The New Grass Revival
The New Grass Revival
The New Grass Revival has been called “the premier progressive-bluegrass band.” The group’s members play traditional bluegrass instruments—guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and bass—and their vocal harmonies reflect a bluegrass pattern. What distinguishes this band, however, is its incorporation of rock, jazz, reggae, and even rhythm & blues influences for a strikingly modern sound. Some listeners even hesitate to call this work “bluegrass,” so far does it depart from the classic bluegrass approach.
Bluegrass Unlimited contributor Ronni Lundy notes that the New Grass Revival’s songs bear no resemblance to the “pop-rock influenced pap... being touted as ‘newgrass.’” The critic adds: “Yes, this music [borrows] heavily from the realms of rock, jazz and blues, but it [has] lost none of the drive and melancholy that characterizes bluegrass music. It [is] as old and poignant as sepia photographs... and, at the same time, full of the powerful pace of modern life, rushing by like the city traffic.” Needless to say, this innovative fusion of old and new has found enthusiastic followers among younger listeners. Stereo Review correspondent Alanna Nash claims that the New Grass Revival is talked about in bluegrass circles as “the ultimate progressive supergroup.”
The band formed in 1971, essentially by splitting en masse from a group called the Bluegrass Alliance. Original members of the New Grass Revival included fiddle and mandolin player Sam Bush, banjo picker Courtney Johnson, and guitar and dobro player Curtis Burch. All three musicians grew up in bluegrass country—Bush and Johnson in Kentucky and Burch in Georgia—and they all gravitated to bluegrass out of their love for such classic groups as Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and Jim & Jesse McReynolds. Bush, Johnson, and Burch all cut their professional teeth with the Bluegrass Alliance, joining within several years of one another. When they formed their own band they added Ebo Walker on upright bass.
The earliest New Grass Revival work reflects the influence of bluegrass pioneers such as Flatt & Scruggs and Jim & Jesse. The band departed from that path in 1973 when Walker was replaced by electric bass player John Cowan. Cowan’s was not a bluegrass background. He had begun playing bass as a young teen because he loved Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and he had matured with an interest in soul, acid rock, and country rock. Cowan brought these interests—and a strident tenor voice—to the New Grass Revival. He had never played bluegrass before. Bush told Bluegrass Unlimited: “When John came into the band, he had to change more for us than we did for him.... He had to learn how to play without a drummer, how to approach bluegrass music.”
In fact, Cowan’s country-rock experience started the band in the direction it has taken to this day. The evolution continued in 1982 when Johnson and Burch left and were replaced by banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and singer-songwriter Pat Flynn. Flynn’s own songs have a rock feel to them, and the band has also recorded work by the Beatles and rocker Marshall Crenshaw, among others. Many New Grass Revival tunes—especially the instrumental ones—owe a debt to jazz, with improvisational solos and coordinated breaks. Lundy describes the New Grass Revival’s material as “fusion music, not just a technical fusion of style, but the fusion of a rich and complex past with a powerful, fast paced present. It is ... the poignant country man taken one generation further into the world of cities, factories and alienation, but never losing contact with the heritage that is his strength and joy.”
Nearing its twentieth anniversary as a group, the New Grass Revival is on tour some forty-two weeks per year. The band’s move to Capitol Records in 1989 reflects its growing prestige both within and outside the bluegrass community. Lundy concludes: “The road has often been rough and rocky, but the incredible talent and solid professionalism of the band members are winning
Band formed in 1971 with Sam Bush (vocals, mandolin, fiddle, guitar), Courtney Johnson (banjo), Curtis Burch (vocals, guitar, dobro), and Ebo Walker (upright bass). John Cowan (vocals, electric bass) replaced Walker, 1973. Bela Fleck (vocals, banjo) and Pat Flynn (vocals, guitar) replaced Johnson and Burch, 1982.
Signed with Flying Fish Records, 1972; have also recorded with EMI America and Capitol Records. Group has made numerous live appearances in the United States and Canada; television appearances include “Hee Haw” and “Nashville Now.”
Addresses : c/o Vector Management, P.O. Box 128037, Nashville, Tenn. 37212.
them great respect from their contemporaries…. For those of us who consider ourselves living offspring of [the bluegrass] culture, New Grass provides not only an echo of our past but a meaningful musical expression of our present and future.”
Fly through the Country, Flying Fish, c. 1973.
The New Grass Revival, Starday, c.1974.
To Late To Turn Back, Flying Fish, 1977.
When the Storm Is Over, Flying Fish,1979.
Barren Country, Flying Fish, 1979.
On the Boulevard, Sugar Hill,1985.
New Grass Revival, EMI America,1986.
(With Leon Russell) Commonwealth, Flying Fish.
The New Grass Revival Live, Sugar Hill,1989.
Friday Night in America, Capitol, 1989.
Bluegrass Unlimited, November 1978.
Stereo Review, May 1985.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"The New Grass Revival." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/new-grass-revival
"The New Grass Revival." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/new-grass-revival
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