A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN COWAN (continued)
PM: Now, it's safe to say that Newgrass was the group that changed bluegrass forever, even acoustic music at large. That's not too far fetched, is it?
JC: Well, we were one of them. I think one of the reasons that we made such a dent was that we hung in there for so long. There were people before us: The Dillards, they made two brilliant records that are hard to find now, Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields. They had drums, unheard of then in that kind of music. Herb Petersen, Doug and Rodney Dillard, and Mitch Jayne. [And Dean Webb on mandolin, depending on the year.] There were some other people, you know. There was a thing that was happening at the time, the early 70s, The Flying Burritos Brothers and Poco.
PM: And Muleskinner, too.
JC: Right, that was about '73. [A great outfit that included Peter Rowan, Richard Greene, Ben Keith, David Grisman, and Clarence White of the Byrds.] Not to mention that Will the Circle Be Unbroken came out in '73.
PM: Ah, right. Some of that stuff is older than I recall.
JC: But we just did what we did, stuck to it, and never changed. We took those four instruments, electric bass, guitar, banjo, and mandolin -- well, Sam played fiddle, too. You know, the first record they made, before I joined the band, had a Jerry Lee Lewis song, a Leon Russell song, and also had Bill Monroe songs. So, right from the start, they were about reviving newgrass music, which had already been begun by The Dillards, The Charles River Valley Boys, and Jim and Jesse and The Osborne Brothers at different times did some wild stuff. Even Flatt and Scruggs did a rock record at one point.
So, the name said a lot, though people never really looked at what the name was about. Sam had grown up playing traditional music, but had also been bitten by the psychedelia bug as a kid. He grew up playing mandolin and fiddle, but his guitar playing was all about Jorma Kaukonen. He loved The Airplane, and he loved Cream. So, here was this kid that was an incredible traditional player, that was soaking up all this psychedelic rock. He just decided he was gonna fuse this stuff together.
PM: When Jorma was in town recently, he's an old buddy of mine, we did an interview around that record he was doing with Sam and Bela and some of those guys. It was cool to see that come around full circle. As amazing as Newgrass was, and the trail they helped blaze, that's a really scary group of fellas you're working with now.
JC: Yeah, they're really talented guys.
PM: I mean, that Jeff Autry is a hellish flatpicker, right off the top.
JC: No doubt about it. And what's really cool about those guys is that they're right at the perfect age, most of them are in their mid-thirties. When they were growing up, learning how to play music in bands, they were studying Newgrass Revival, David Grisman, and Tony Rice. So they know my catalog. Newgrass was a big chunk of the foundation of their musical appetites.
PM: And the same is true for Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon [also interviewed this issue], he used your band to back him up on his first solo effort, Freedom Ride. He cut his teeth on Newgrass as well.
JC: Absolutely. There's a whole new wave of kids out there that grew up on Newgrass.
PM: That must be an awesome feeling, right?
JC: It is, it's nice. The only thing that's a little frustrating about it is that the audience doesn't necessarily make that correlation, it's the young players that do.
JC: No, the audience just takes the bands at face value, they don't know the story, the history. They don't know what a Newgrass Revival is. Maybe some of them do, but they're the exception, not the rule. But it's okay.
PM: The ones in their thirties, not their twenties, are more likely to know the connection.
JC: Right, the high school and college kids are not likely to know. They'd like it if they heard it, but they don't make the correlation.
PM: And that's what makes it a good idea to keep cross-pollinating with the generation of bands like Leftover Salmon, and so forth.
JC: Exactly. continue