John Cowan has been on bluegrass fans' radar since he first joined the ground-breaking New Grass Revival on bass and singing lead tenor, in 1974. Cowan's command of the vocals in that group came much to founding member and bluegrass great Sam Bush's surprise, since Bush had been the band's lead singer since the beginning.
Bluegrass lore holds that its musicians come from an Appalachian mountain background, learning their musical skills at the feet of their parents and grandparents, who have played forever. Cowan, meanwhile, was born in Minerva, Ohio. He fell in love with the Beatles while playing bass and singing in garage rock bands throughout Ohio's industrial northeastern corner.
Once he joined New Grass Revival, he stuck with that band for sixteen years, until they disbanded in 1990. He describes his only knowledge of bluegrass at the time he joined the band as his ownership of the seminal recorded collection by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
In a recorded interview, Cowan says that New Grass Revival knew it was pushing the envelope, going down the “artist path rather than the commercial path,” as they sought to emulate other bands such as the Osborne Brothers, the Country Gentlemen, and Hot Rize who moved toward a more contemporary sound, including a greater influence from rock and roll and folk music, both in vogue at the time.
After his run with New Grass Revival, John played in several rock bands before teaming up with other players, including Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers in a band called Sky King.
Sky King made one unreleased recording for RCA, which somehow got lost in personnel changes within the company, although it was later released by Rhino Records. Nevertheless, the connection with Simmons led to Cowan's joining the Doobie Brothers, with whom he still tours, on bass and vocals. Here's the successful video by Sky King singing “Picture Perfect.”
Cowan has served two stints with the Doobie Brothers, which he first joined in 1992 for two and a half years, and rejoined in 2010. He tours regularly with this important rock and roll band, which retains first call on his services.
Cowan has lived and worked in Nashville for many years, and is often in demand as a session player. He has been credited as either a bassist or vocalist on over 140 recordings in a range of roots, country rock, bluegrass, and other albums. Meanwhile, The John Cowan Band has consistently given voice to John's own artistic and musical vision. The band tours intermittently with a movable cast of performers, but often including Jeff Autry on guitar and Shadd Cobb on fiddle.
In 2006, Cowan became spokesman for National Child Abuse Prevention Month while debuting an album called New Tattoo containing the song, "Drowned," which he co-wrote with Darrell Scott and which addresses Cowan's own childhood experiences. The album, as a whole, represented a return to a more acoustic vocal and instrumental style, remeniscent of his earlier work with New Grass Revival.
When asked, in a recorded interview, what he would do if he couldn't sing or play any longer, Cowan at first appeared stumped, then thoughtful. After some thought, he said that he'd probably work with addiction and substance abuse issues in some fashion, since he's been involved with this issue in his own recovery for many years.
Cowan's wide-ranging career is suggested by the guests appearing on this video of Bill Monroe's "A Good Woman's Love," recorded at Nashville music spot 3rd and Lindsley, which includes instruments and voices from across his long and productive career.
Recently, Cowan has been touring with the Darin & Brooke Aldridge Band at bluegrass festivals and other events. The combination of his vocals with Brooke's has riveted audiences from the Ryman Auditorium to the Raleigh's Red Hat Amphitheater at this year's International Bluegrass Music Associations (IBMA) Wide Open Bluegrass.
Singing material from his own long career and from the Aldridge band, the combination has extended the range of a number of festivals while acquainting a wider audience with Darin & Brooke's music. Here they are at the Dumplin Valley Bluegrass Festival this fall, singing New Grass Revival's “Do What You Gotta Do.”
In a sense, John Cowan's long career captures the essence of what has become known as Americana music, which remains almost as undefined as does bluegrass. Regardless of definitions, Cowan has been exceptionally productive over a career spanning more than 40 years in bringing together these various roots and branches while creating his own style and sound. His clear, distinctive tenor voice communicates both intense feeling and thoughtful consideration of ideas. Maybe that's what's meant by soul.
Whether its rock, country, newgrass, bluegrass, or singer-songwriter music delivered with electric or acoustic instruments, John Cowan generates musical excitement and interest wherever he goes.