seemed within his grasp. Such a decision amounts to a genuine pertinacity that is paying off for Cowan as he is now catching an inspiring second wind. Here’s hoping he keeps it going.