"Music Requires a Journey Out of You": An Interview with John Cowan
New Grass Revival frontman John Cowan talks to PopMatters about the tricks of being a singing bass player, the new developments in folk music, and the career-spanning feel of his latest record, Sixty.
"It always makes me terribly nervous," John Cowan says to me. The "it" to which he refers is his performance at the Grand Ole Opry during the week of the Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. He explains, "It’s partially knowing the history of the venue, and it’s also feeling that you have the responsibility not to suck. But the show went great; we all did really well."
"Really well" are two words that are as fitting as any to describe Cowan in 2014. As the frontman (bass and vocals) of New Grass Revival from 1974-1990, a band featuring such esteemed pickers as Sam Bush (mandolin) and Béla Fleck (banjo), Cowan established himself as one of contemporary roots music's biggest innovators. Over the course of 16 years, Cowan and his cohorts in the band put out records that would form the fertile ground from which the folk revival of the early '00s would spring.
On its own, Cowan's work with New Grass Revival would be a fine legacy to leave behind. But that hasn't stopped Cowan from branching out into other musical ventures, building on an already impressive discography. From touring with the Doobie Brothers to putting out numerous solo records, over the course of his long career Cowan has traveled roads as numerous as the notes he's played.
With Sixty, his latest album, Cowan has gathered an impressive roster of players, including Huey Lewis, Alison Krauss, Sam Bush, Leon Russell, and John Jorgensen. Sixty is comprised of music written entirely by others, but Cowan puts his own unique spin on this fascinating set of tunes, including artists as recent as Fleet Foxes. (Cowan covers the title tune of that group's 2011 LP Helplessness Blues).
The album title is a reference to Cowan's most recent birthday, and it's a fitting one to describe the feeling evoked by these songs. At once a snapshot of Cowan and the present and a retrospective on all the journeys he has taken to arrive to this point, Sixty is a fine distillation of this essential Americana artist.
I met up with Cowan during the Americana Festival, a busy time for all of the musicians weaving their way in and out of the city's numerous venues. He and I talked about the tricks of being a singing bass player, the new developments in folk music, and the career-spanning feel of his latest record, Sixty.
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What’s the significance of Sixty?
We took a pretty good while making this record because we had the luxury of not being under the pressure of a budget. As the record starting evolving, we kept asking more and more people to be guests on the record. And it wasn’t because we were thinking, “Oh, let’s just get this person on the song”, but rather because they would contribute something truly authentic to this atmosphere we were creating musically.
During all of this, my birthday was coming up, and we had a big party at 3rd and Lindsley [in Nashville]. Friends of mine who were artists came down, and many of them ended up being on the record. I’ve made a life in music that’s “the other road”, so to speak. It’s not about pop charts and popular culture. Because of that I’ve made lots of friends who are really deep artist over the course of my time.
After all of this, the record started to look like that old TV show This Is Your Life. So we thought to call it Sixty to celebrate turning that age, which is a pivotal moment for most of us.
Because you were involved in a group like New Grass Revival, which is a pioneering and innovative group, do you feel still that there’s a pressure on you to put out records that are as ground-breaking as that band?
Trying to make innovative music is just how I think, to be honest. I’ve had so many opportunities in my life to do something really contemporary and hit-bound, but I’ve always turned away from them. New Grass Revival, which I spent 16 years as a part of, was about being musicians first. That band is a huge part of who I am, musically or otherwise.
My gut response has never been, “How can I make the most money possible?”, or, “I don’t care what it takes, I’ll sing anything.”
You’ve been a leading example of a frontman who also plays the bass, which is an instrument not usually associated with the person in the front of the band. Do you still feel you’re finding new things to do with that instrument?
Absolutely. There aren’t a lot of us singing bass players; it’s a hard job. You’re playing a rhythm instrument in an ensemble, so trying to do that while singing the lead is a real responsibility. It doesn’t come naturally, but I’ve been doing it since I was 15, and fortunately I’ve had some real big role models in that role, the biggest one being Paul McCartney. He’s one of the greatest singing bass players ever.
There have been a good amount of people in that mold: Rick Danko, Sting, Geddy Lee, Peter Cetera, Glenn Hughes. Those are just the men I can think of; there are plenty of women doing this stuff as well.
Sixty has a lot of cover tunes on it. When you hear a song, what in it speaks to you that makes you want to put your own spin on it?
It’s always something different. I never look at it as something I could “make my own”, because I can’t make it my own. The way I think about it is, “How can I contribute to it?”
This is the first record I’ve made in a long time that I didn’t write any music for. That was a conscious decision going into the recording process. I’ve learned as a singer to be a participant in finding songs; some of my models for that are people like Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, and Linda Rondstadt. They were great singers who found great songs, and in the process they exposed us all to a lot of really great writing. Because I’m a gifted singer, it’s nice to find people who might be known more as songwriters instead of singers and add a “singer’s take” to the music.
When I was making the music for this record, there were never any songs in the pile that I had anything to do with writing. There was just so much I wanted to get to from these other artists.
One of the more striking covers is of Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues”. What made you want to choose that song?
I’m a super passionate fan of Robin Peckold and Father John Misty. They’re so good. My stepkids turned me onto them years ago. The first time I heard them I thought, “This is like the Beach Boys meet Crosby, Stills & Nash." Their pedigree is just so intense, yet they’re these young singers and songwriters.
With “Helplessness Blues”, I love both the sentiment of the song and the authority of the author in that song. It talks about speaking truth to power; as a guy raised in the ‘60s, I love that.
As someone who’s had a long history with this music, what do you think when you hear new bands like Mumford and Sons trying to put a more contemporary spin on these classic genres?
The music is definitely getting better. If you look at the success of a band like Mumford and Sons, you think, “Who knew in 2012 and 2013 they’d be selling millions of records, when they’re that deep artistically?” That stuff happens less and less in popular culture. That’s a godsend.
In an interview you recently gave to The Bluegrass Situation, you say bluegrass is a genre that operates "unto itself". Do you think that's natural to bluegrass itself, or the public receiving it?
I think in really high art forms -- which I think bluegrass is, as well as bebop, blues, R&B, and even punk -- the music often isn't for everybody. When you take a super raw form of art, not everyone will respond to it, and I don't think everyone is supposed to, either. If everyone did respond to it in a singular way, then the uniqueness of it would go away. We have to have that in the world, for the music to occupy such a space.
If you like art of any kind, especially high art, there are obstacles you have to go through to get it. It requires a journey out of you. But the deeper the experience is, the more rewarding it gets. Real art rewards both the creator of the art and those experiencing it.
Now that you've put out a voluminous body of work, which is summed up wonderfully in Sixty, do you feel that more people are starting to hear and respond to your work?
I don't know. It's a little pocket that I exist in, but I'm extremely grateful. I'm a guy who from age 14 knew what he wanted to do, and has been able to do it for all of his life. I don't know if more people are getting into it, but I do know that I'm getting more and more passionate about it. That's the most important thing.
What was the one thing you took away the most from the making of Sixty?
The response has been really curious to me, in a really good way. When I first sent a lot of my friends and family MP3s of the music, they were a little caught off-guard for some reason. I'm not sure why. But what I have found is that those same people would come back to me later and say, "Wow, this is a really deep deal you've got going on here." I think on the peripheral one listen, it threw them.
We got so caught up in the making of it that it's difficult to imagine how people are going to respond to it. But what I've noticed since that point is that I feel gratified that people are responding to it in a really passionate way, moreso than I can remember of any record I've put out.