John Cowan: Staying true to what brung him to the dance

John Cowan, For The Ages
By David McGee

john-cowan-massenburg-sessionsTHE MASSENBURG SESSIONS
John Cowan
E1 Entertainment

Along with last year’s Christmas and live albums (Comfort & Joy and 8, 745 Feet: Live at Telluride, respectively), progressive bluegrass pioneer John Cowan’s latest studio effort with visionary producer George Massenburg continues his exciting career resurgence with nothing less than his strongest solo effort to date. Staying true to what brung him to the dance, Cowan assays a baker’s dozen tunes from various sources in and outside of bluegrass, the latter including a swinging rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Heart of the Country,” a furious boogie-woogie treatment of the R&B evergreen “Caldonia,” a rousing southern gospel a cappella workout (with Luke Bulla sitting in on vocals) on the gospel monument, “Jesus Gave Me Water,” a gentle and touching backwoods treatment of Dave Alvin’s “King of California” (featuring a warm lead vocal by Cowan’s stalwart bandmate, Jeff Autry and succinct, impassioned solos by Autry’s bandmates Wayne Benson on mandolin and Shad Cobb on fiddle). Why the project is named after the producer is evident from the first notes—the music jumps out of the speakers (and headphones) with a sonic immediacy and clarity you don’t need studio training to appreciate. Massenburg, of course, has a daunting resume as a producer and engineer, having worked with the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Frank Sinatra, Weather Report, Ramsey Lewis, Bonnie Raitt, the Seldom Scene, the Dixie Chicks and on and on, but he is also revered within the pro audio community for having invented several studio tools to do the job at which existing technology was failing (Massenburg EQ being but one of these legendary advances). Notoriously press shy, Massenburg has done a few interviews in his day, but always has preferred to let the music he enables speak for itself and for him. It seems rather amazing that he and Cowan, both veterans of several decades’ standing, have not teamed up before now, but theirs is a match made in music heaven, and better late than never. According to Cowan’s liner notes, he approached the producer while the latter was working at a state of the art studio in Nashville boasting special sonic treatment from RPG Diffusor designed to enhance musicians’ ability to hear each other clearly during sessions. Massenburg agreed to do a straight-up, all-in-one-room live recording with Cowan, stipulating only that no one wear headphones. Behold the result.

‘Can’t Stop Now,’ Newgrass Revival (from left, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Pat Flynn)

Cowan, of course, is revered among his musician peers for his advanced bass playing—what he did in Newgrass Revival in infusing the music with flourishes from jazz, funk, rock, blues and other styles along with progressive harmonic ideas, remains a standard and inspiration for bass players of many stripes, as Victor Wooten will attest—but it’s a definite toss-up as to whether his full, expressive tenor voice or his innovative musicianship is more the star here. On his own strutting, self-affirming progressive bluegrass treatise “Carry On,” his steady, thumping bass and triumphant but nuanced vocal pretty much share the spotlight, to the song’s benefit, as Cowan leaves room for stirring instrumental passages for Cobb, Benson and five-string banjo master Tony Wray to add their own energetic, joyful solos to the storyline while Cowan’s bass holds down and advances the testimony all at once.

On an album rich in heart, singling out highlights becomes a difficult task indeed, and may well be unfair to a collection as seamless, as whole, as this. Still, the bayou-by-way-of-Ireland treatment of the traditional “The Lakes of Ponchartrain” emanates a classic beauty of singular resonance. Instrumentally, Wray’s spare banjo noting, guest Jim Hoke’s subtle accordion and, especially, Cobb’s emotional, heart rending fiddling amplify the magnitude of the narrator’s love for the Creole girl of his dreams, as Cowan gives him plaintive, aching voice; but the performance elevates to a higher spiritual plane of desire and despair when the incomparable Maura O’Connell enters with a keening, crying denial of her suitor’s application. O’Connell, who is no more able to misstep vocally than is Cowan, completely inhabits her part, allowing in enough light to let us know she’s been fundamentally moved by this man’s advances, while leaving no doubt of her commitment to another for whom she professes her love. And Cowan? You can hear the urgency of his passion from the first note, and, as the song progresses, the certainty of looming heartbreak in every straining phrase—truly a monumental unburdening of the soul on all parts. For fans of traditional bluegrass done right, Cowan serves up a rich course of classic Bill Monroe fare by way of “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’.” No messin’ around here, either—Ronnie McCoury sits in on mandolin, brother Rob McCoury plunks away on banjo, and Cowan shares verses and harmonizes with none other than the McCoury patriarch, Del, whose graceful, dramatically nuanced reading challenges Cowan to bring his best to the fray, so he dives in with a keening, aggrieved howl of his own (and with the McCourys demonstrating their usual instrumental mastery, Cowan guitarist Jeff Autry has the star turn with a feisty guitar solo towards the end).

John Cowan and band do right by the Chairman of the Board in their mellow treatment of “In The Wee Small Hours,” a Sinatra monument.

Most ambitious of all is the four-and-a-half-minute “Soiled Dove,” a co-write between John and Carol Cowan and the estimable Jon Randall Stewart. In the old west a soiled dove was a prostitute, and this song is a kind of prayer for one’s redemption, a salvation poetically evoked in non-judgmental terms, and expressed with a sincerity informed by an understanding of a life lived at risk. The tender harmony vocal to Cowan’s sensitive reading is provided by the song’s co-writer Stewart—together the two summon the rich mix of Crosby, Stills & Nash—and the somber, forlorn ambiance comes courtesy a string quintet arranged by Don Hart with an unerring sense of the unfolding drama’s delicate balance of hope and fatalism. Really, though, those who come to The Massenburg Sessions will find their own way in and maybe wonder why this or that other song wasn’t mentioned as an example of how wonderfully everything works here.  Fair enough, because it’s all good. Having made many an outstanding record in his time, John Cowan has topped himself by delivering a classic, and George Massenburg earns a salute too for giving the music an empathetic sonic framework designed to enhance not only the bold strokes but the discreet, subtle ones as well. This is one for the ages.

John Cowan’s The Massenburg Sessions is available at

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