Next week, the International Bluegrass Music Association will hold its 31st Awards show. And while the ceremony will be online instead of live in Raleigh, NC, the honor will be no less for the new inductees into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame: the fiercely energetic 1980s band the Johnson Mountain Boys, Station Inn owner/promoter J.T. Gray and the game-changing New Grass Revival. In recognition of NGR’s epic influence on American music, WMOT caught up with its entire 1980s lineup, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn.
New Grass Revival on The String. Listen Here.
The tension in bluegrass music between the old and the new isn’t an unfortunate rift in an otherwise happy community. It’s essential to the music’s meaning, genius and place in history. Bill Monroe’s original bluegrass was a progressive take on traditional old-time fiddle music and a contemporary cousin of the bebop movement in jazz. Even genre-defining first-generation acts like Flatt & Scruggs began stretching with sound and repertoire in the 1960s. By 1970, bands like the Country Gentlemen, The Dillards and The Bluegrass Alliance were coloring outside Mr. Monroe’s lines, arranging pop and folk songs on bluegrass instruments, and starting to jam like jazz players.
The Bluegrass Alliance was a band of scruffy Kentucky youngsters – Sam Bush, Ebo Walker, Courtney Johnson, Curtis Burch and Lonnie Peerce. And for reasons of personal and musical chemistry, or lack thereof, the band moved to let Peerce, the fiddler, go. That’s where the New Grass Revival story starts.
SAM BUSH: “So we had a band meeting and asked Lonnie to leave the Bluegrass Alliance. (He said), ‘You can't fire me. I own the name of the band.’ And come to find out he did. I think it was me, the youngest guy, that just went, well, let us put it this way, then. We all quit! So basically, four out of five band members quit the band. For the first couple of months, we hadn't come up with a band name. We went by Walker, Burch, Johnson and Bush, which sounded like a really sleazy law firm. At the time, we were part of a trend that when you were forming band names, you use some kind of offshoot of the word bluegrass. (And) Bluegrass Alliance’s second album was called New Grass. The first time we heard of newgrass, it was used by a banjo player Walter Hensley from Baltimore. And he had an album called Picking on New Grass. So newgrass was kind of in our mind, and by naming the band New Grass Revival, we were sort of trying to point out that we were continuing on a style of new bluegrass that had already been started by the Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse, The Dillards - that we were just continuing that on.”
The first quartet released a debut, self-titled album on classic country label Starday Records that included Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls Of Fire” at breakneck speed and a Leon Russell song, “Prince of Peace.” Those caught the interest of 21-year-old John Cowan when he was invited to see the band play live by a date, though he cared little for bluegrass music. Little did he know he was soon to be asked to join to fill in the electric bass role that NGR had never fully locked down.
JOHN COWAN: “I'd also just recently discovered the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ album. And believe it or not, that was really my first exposure to acoustic music, and specifically bluegrass. Went to see New Grass Revival - I never thought in a million years that I'm going to be in this band. It was just purely coincidental. I was working in a car wash at that time, and the band I was in was infatuated with the prog rock band called Yes. And then I'd also had gigs and loved playing in a big R&B band with a singer that was like an Al Green knockoff. So I just didn't know anything about (bluegrass). And I just literally said to them, tell me what to play. What's appropriate?”
Not only did Cowan fit right in with bright, tight and funky bass lines, he proved quickly to be a magnificent singer, and his voice would be a signature of NGR for the next fifteen years. His soaring, pop ballad approach to “A Good Woman’s Love,” a song that had been cut in classic country form by Hank Cochran and bluegrass by Bill Monroe, became a band staple. The band could and did play traditional bluegrass repertoire, but the edgy performance approach, volume and all that hair proved alienating to more conservative segments of the audience. The band began to call those folks the “chair snappers,” who’d head to the parking lot to pick when New Grass Revival hit the stage.
SAM BUSH: “We would play certain traditional festivals, but that really didn't last that long, because even by the summer of ‘72, there had been a division. (Famous promoter) Carlton Haney over in Carolina and Virginia did book the newer groups, us and the New Deal String Band from North Carolina. And from the Northeast, Breakfast Special that had Tony Trischka and Andy Statman in the band. There'd be some nights on certain festivals where Carlton would always put us on last. And we did ask Carlton, couldn't we play a little earlier in the evening? He said, ‘But boys, that’s when yo’ people are up.’”
One place that welcomed, and in some ways defined itself around, New Grass Revival, was the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in western Colorado. It was an all-locals event in its first year, but Bush says the promoters saw NGR play in Winfield, KS and invited them to headline the following June of 1974. Cowan was new to the band and to that burgeoning scene.
JOHN COWAN: “We got there in the middle of the night. So we woke up. We come outside of our rooms and it looks like Switzerland at 8,745 feet in a box canyon surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. And we were just like, holy crap. And our experience up to that point had been that we would go play festivals in the on the East Coast, and they put us on it 11 o'clock at night, when all the old people had gone to bed, so it would be us and 600 drunk hippies. So, when we got out there and played that festival, it was in the middle of the day. And there probably I think there might have been 1,200 people there or something like that. But they just went crazy for us. And we were like, ‘Oh, so this is our audience.’”
