One of the most celebrated and innovative bands of the 1980s, New Grass Revival will be inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame during the IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards on October 1. As part of our coverage of the 75th anniversary of bluegrass music, BGS caught up with founding member Sam Bush and vocalist/bass player John Cowan to talk about the early years in this first of two stories exploring their remarkable discography. Look for our second story, featuring insight from Béla Fleck and Pat Flynn, as well as Bush and Cowan, to be published on September 17.

The four founding members of New Grass Revival are Curtis Burch on guitar and Dobro, Courtney Johnson on banjo, Ebo Walker on bass, and Sam Bush on mandolin. They had all played together in the five-piece band, Bluegrass Alliance.

Sam Bush: We wanted to fire our [Bluegrass Alliance] fiddle player Lonnie Peerce, and when we told him this he said, “You can’t fire me, I own the name of the band.” So we said, “Let us put it this way: we quit.” We were already influenced by the Country Gentlemen and the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse and the Greenbriar Boys and a really great record by the Charles River Valley Boys called Beatle Country. That’s one of the reasons we called ourselves New Grass Revival — we were trying to point out that we were reviving a new bluegrass that had already been invented by those people. We were only hoping to further the progressiveness we already dug.

Bush had been friends with Courtney since he was a teenager, when the banjo player was lead singer in a band playing Stanley Brothers tunes.

SB: We had no particular plan to play differently but our very first practice I remember Ebo hitting a bass lick in D minor that we later discovered he got from Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” We played licks back and forth over it and all of a sudden Courtney went into the melody of “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” by Vassar Clements. That’s how we came to work up “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” for our first album. It was like a band epiphany, that we could improvise over a riff the way rock ‘n’ roll bands did. We were just playing it the way we felt it.

ade a tape we could listen to. One side was John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain. And on the other side we had Leon Russell and the Shelter People. Without John Hartford there would be no newgrass. Growing up close to Nashville, I would watch him on local TV, and one night he did a bluegrass version of “Great Balls of Fire” on the Glen Campbell show, and I recorded it from the TV — that was the one we learned. Courtney even played his chromatic run the same way John did it.

While making their first album Bush encountered the man who would be his songwriting partner, Steve Brines.

SB: We lost our Louisville club gig when we ended Bluegrass Alliance, so in order to make a living that first winter in ’70-’71 I ended up playing electric bass with a folk group called the Cumberlands: Harold Thom and his wife Betty, and a banjo player called Jim Smoak. Jim had co-written a couple of songs with this poet-lyricist over in Lexington called Steve Brines and we played one on that early album — “Cold Sailor.” After I made his acquaintance Steve and I started trying to write together. Steve lived up in Lexington and I lived down in Barren County, and he’d send me five to ten sets of lyrics in the mail and I’d make up music, put it on a cassette and send them back. Our rule was I wouldn’t change one word, if he didn’t change one note.

It was a productive partnership – Bush and Brines wrote half the songs on their second album, Fly Through the Country. By then, Walker had left the band and they had gained a new player: John Cowan.

John Cowan: I joined in 1974. I did not grow up in bluegrass. I was a rock ‘n’ roll kid playing in local garage bands. But I had an awareness of New Grass Revival because I lived in Louisville, which was their home, and the woman who became my wife once dragged me to go see them. I didn’t want to go, but I was blown away. Six months later I got a phone call from Sam living down in Western Kentucky with Courtney and Curtis and he said he got my number from this guy, and would I be willing to come down and audition for us?

SB: He was a city guy, and when he pulled up and saw us, it was like “Oh my god what have I got myself into?”

JC: Courtney and Curtis were truly unique individuals. They were from South Georgia, super country dudes, born and raised playing bluegrass. I was wild-eyed and “What is all this stuff?” To their credit they welcomed me with open arms.

SB: We played some tunes together and asked him to join the band and he said, “I sing too — do you mind if I sing a song?” And in the tradition of Barney Fife I puffed up my chest and said, “Well, I’m the lead singer but yeah, go ahead.” And he sang “Some Old Day” in the same key as John Duffey did it in, only with this powerful voice and this beautiful vibrato. At the end of it I said, “John, I used to be the lead singer, now you are.”

JC: The day they hired me we rehearsed with the drummer. The next morning I got up and he was gone! I was like, “Where did Michael go?” Courtney said, “Oh hell, we fired him. We don’t need him with you!” I felt kind of bad about it, he was a really nice guy.

Soon the band’s rock ‘n’ roll influences were coming to the fore.

JC: They were already experimenting with jamming on traditional instruments over songs and it was right up my alley, because I was also a big prog rock fan. I was obsessed with Yes. On the title track of Fly Through the Country, Sam played this little thing that looked like a can of Spam — it was a resophonic mandolin, he played slide on it. When Béla joined, he said the big joke was that you could listen to the first part of the song, go out for lunch, come back, and you’d still be playing it.

SB: People would call us “The Grateful Dead of Bluegrass” because of our long tunes and our experimentation. We had to put it in our contract that we wouldn’t be billed like that, because then we had Deadheads coming expecting us to play their songs, and we didn’t do any.

