Album Review: John Cowan--Comfort and Joy

John Cowan--Comfort and Joy--Koch

Other singers would crawl through broken glass to borrow John Cowan’s larynx for 15 minutes. While Cowan has always remained loyal to the progressive bluegrass he helped define in the ‘70s as the singer/bassist for New Grass Revival, fans of the genre and the pilgrims who make it to the big summer roots festivals know that Cowan can sing pretty much anything. From high-lonesome bluegrass to banshee wails that no one (except maybe Adam Lambert) can touch, Cowan manipulates his diamond-clean skyrocket of a voice with enormous control, timing, and taste. This season, the singer is on a roll. Hot on the heels of a live record from Telluride, Colorado, where Cowan is a superstar, he has recorded his first full-length Christmas album, Comfort and Joy.

Given Cowan’s ability to go big, he could have easily made a string-laden, kettle-drum exercise in yuletide schmaltz. Thankfully, though, Cowan holds true to his roots, and his band, by recording Christmas standards with little more than acoustic guitar (the phenomenal Jeff Autrey), fiddle (Shad Cobb—how Silver Dollar City is his name?), bass (Cowan himself, an underrated player), and mandolin (John Frazier). Drummer Bryon Larrance shows up on half the songs, but this is primarily an acoustic, string-band affair, and it’s a treat to hear the players fill out the arrangements on standards like “The Christmas Song” and “Silent Night” through Frazier’s tremolo playing and Cobb’s drowsy fiddle countermelodies.

The record’s understated beauty is an impressive instrumental achievement. Cowan has always surrounded himself with bluegrass’s most promising young pickers, graduating Randy Kohrs, Luka Bula, Scott Vestal, etc., from his finishing school, and his current group demonstrates remarkable versatility and grace on these songs, particularly on the swing-waltz of “What Child Is This?” and a sultry, jazzy “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is given the most clever rewrite, sounding like a John Cowan Band original, with carefully arranged instrumental lines and hot improvisational breaks.

Elsewhere, there’s less going on, especially on the big, soaring classics like “O Holy Night” or “Ave Maria”, on which Cowan’s voice is accompanied only by quietly picked acoustic guitar and mandolin. Those hoping Cowan will belt these songs out in his signature canyon-rattling call won’t necessarily be disappointed—he’s in exultant voice throughout, and he stabs those high notes like there’s nothing to it—but he also sings these hymns with the restraint that they deserve. The spareness of the arrangements and the unadorned, product-free treatment of Cowan’s voice make for stunning vocal takes that belong in the Johnny C time-capsule.

Comfort and Joy's method is to toggle between those standards and peppier, more obscure holiday tunes. The album opens with Smokey Robinson’s jaunty “Christmas Everyday”, which is lots of fun and a perfect match for Cowan. “Little Match Girl” is a new mountain-folk song written by Cowan’s stepdaughter, Jenny Anne Mannan, who sings harmony on the track; the nepotism works just fine as the song—a tear-jerker—holds its own among the chestnuts. “Good News” is a gospel-grass tune that has Cowan playing call-and-response with his band over a backdrop of Autrey’s fingerpicking pattern and a thumping bass drum.

Toward the end of the record, the band decides to rock a little—and Cowan is equally impressive in this mode; one wonders why he didn’t make a fortune on the Sunset Strip in the mid-‘80s fronting a pop-metal band. The song is “Let’s Make a Baby King”, a live staple of Cowan Band shows, and shoe-horned here onto Comfort and Joy. Singing the second verse is the amazing soul-shouter Mike Farris, another of Nashville’s fiercest vocalists, and it’s a hoot to hear these two together. The song feels out of place as too raucous for the record, but that’s really a minor quibble. The fact is, considering the number of treacly Christmas releases every year, Cowan has made not just a terrific Christmas album, but one good enough to transcend the category and perhaps the best of his career. In any case, it’s an album that you’ll look forward to hearing each December. Now pass the nog.

This review first appeared a PopMatters.

Views: 179

Comment by Mike Ollier on December 19, 2009 at 12:11pm
I'm sorry, I just couldn't listen to a record by a man with that hair.
Comment by KittraKittra on December 19, 2009 at 6:13pm
Ya can't hear his hair on the CD.
Comment by toomuchcountry on December 21, 2009 at 6:46pm
Cowan recently sang Ava Maria backed by Nashville Mandolin Ensemble at Nashville Unlimited, a 3 hour show to benefit the homeless of Nashville. Great performance that wasn't affected by his hair. Click here for my review.
Comment by RobinPiney on December 22, 2009 at 4:14pm
FYI John Cowan's hair is in the process of growing out from appearing as an extra (choir member, natch) in last year's Billy Graham biopic, "Billy: The Early Years." Admittedly, John's hair is past it's mousse-and-blow-dried glory days of the late 80's New Grass Revival, but his amazing voice is as strong as ever, if not stronger. Dou yourself a favor, Mike - check it out:
Comment by John Cowan on December 28, 2009 at 11:43am
Jeez. a bad hair day and folks won't give ya the time of day. Ha! Don't tell George Jones. Jim Lauderdale, or Bill Anderson. love and conditioner jcow
Comment by Cheryl McFarlane on December 29, 2009 at 12:50am
Mike Ollier, how shallow you are. John Cowan is the best singer there ever was. Too bad you will never hear this beautiful voice!
Comment by John Cowan on December 29, 2009 at 8:32am
Comment by sherry setzer on January 3, 2010 at 8:59am
John Cowan has the most amazing voice that you well ever hear.If you dont give John and his band a listen then you are missing out.As for the hair thing,the man has the most beautiful hair,and has had for years and i have been a fan of John Cowan since the 1970s.
Comment by KittraKittra on June 20, 2010 at 9:44pm
"East Meets Wes" Lovely . I've always adored Shad Cobb. He is just so darling! As for Mr. Cowan, I LIKE his hair. It's a performace all it's own. Makes him look like a "Mad Maestro."


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.