The other key development in reaching a bigger audience was a years-long collaboration with Leon Russell, the multi-talented Oklahoma native who’d broken out as a Los Angeles session pianist, songwriter, producer and rock star. In various stretches in the mid 1970s, NGR toured with Russell, opening for him and playing in his band in huge arenas. It put the band on the national map. But Bush says over time, NGR got less dedicated stage time and pushed more to the back of the bandstand. Partly for those reasons, Courtney Johnson and Curtis Burch bowed out in 1981, tired of the road, leaving Bush and Cowan to figure out what to do. They played as a duo (Two Grass Revival, get it?) for a bit before putting out feelers to two musicians they’d come to know on the scene. One was West Coast guitar player and songwriter Pat Flynn, who first encountered the band at the 1978 Telluride Festival. He says that show connected with what he’d been hearing in his imagination like a lightning bolt.
PAT FLYNN: “This is what I'm after. It was all there. But they already had a band. So I simply made friends with them. We came became very tight, very fast. I sat in with them, made friends with him, and then went back to my life. Well, it just so happened that they broke up shortly after that. And Sam and John didn't know what they wanted to do. Did they want to just let it go and go do other things? Well, they had just met me in Colorado. And on the other hand, Sam had just played on some kid’s first album, some kid out of the East Coast out of Boston, New York named Bela Fleck.”
Fleck was 22 and he’d played with Bush on his own solo instrumental debut album. But he was living in Lexington, KY with a band of his own, honing a style of banjo playing that fused the classic and the new. A deeply deliberate and focused musician, Fleck was wary about being recruited, even into a band he appreciated.
BELA FLECK: “It was just such a change of direction for me. I was both shocked, thrilled and horrified. Again, because of all the years I'd been putting in with this other band and this whole approach. But that all evaporated the minute I came down and we sat in a room playing together. I was like, ‘Oh man, this is Christmas.’ And they sounded great on my tunes, so that was another pull for me. If I'm in the band, my instrumentals are gonna hit a whole other level of sounding cool. So then I had to go back to Lexington and tell the guys I was leaving the band.”
New Grass Revival 2.0 introduced themselves to the world with the album On The Boulevard on Sugar Hill Records in 1984. With virtuoso finesse, songs from within and outside the band and with the New Grass name being more widely used to describe progressive string band generally, the band soon attracted some interest on Music Row. Capitol Records signed them and let them make records without supervision. They were favorites of legendary country DJ and television host Ralph Emery who had NGR on his incredibly popular show on The Nashville Network numerous times. Everything clicked except country radio.
PAT FLYNN: “Even though Ricky Skaggs had gotten country success with a fairly bluegrass approach, the archetypal thing would be for a DJ to come up with, ‘Hey, I love you guys. I play you at my house all the time. Dig you. Can't play you.’ I thought, ‘Well, why?’ Well, because the program director and the marketing people and too much banjo and you know, too bluegrass for country, too rock for bluegrass. We often found ourselves in limbo, radio wise.”
BELA FLECK: “So I was a little frustrated. And as time went on, I felt the pressure that there was some sort of an anti-banjo bias in country music. So I was the guy probably that felt that the most. And the fact that we were adding drums, but also downplaying the banjo, the songs would started to move towards, well, let's feature the mandolin and the fiddle. Well hey, it's Sam Bush, why not? I have no problem with that. But it wasn't all about, you know, trying to be progressive and opening up and expanding musically. It was about trying to figure out a solution to this dicey problem of - if we're going to take this money, and we're going to be on a major label, we got to try and come up with some something that's going to work.”
Their biggest commercial success came with the Top 40 single “Callin’ Baton Rouge” from the 1989 album Friday Night In America. By then though, the die had been cast. Fleck had found a pure jazz side project he loved that became Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Bush was wearing out on carrying the administrative burdens for a band hed been doing for going on twenty years. Cowan and Flynn wanted to keep rolling, but Fleck’s formal notice (he gave most of a year) led to the last album, a farewell tour and a final show on New Year’s Eve in Oakland Coliseum opening for the Grateful Dead.
PAT FLYNN: “So there's 10,000 people inside the stadium. There's 5,000 people with a big screen out in the parking lot. So it's a huge event. We hit the stage. On my left hand side sitting on the stage watching the band is Jane Fonda. On the right hand side of the stage watching the band was Bonnie Raitt. And the Dead were over here, checking it out. So it was great. The interesting thing is after that show, Jerry Garcia said, ‘Hey, guys, come out and do some dates with us.’ And we said, ‘Sorry, we're breaking up.”
A Dead finale couldn’t have been more fitting. Jam band met jam grass, and in the decades since, that audience has been a large and reliable affinity group supporting string bands in the New Grass Revival image, including Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters and more. Fleck says the act that most reminds him of NGR’s commitment to forging a new tradition and to instrumental excellence is Billy Strings, who does a mean cover of “This Heart Of Mine.”
In its Hall of Fame announcement, the IBMA said of NGR that “their very name became synonymous with new trends in the music, and their sound owed as much to rhythm and blues, reggae, and rock and roll as it did to bluegrass and country.” Some bluegrass fans never did warm up to the innovative quartet, but the band brought more fans into the bluegrass fold by far.
Listen for extended conversations with New Grass Revival on The String, Sunday at 8 am and again Monday at 9 pm. The podcast edition will be posted here next week.