JC: Our touchstone was the Allman Brothers. Their live album At Fillmore East came out three years before and we both knew it by heart; to this day I could sing every note and every solo. So that was a crucial record for our band. Sam exposed me to Jack Casady’s [of Jefferson Airplane] bass playing. When I joined the band I was 21, and Courtney was already 38, I was so out of my element. I’d only ever played with guitars and keyboards and drums, and I was smart enough to at least say, “I don’t know what I’m doing, you guys have to help me.” They’d give me a joint and say, “Go listen to this stuff — here’s John Hartford, here’s Norman Blake, here’s the Dillards….” It was so foreign and beautiful to me.

SB: One of the first songs John taught us was “These Days.” He sang like Gregg Allman when he first arrived, and his voice and vocal style changed to fit into what he had joined.

JC: I would imitate him [Gregg Allman], Lowell George, Stevie Wonder. But when I got in that band, now what do I do? I was smart enough to realize it wasn’t going to work for me to try and sing like Ricky Skaggs or Bill Monroe, that’s not in me. But Sam was very encouraging to me and the more I sang the more I developed my own voice.

SB: Garth [Fundis, the band’s producer] had introduced me to a piano player, Chuck Cochran, and Chuck played electric piano with us on “These Days” at the end of the Fly Through the Country. It was the last song we recorded, and we went, “Huh… We can make this fusion of more instruments into our sound.”

Their next album, When The Storm Is Over, went further, incorporating more of Cochran’s keyboards, as well as drums and percussion.

SB: We wanted to augment our sound and appeal to a wider audience, and Chuck and Garth introduced us to the great drummer Kenny Malone. He played on our next three records and I started producing the records myself. Stephen and I continued to write. The subject matter of our songs was totally different than bluegrass-style songs. I’ve always just said newgrass music is contemporary music played on bluegrass instruments.

JC: Sam’s going to solo for eight minutes, then he’s going to toss it to Courtney, then Curtis, and I’m the guy who’s in charge of keeping the train on the tracks and keeping the coal in the engine. That was my job and I loved it. To this day, when you’re playing that kind of music and all the players are in sync spiritually and musically and emotionally there’s nothing like it. To me that’s what punk music is: just this tremendous energy of people.

In 1977 their first live album, Too Late to Turn Back Now, was recorded at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

JC: It was such a fruitful time for music and we were in the middle of it. Jackson Browne, Miles Davis, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, John Coltrane, Little Feat…. Those people were our models, we listened and listened and it came out in our music. At Telluride we took this Willis Alan Ramsey track off this one solo album he made, the song “Watermelon Man,” and to me that was us doing Little Feat. That’s “Dixie Chicken.” That’s “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” There was a lot of Little Feat groove in what we were doing.

SB: We were trippier on stage than on most of our records, but you can hear it on that live record. Our association with Leon Russell — we’d opened for him in 1973 — had opened the doors. I don’t know that we were psychedelic exactly, but I was trying a phase shifter on my fiddle, like Jean-Luc Ponty, and Curtis would play lap steel with distortion.

JC: We had all grown together. Sam and I were fixated with Delaney & Bonnie at the time. We played “Lonesome and a Long Way from Home,” which Delaney co-wrote with Leon Russell, and we were so obsessed with them vocally that we talked about this: “I’m going to do Bonnie, you’re going to be Delaney.”

The band’s popularity was growing and they were finding their audience, thanks to the support of fellow musicians like the Dillards and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In 1979, Leon Russell had dropped in on the band’s soundcheck when they played at the Apollo Delman Theatre in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The band released the album Barren County that same year.

SB: Leon saw our name on the marquee and hadn’t seen us for years so he stopped by. We went back to his house that night, we jammed all night, and then we went and recorded with him in Nashville and in Hollywood where his studio was. It was really cool. We were teaching Leon bluegrass songs.

The result was the album Rhythm and Bluegrass, Vol 4, which Russell recorded in 1980 under his country alter ego, Hank Wilson. However, the project stayed unreleased until 2001.

SB: We were always most proud of that record. I co-produced it, I just didn’t know that’s what you called it. Leon had a bluegrass songbook and he’d say, “What do you think, should we do this one?” And I’d say, “Nah, let’s try this one.” So that’s how we started as his backup band. For two years! John and I had so much fun singing harmony with him. I love singing baritone, and vocally we were glued to him. And the way John and I did call-and-response in our singing was very influenced by the way Leon and Mary [his wife] did it on their records.

A live album, recorded in 1981, captures the spirit of their collaboration with Leon Russell.

SB: There were shows where you’d see him bounce up and down on his piano stool and that’s when we knew we were going to go into this Pentecostal church service with him, and the songs would just keep speeding up and speeding up and the audience was getting more and more excited. It was amazing, the rock ‘n’ roll hysteria. We learned a lot about show business from him.

Russell played keyboards on Commonwealth, which was Johnson and Burch’s last album with the band.

SB: Listening to the solo that I played on “Deeper and Deeper” [on Commonwealth], having not heard it for years, that one I managed to go to place I hadn’t planned on. Of course you have a game plan and an outline of what you want to achieve with a solo, but that solo was one of the happiest surprises.