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John Cowan

Wednesday, July 5 at 9 p.m. at Barley's, and Thursday, July 6 at 8 p.m. at the Palace Theater in Maryville

Matte Finish

John Cowan plays rockin' country without the high gloss

by John Sewell

Like all other art forms, music is a living, breathing, and ever evolving discipline. Long-standing players go through a continual metamorphosis over the span of their careers, oftentimes winding up in unexpected territory. And sometimes, the sum of an artist's experience eventually becomes intertwined to create a mix of tangents and influences into one cohesive, creative unit. Such is the case with John Cowan, a longtime resident of the musical crossroads where bluegrass, rock, and country sounds meet.

Cowan has been in the underground of the country music world for over 25 years, most notably as a member of the critically lauded Newgrass Revival (a group that also boasted jazz/bluegrass fusionist Bela Fleck and traditionalist Sam Bush among its ranks). At present, Cowan has struck out on his own with a self titled solo album on Sugar Hill Records. Cowan's new record couldn't exactly be called fusion because rock, country, and bluegrass were all essentially derived from the wellspring of American music. And Cowan has no qualms about being lumped in the Americana niche, a musical subset which he feels is broad enough to include the variety of diversions in his auspicious career.

"I don't have any trepidation whatsoever about the Americana tag because, finally, there's a radio format for my kind of music," says Cowan. "And I think I'm in fine company being included in with that format. Americana includes everything from Nancy Griffith to Steve Earle to Guy Clark, Del McCoury, The Old 97s—that's fine company to be in as far as I'm concerned.

"I would call my music Americana because it certainly isn't bluegrass. I guess I consider myself a 'Newgrass' musician, considering I was in the Newgrass Revival for 16 years or so. I mean, what we did more or less was to take a traditional form of music and bend it in sort of a more contemporary way. And that's pretty much what I'm still doing; though it might be even more rock than ever."

That said, Cowan's new album is still primarily rooted in a slightly more traditional motif. Among the 13 songs on John Cowan, there is a touch of blues, jazz, pop, and even soul music. Needless to say, the years of jamming with Fleck and company in the Newgrass Revival spawned a musician with a wide stylistic range. Cowan uses his prodigious playing skills to good effect without straying too far from the essential songwriting component.

Actually, the emergence of the Americana radio format has come at the right time for Cowan, 46. "The age group to which I belong has kind of been disenfranchised with radio for about 10 years," says Cowan. "People my age aren't gonna buy the Backstreet Boys or Mariah Carey or Kid Rock. But a lot of people from my group see the appeal of people like Lucinda Williams and Lyle Lovett—kind of a non-format music. And there's a growing place for that music in Americana."

Cowan got his start in the '70s as a conventional rock 'n' roll musician, gravitating to bluegrass when he joined Newgrass. He says that many who are worn out on rock's edges come to the Americana format because they are turned off by the high-gloss, mass-marketed country music cranked out by the Nashville starmaking machinery.

"Lots of people don't want to listen to Brooks & Dunn and stuff like that," he says. "Americana is kind of a netherland that's full of artists that have a lot to offer and a lot of integrity and aesthetics about their music and their art. So, for me, it [Americana] is a really good association."

For the new album, Cowan received a lot of assistance from Los Angeles musician Wendy Waldman. Waldman cowrote several of the songs on the disc as well as producing. Cowan says Waldman's help was important because he prefers to bounce his ideas off of a partner in the songwriting process.

Not expecting or planning for any kind of crossover success, Cowan says he gets by very well and produces material he is happy with artistically as it is. Presently, he plays around 150 tour dates a year, a number he describes as reasonable.

Music has provided a lifelong outlet and livelihood for Cowan, who has been a professional since he was a teenager. "I was at the perfect age when Beatlemania came along—I was, like, 10," says Cowan. "So I always had the music bug. I was really taken with rock 'n' roll as a teenager. I started a garage band and it was in the cards: playing music was all I ever wanted to do. I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I was 14 and I've never done anything different."

In Knoxville, Cowan will surely find a receptive audience. With the steady influence of local roots music station WDVX (which gives Cowan lots of airplay) and nearby WNCW, it seems that converts to Cowan's cause are ripe for the picking.

"I'm really looking forward to coming back to Knoxville," says Cowan. "Knoxville is a place that we played a lot when I was in Newgrass. So hopefully I'll have some old friends there and make some new ones as well."

June 29, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 26
© 2000 Metro Pulse