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The John Cowan Band

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Long before critics coined the appellations "Americana" and "newgrass," there was John Cowan.

In 1974, after playing in a slew of Midwest rock bands, Cowan joined New Grass Revival, one of the first progressive bluegrass groups. After NGR dissolved in 1990, the Indiana-bred singer and bassist rocked with a country twang in the Sky Kings, a group that also featured Rusty Young from Poco and Bill Lloyd of Foster & Lloyd. Cowan then dove into the old-school R&B of Otis Redding and Solomon Burke before returning to bluegrass.

Cowan's resonant tenor has more in common with Robert Plant than Del McCoury. He has even filtered songs by Yes and King Crimson through a bluegrass framework. On 2006's New Tattoo, however, the presentation is more traditional. Yet Cowan still tosses some curveballs. He covers the Blue Nile's "Tomorrow Morning," a rich tapestry of southern rock, gospel, and country. And the closer, "Drown," tells the harrowing tale of a sexually abused child.

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