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John Cowan goes for a "new tattoo"

By John Lupton, June 2006

Page 2...

The arrangements and production on "New Tattoo" are very much in a latter-day spirit of his New Grass Revival years, and Cowan laughs quickly as he recalls that he never quite expected it to turn out this way.

"I think I'm the only (NGR) member who's pursuing that route. It's funny, to me. There's some irony, in that I came into that band as a kid that had grown up playing and listening to nothing but rock-and-roll. I kind of have stayed the course more than Sam (Bush) or Béla (Fleck) or even Pat Flynn. They've all chosen to supplement their own music with rock instruments and drums, stuff like that. So I kind of feel that in my own way, I'm kind of bearing the torch and carrying it on."

"Especially in this band, even though there are drums on the record, when we perform - which is not at all unlike New Grass (Revival) - it's just a strict acoustic band when we play live."

His current band features a quartet of names familiar to the sort of bluegrass fan who actually reads liner notes and pays attention to stage introductions. Guitarist Jeff Autry, whose tenure of eight years in the Cowan Band makes him the current senior member, is a veteran of high-profile, award-winning acts like the Lynn Morris Band. Mandolin player Wayne Benson spent most of the last decade with IIIrd Tyme Out, among the most highly regarded bluegrass bands of the last 15 years, and Cowan says Benson's "traditional" experience brings an edge to the band quite apart from, but no less intriguing than Bush's NGR mandolin work. Fiddler Shad Cobb spent several years on the Opry stage as part of Mike Snider's band. The youngster of the band is banjo player Noam Pikelny, an audience favorite from his days with the seminal jamgrass band Leftover Salmon. As with Benson and Bush, Cowan sees simultaneous parallels and distinctions between Pikelny and Fleck.

"It's not dissimilar, and Noam would be the first person to tell you that he grew up listening to and emulating Béla Fleck, and actually they came into my life at the same age, pretty much. Noam is 24. He's been working with us since he was 22, I think, and that's about how old Béla was when he joined the Revival in 1980. So, there are a lot of similarities - just because they're different human beings, they have a similar approach, but then their own personal, human voice makes it different."

Twenty-five years later, Cowan seems to reaping some unexpected benefits from his headlong dive into "grass-rock" fusion. "You know, what's funny about all these guys - it's kind of curious, but it's really nice for me, I think it's why I've been able to get really great musicians considering we don't much money - because we don't make as much money as some of the larger marquee acts in the bluegrass world. But all of them came to me as fans of (New Grass Revival). Every single one of them kinda maybe grew up listening to not only Bill Monroe and J. D. Crowe and Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs, but they were all New Grass Revival fans. That's really great for me, and I think it's one of the reasons they decide to play for me. They kind of know what they're gonna get, they're on a wide leash - they're not on a leash at all, in fact. They all have lots of chances in the context of this band to be their own person and bring whatever they view into it, and I also lean on them all. They all do their own tunes in our repertoire."

Cowan is very much looking forward to the future and keeping his momentum rolling forward. "It's taken so long to get this record out, we're gonna actually make (another) record, I hope, before 2006 is over. You know, we're just always really mindful of writing and finding great songs. We're in the process of rehearsing a lot right now to up the repertoire, and to up the ante in the repertoire. There's been a lot of talk of us making just an acoustic record, and that may well happen, in other words just us sitting down and playing with no extra musicians whatsoever."

Even while getting "New Tattoo" ready for release, Cowan and his band have been hitting the stage circuit to reintroduce themselves to old friends and win new ones over. "It's funny, the record's not even out, so I think that we're benefiting initially a little bit from the inertia of the band starting to get known, playing out live. I've seen people come back, and I think that early on I experimented with drums and electric instruments, and I'm seeing more interest in this particular band than any of the ones I've had in the past. But I think that, honestly, it is more like New Grass Revival than anything I've done."

"I think the proof's in the pudding, and I think that we're all just really proud of this record, and we're proud of what we do live. I think we just have something really wonderful to offer, and we're just hoping that more people will be attracted to that thing we're offering."

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