New Grass Revival

TrackAlbum
Rainbow BridgeToo Late To Turn Back Now
Steam Powered Aereo PlaneCommonwealth
Souvenir BottlesBarren County
Lee Highway BluesBarren County
One Day I'll WalkCommonwealth
One Love/People Get ReadyOn The Boulevard
Can't Stop NowHold To A Dream
Metric LipsHold To A Dream
Callin'’ Baton RougeFriday Night In America
I'm DownFriday Night In America

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Contributor: David Lewis

Few bands have been as controversial and groundbreaking as the New Grass Revival. A product of the iconoclastic attitude of the 1970s, it presented itself as a different type of bluegrass. Bluegrass itself had been invented by William Smith ‘Bill’ Monroe but with the distinctive and virtuosic banjo stylings of Earl Scruggs. Bluegrass became very popular among Southern audiences, and during the folk revival of the 1960s, bluegrass acts such as Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers were discovered by younger audiences.

Out of the musical soup of the 1960s, younger players were influenced as much by rock and country music as they were by bluegrass that many of them grew up around. A new genre, new grass, which subverted the dominant paradigm of bluegrass arose. One of the first prominent bands was called New Grass Revival. Featuring traditional bluegrass instruments: banjo, dobro, mandolin, guitar, it also featured an electric bass and on occasion, drums, keys and solidbody guitars.

The history is a little complex, however there are two classic lineups. Both feature John Cowan on lead vocals and electric bass and Sam Bush on mandolin, fiddle and vocals. The first classic lineup features Courtney Johnson on banjo and Curtis Burch on dobro. On Johnson and Burch’s departure, Béla Fleck took banjo duties and Pat Flynn introduced a flat picking style.

Despite growing up in Kentucky, Cowan had little exposure to bluegrass. As a result, his vocals are far more soul and rock influenced. I have discussed Sam Bush elsewhere (see Toppermost #155). Both Johnson and Fleck are important innovators on the banjo. Pat Flynn is one of the finest flat pickers and Burch is a great dobro player.

New Grass Revival, under the direction of Bush, brought all types of styles. Interesting covers and great arrangements. Bluegrass audiences tended not to like them, and even older performers like Bill Monroe were a little sceptical, at least at first. Unlike traditional bluegrass bands, they dressed like hippies (bluegrass clothes are generally immaculate), and had long hair, not hidden by hats and beards. Though they mostly loved bluegrass, they appealed to a demographic that was urbanising and moving away from traditional rural values. At its best, it is astonishingly great.

My ten come from both classic lineups. They disbanded on New Years Eve, 1989, though all surviving members still perform with each other. They have a secure musical influence and nearly all members still have vital careers.

The first five songs are from the first classic lineup. For many fans, this is the only lineup, Cowan’s vocals are sublime. And the band itself is terrific. This lineup eventually tours with Leon Russell, who becomes their de facto keyboard player for a while. They do a live album, which is a marvellous listen. New Grass Revival built its reputation on its live performances. But its studio output is great.

The first song I’ll pick is from Too Late To Turn Back Now, from 1977. All the elements are in it, and it’s a great song. This is an excellent album (actually, they all are), so the choices are fairly random. But Rainbow Bridge suggests itself, lyrically and musically. One of the hallmarks of Newgrass was the demographic shift happening in the 1970s. Rural audiences had become urban, and the lyrical focus had changed. There is, though, a certain wistfulness and a slight nostalgia in some of these lyrics, which suggest a yearning for a quiet, rural life had not left the audience’s consciousness.

Perhaps the greatest song done by this lineup follows this lyrical theme. From the excellent Commonwealth album, John Hartford’s Steam Powered Aereo Plane. Cowan and Bush were, and are, a brilliant vocal mix, but the arrangement of this song is sublime. The banjo sounds like the workings of an engine; the soaring dobro solo reflects flying; the mandolin chops sound like the steam, and the bass keeps it all together. No mandolin solo, but none is needed. And it ends like the engine stopping. Perfect. Hartford wrote Gentle On My Mind, but this song shows he was no one trick pony. As do all his songs.

Barren County, released in 1979, is full of great songs. The original version of Souvenir Bottles (see my Sam Bush Toppermost) is superb. Lee Highway Blues is a terrific instrumental which is still played live by surviving members.

From Commonwealth again, One Day I’ll Walk, written by occasional member, Leon Russell, shows the gospel side of the Revival. One of the crucial skills of both bluegrass and newgrass is being able to sing gospel credibly. Even avowed atheists such as John Duffey of The Seldom Scene acknowledged its importance. With Leon Russell playing keyboard and Cowan in great voice, this is a very fine example of the style.

In 1981, Burch and Johnson left, and were replaced by two exceptional musicians. The new lineup very quickly reasserted itself as a live force. Pat Flynn’s songs brought a more commercial (bur no less enjoyable) approach, and Béla Fleck had moved banjo beyond the ‘traditional’ Scruggs style and had even progressed ‘melodic’ banjo towards bebop.

On The Boulevard was their debut and it was a very strong opening for a very powerful band. I’ve chosen One Love/People Get Ready as a demonstration of how this lineup in particular was able to use a disparate amount of styles. Bush had noticed the similarity with the bluegrass ‘chop’ to the reggae chop.

Hold To A Dream is a superb album, and I’ve chosen two tracks from it. The magnificent Can’t Stop Now, which should be a Béla Fleck showcase, except the rest of the band is so good (listen to the jam at the end, which they were able to reproduce live). Swaps between Fleck, Flynn and Bush. And unlike most jamming, it’s musically interesting and fiery as all get out.

The other one from this album is the Fleck penned Metric Lips. This 7/4, then 4/4 composition is a great showcase of how all these guys could do modern jazz.

Two to go … Hmmm … Their biggest hit was Callin’ Baton Rouge, not least because their arrangement was picked up by Garth Brooks (and the band performed on the Brooks recording). So, as it’s not well known outside the US, in it goes.

Finally, I’m rather partial to their cover of McCartney’s Little Richard pastiche I’m Down. It’s fun, it’s fast, and it’s one of my favourite Beatles covers.

New Grass Revival is one of the more important and interesting bands to emerge from US country music. All of the members of the classic lineup (except the late Courtney Johnson, who died of lung cancer in 1996) have gone on to important solo careers and session work. Cowan, apart from a solo band, plays bass and sings in The Doobie Brothers. Pat Flynn continues to write and perform. Béla Fleck continues to push the limitations of the banjo in his world music and jazz, both solo and with The Flecktones.

The official Sam Bush website

John Cowan, the Voice of Newgrass

Béla Fleck offical site

Pat Flynn facebook

New Grass Revival biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #164

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