december 2011


John Cowan
Released: 2009

A progressive bluegrass pioneer and still one of the finest voices on any scene, John Cowan makes the most of his first holiday album, assaying a few new tunes and some well-chosen traditional fare in a rootsy style honoring both the season and his pedigree as a forward thinking artist. That point is pressed on the first cut, a propulsive, swaying treatment of Smokey Robinson’s “Christmas Everyday” with drummer Bryon Lorrance laying down a solid, toe tapping rhythm as Cowan delivers a pleading, soulful vocal supported by a responsive chorus and atmospheric mandolin work (by either John Frazier or Matt Flinner; the liner notes don’t specify who is playing on any particular cut) that set the song down somewhere between Motown and Nashville. He gives “Go Tell It On the Mountain” a similar type of treatment to close the album, with a rustic, shambling arrangement suited to a country church workout, keyed by Shad Cobb’s plaintive fiddle sparring with the gutsy, gospel testifying of Bonnie and Bekka Bramlett and Cowan himself. Jesse Winchester’s “Let’s Make a Baby King” is an occasion for a gutbucket, funkified gospel workout with the gal singers, enhancing the song’s ever-timely appeal for a new direction in a world gone mad.

Of the new songs, “Little Match Girl,” written by Cowan’s step-daughter, Jenny Anne Mannan (who also adds an appealing, soft harmony to his lead vocal) might be on its way to classic stature as it’s performed here, with a wistful lyric and lilting rhythm softening a tragic tale of a girl left alone and hungry in the winter, selling matches on the street in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to keep herself alive through the season’s bitter cold, a startling outcome Cowan heightens with a measured vocal remarkable as much for its emotional heft as for its surprising restraint. He works similar magic on the traditional fare. Soft mandolin arpeggios and some tasty fiddle interjections add a gentle country ambiance to “The Christmas Song,” and Cowan caresses those classic lyrics with an appealing pop sensitivity worthy of the song’s co-writer, Mel Torme. He’s at his best on two sacred carols: “O Holy Night,” with a stark mandolin accompanying him, is rendered with deliberate stateliness, each lyric clearly enunciated and shaded for the most dramatic effect; similarly, “Ave Maria,” sung in English with lyrics penned by Cowan and his collaborator on this project, producer Walter Carter, soars over a repeating, harp-like figure fashioned (possibly) on Carter’s mandola, and becomes one of those silence-inducing moments when a listener is humbled by the sheer beauty and piercing intensity of the performance and all the feelings it summons. This is the moment when Comfort & Joy becomes less a holiday album than an epistle for a troubled time, offering solace in its sentiments, hope in its abundant heart. -–David McGee

John Cowan’s Comfort & Joy is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024