Always Take Me Back

John Cowan

Sugar Hill Records, 2002

REVIEW BY: Duke Egbert


John Cowan has never respected musical boundaries much. Starting his career in rock bands in Louisville, Kentucky, he became a part of New Grass Revival (NGR) in 1974. For those new at this, NGR is the newgrass band -- setting the acoustic traditional world on its ear for years by breaking new ground in newgrass. Other members included the great Sam Bush and Bela Fleck, so we're not talking lightweights here.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

When NGR broke up in 1990, Cowan began a career that can best be described as relaxed and eclectic, including a second band, The Sky Kings, and two solo recordings for Sugar Hill Records -- one of which, Soul'd Out, is a collection of Cowan's favorite soul tunes. Heady stuff for a blue-eyed bluegrass vocalist -- so one expects his latest release, Always Take Me Back, will be pretty eclectic.

Eclectic. Check. Damn good? Also check.

What else can you call an album with a bluegrass cover of Yes' "Long Distance Runaround" paired up with the spiritual "Someone Give Me A Stone"? (Fact is, I prefer the cover to the original, mostly because it has Cowan's precise, articulate vocals rather than John Anderson's quacking.)

Always Take Me Back is a brilliant piece of work. There are a number of powerful, powerful pieces on this CD, and they always keep you guessing. Cowan appears to delight in mixing metaphors; how else do you explain a blues-rock spiritual search on the Oklahoma City bombing ("Read On"), a blow-the-doors-off jam on being permanently down and out ("Two Quarts Low"), or a traditional bluegrass take on growing a few illegal crops so you don't lose your farm ("Monroe's Mule")? Mix in powerful reflections on family like "They Always Take Me Back" and "18 Years" and you have a CD whose power is in the words and the music -- and what a lot of power there is.

The highlights by far are two tracks -- the bittersweet, haunting "Blood" and "Love Alone", both of which have real, deep emotional impact. (I must have played "Blood" twenty, thirty times this week.) These are great songs, the kind that don't come along very often, and to have two of them on any CD makes up for a few weak spots (the aforementioned "Stone" and "Call Me" drag a little).

John Cowan is a unique voice; he blazes his own trail, and in the day and age of the Corporate Music Zombies, that's a great thing. Don't miss out on this CD.

Rating: A-

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© 2002 Duke Egbert and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Sugar Hill Records, and is used for informational purposes only.