John Cowan is such a distinctive singer that his sound has helped to define American roots music. Known by many as the voice of Newgrass, his soaring vocals have only improved with time. On his new release Sixty – his first for new label home Compass Records R... more
John Cowan, also known as the Voice of Newgrass, has been singing his heart out for thirty-five years, and his soaring vocals have only improved with time. A true innovator, John applies his powerful pipes to genres from country, bluegrass, and gospel to soul, jazz, and rock-and-roll – often within the space of a single concert. His ability to move fluidly through multiple styles, and carry mesmerized audiences on the journey with him, has set him apart as one of the most loved and admired vocal artists of his generation, not just by fans and critics but among fellow musicians as well.
Cowan’s rise to fame began in 1974 when he auditioned as the bassist for the then up-and-coming New Grass Revival. Needless to say, John was offered the gig, but it wasn’t until he’d accepted the job that the shy 22-year-old casually mentioned that he could sing. With his distinctive, rock-tinged tenor vocal and heart-thumping electric bass, John, along with fellow New Grass Revival band mates Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, and Curtis Burch, and later Béla Fleck and Pat Flynn, introduced a new generation of music fans to an explosive, experimental and ultimately, eponymous brand of bluegrass. The “newgrass” sound spawned popular jam bands such as Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band in addition to shaping the sensibilities of country megastars Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, the Zac Brown Band, and Darius Rucker.
After New Grass Revival disbanded in 1990, John went on to record a series of critically acclaimed solo albums in addition to laying down guest bass and vocal parts on some 120 recordings for artists including Steve Earle, Béla Fleck, Alison Krauss, and John Prine. A few years later, John teamed up with Rusty Young of Poco, Bill Lloyd of Foster & Lloyd, and Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers in The Sky Kings, a widely successful country rock band. John’s newfound alliance with Pat Simmons gained him the role of bassist for the Doobie Brothers from 1992 through 1995, as well as a songwriting credit for “Can’t Stand to Lose” on the Doobie Brothers 2000 release Sibling Rivalry.
Not content to remain a sideman, however, John left the Doobie Brothers to follow his creative muse in pursuit of a solo career that, at the dawn of the 21st century, found him circling back to his acoustic “newgrass” roots. “What we did back in the New Grass Revival days was unique,” he says. “Our vision was to take acoustic music somewhere new. What I’ve done with the John Cowan Band is try to recapture the magic of that ground-breaking experimentation and take it to the next level.”
The John Cowan Band, featuring some of acoustic music’s finest players, has been a force to be reckoned with these fifteen years – and counting. John is a fixture and a favorite at major festivals like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado and Wilkesboro, North Carolina’s “traditional-plus” MerleFest. Stints in his band have helped launch the careers of Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers), Luke Bulla (Lyle Lovett), and Scott Vestal, among others. The band’s current lineup features long-time collaborator and outstanding flatpick guitarist Jeff Autry, renowned and in-demand fiddler Shad Cobb, and fellow Doobie Brother, Ed Toth, on drums. John again found himself the bassist of the Doobie Brothers in 2010, and currently tours around the world with the Doobies, laying down the low notes and singing the high ones as they perform various hits.
In 2014 John signed to Nashville-based Compass Records for the release of Sixty, a career retrospective of sorts that is the singer's most ambitious project to date. Produced by fellow Doobie Brother, John McFee, the album's 12 tracks showcase Cowan’s iconic vocals alongside an incredible array of special guests including Leon Russell, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell, Bernie Leadon, Sam Bush, Chris Hillman, Huey Lewis, Bonnie Bramlett, Ray Benson and many more. Tracks range from the Dixieland-influenced, heartfelt song "Miss the Mississippi," to "Why Are You Crying," a banjo-pickin' foot stomper, to the rocking "Run For Your Life," which could easily become a blues rock classic. The album's opener "Things I Haven't Done" allude to Cowan's newgrass roots while the standout piano/vocal duet with the legendary Leon Russell, recorded live in one take, is an absolute stunner. Taken as a whole, the album illustrates the breadth of Cowan's vocal talents while showcasing his remarkable vocal dexterity across a variety of genres, proving that 45 years into his career, John is still one of the most iconic singers in roots music. “I love my ‘job’,” Cowan says. “I love playing music for people every night. I’m very grateful for every opportunity I have to play my music with my own band for the fans that have been so loyal to me over the years. I don’t ever want to stop sharing my music with them.”