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John Cowan goes for a "new tattoo"

By John Lupton, June 2006

No doubt it's hard for many to believe, but 53-year old Indiana native John Cowan has been part of the musical landscape for more than 25 years since coming into prominence as the fiery lead singer and bass player for New Grass Revival, a band of young turks that included Sam Bush, Béla Fleck and Pat Flynn. As bluegrass currently enjoys a new surge of "hipness," it's worth recalling that Cowan and his NGR mates spent the entire '80s turning young rockers into 'grassers.

Following the breakup of NGR in the early 90's, Cowan knocked around a while before forming his own band, which in recent years has found a warm and welcoming niche in the burgeoning "Americana" format. Their new album, "New Tattoo" debuts in mid-June on Pinecastle Records.

The cornerstone of the disc is the closing track, "Drown," a searing, powerful song that confronts the issue of sexual abuse of children. The music is by Darrell Scott, the words by Cowan, and Cowan says he drew for the lyrics on an incident in his own childhood in the summer of his eighth year, about which he did not go into detail. The decision and experience of writing and recording the song led Cowan to a partnership with Safe Place (, which provides help to abused children.

Speaking from his Nashville-area home, it's a subject that Cowan obviously feels compelled to be involved with. "It's a national organization, and what Safe Place does, they provide literally a safe place for kids that are having problems of any kind. In other words, if a child is in some kind of crisis, they can go to a place that has a 'Safe Place' sign. I've seen them a lot in the past myself, they look like a 'Caution' sign, they're yellow, with a pair of hands reaching around a child. What they do is, they have counselors trained - there's a lot of these at YMCA's around the country, a child can actually go in there, that's in crisis, and they'll immediately put him with a counselor, and the counselor will find a way to deal immediately with the situation, find them a place to stay if they need a place to stay, find them counseling if they need counseling at that moment. It's a wonderful organization."

"When we knew this song was going to be on the record, we decided that we wanted to...take my part of the publishing of it and hookup with an organization that was doing good works in this particular area, and we actually cast our net kind of wide. Safe Place was one of the organizations that immediately responded to us. So we're now in the process of working together. It looks like I'm going to be a national spokesperson of sorts and hook up on an administrative level to where - we don't know exactly how it's going to work yet, but that's the gist of it - and we're going to make special presentations, and hopefully some of the royalties from this song will be going to them to help them out...they're headquartered in Louisville, Ky., which is nice because I'm a former resident of Louisville."

Much of the remainder of "New Tattoo" deals with various sorts of physical and emotional distress, and the ways people cope. The title, for example, comes from "Carla's Got A New Tattoo," but as Cowan notes, it doesn't necessarily have to be all about gloom and doom.

"I think it's written from the standpoint that's just literally observing of - I'm a person that has a tattoo, and yes, it was painful to get - it's not something that I even considered, but I had an experience in my life where someone I was very close to, he and his eight-year-old son were killed by a drunk driver, and I had a tattoo to commemorate that. I think a lot of people that do have tattoos - it's surely, (with) most people, going through the process, a sense of 'getting there' that's usually to mark some kind of sentinel or significant event in their lives. It's spoken from pretty much the point of view of the person who has one as well. I actually viewed it as kind of a 'light''s kind of funny, really."

Extending that thought to the album as a whole, Cowan continues, "I think the music is arranged in a way that it's pretty darn joyful, even if you look at Darrellß and Wayne Scott's song, 'A Memory Like Mine', which is basically an anti-war song. It's done uptempo, bluegrass style. I don't think, I don't believe that anything on this record could be considered 'preachy'."

All of which leads, naturally enough, to "6 Birds (In A Joshua Tree)" which, like "Drown," features music by Darrell Scott and words by Cowan that speak to his belief that none of us truly knows what awaits us beyond this life.

"That's a little bit reactionary to the neo-Christian view. I am a Christian, but I am not a 'Pat Robertson' Christian. I embrace and respect other religious views, other lifestyles, be they homosexual, etc. I'm more of a questioner. My spirituality and faith lie in the questions because I don't think humans have the answers, and that particular part of the song speaks to the notion, you know, 'the shroud of shame', the 'Gilded Gate', the idea that we're all bad, and we're all sinners, and there's only one way to get to Heaven. It's a curious thing in that, again, if you take the gigantic leap backward and look at the whole thing, nobody really knows - we don't know why we're here, we don't know how we got here, we don't know where we're going. Yes, we have belief systems about that, but no one to this day that I know of has been able to tell us anything from the afterlife."

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