After that band broke up, Cowan moved in the direction of rock and fronted a band called the Sky Kings. But with his latest release, New Tattoo, he's pushed his sound back to within a step of New Grass Revival, with lots of banjo and mandolin accompanied (at least on record) by light but tense percussion and a bit of electric guitar. The songs come from a variety of the most innovative songwriters working in country and bluegrass music today, including Darrell Scott, Mark Simos, and Ed Snodderly of the late, lamented progressive bluegrass duo the Brother Boys. They range from deadly serious to roughly humorous: "Carla's Got a New Tattoo" may be the only bluegrass song on record that refers to eyebrow piercing. Musically they divide between souped-up classic bluegrass patterns and pieces with funky rhythms that bring out a warm streak of blue-eyed soul in Cowan's style. On love songs and big bluegrass jams, Cowan has a remarkably well-preserved tenor voice for someone who's spent well over thirty years making music in small clubs for small change.
A few bluegrass singers have followed John Cowan's departure from the classic high-lonesome bluegrass vocal sound. Among them are the Gibson Brothers, Eric and Leigh, from upstate New York, who are formidable original songwriters themselves. They appear with Cowan on a fabulous double bill at the Ark on Friday, June 30 in these parts, the progressive bluegrass event of the year.
[Review published June 2006]