A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN COWAN
Puremusic: You always sound good, John, but now it sounds like you're doing good. There's a lot more depth to this record, to my ears.
John Cowan: Yeah, it's more personal. I really just started writing songs in my thirties. I'd always been an interpreter, and found great songs by songwriters I admired. I still do that, because there are so many damn good songwriters out there. It's just a process, Frank, as my life and my recovery have developed. To be honest, I was so inspired by Darrell Scott's Family Tree album...
PM: Isn't that amazing?
JC: ...that I thought, it isn't so much that I want to do that, but there's stuff on my plate, emotionally speaking, that I wanted to address. I wanted to write songs about it, and that's what happened.
PM: Wow. Does Darrell know that?
JC: I don't know. He's a good friend, and he played on the record. I've gushed to him and about him for the last ten years, and continue to do so. He's America's best kept secret. [See our recent interview with Darrell Scott in the archives.]
So Always Take Me Back was somewhat inspired by that. We all have a different story when it comes to our nuclear family. It's so important to who we are as humans, so it's worth exploring. I hope to keep writing in that vein, stuff that's a little more personal. Although I always like writing with Fred Koller, he's such a wordsmith. We cowrote "Monroe's Mule" on this record. He's so good. He's a storyteller, I'm not.
PM: You are with him.
JC: I am with him, yeah. But that's his nature as a writer, he's a narrative guy. That's what he does.
PM: Didn't he open a bookstore?
JC: Yeah, I think he did, actually. [Rhino Booksellers]
PM: Not only that, I think that Gwil Owen [another great songwriter in this town who cowrote the Grammy nominated tune from The Horse Whisperer with Alison Moorer called "A Softer Place to Fall," among many others] did a similar thing, but I think his business is mail order books. It's an epidemic or something.
JC: I know Fred has enough books in his house to open a bookstore, that's for sure. And I think he's read them all. It's unbelievable. [John's dog is going crazy, he's trying to calm her down, lets her in.]
PM: What is your nuclear family setup? I know you lost a brother recently.
JC: I'm the youngest of four. My sister and I are a year apart, we kind of grew up together. My brother that died recently was eight years older, and our other brother is 11 years older than I am. So we didn't exactly see them, it was more my sister Sue and I. My parents had us really late, my dad was 40 when I was born, and my mom 38. We were accidents, actually.
PM: And, because you were accidents, what was your perception of the attitude toward the late arrivals, past or in retrospect?
JC: Well, it's always tough deciding how much you want to reveal about that personal an aspect of one's history, you know. It was a pretty rough and tumble, crazy thing. My dad was a practicing alcoholic. It was a pretty typical, lower middle class alcoholic family. Pretty crazy.
PM: Was that in Kentucky, or...?
JC: Actually, we moved around. We started out in Cleveland, went to Pittsburgh, and to Louisville, KY when I was twelve.
PM: Having grown up in a pretty crazy family myself, I can certainly relate. That certainly sounds like a rich vein to tap. And you're still tight with your sister, Sue, is that right?
JC: Yeah, we're very close. She lives in Evansville, IN. That's where we moved, one last time, in my senior year in high school. I went to one year of high school there and one year of college. Then I went back to Kentucky and started playing in bands. A year later, I was in Newgrass, by the time I was 21.
PM: And that lasted, what, 15 years?
JC: Sixteen years. continue