Friday, December 4, 2009

John Cowan and Sierra Hull at Heritage Museum, Lexington, MA

The John Cowan Band and Sierra Hull will be performing at the Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA on Saturday, December 12 under the auspices of the Boston Bluegrass Union. BBU has advertised the event as having Sierra open for Cowan with the Cowan band serving as her back-up band. This opening set will feature Sierra Hull playing her music, perhaps from her CD “Secrets” with Cowan singing with her. Cowan is then scheduled to present his Christmas program featuring material from his newly released Christmas CD “Comfort and Joy,” which, according to him has had a strong response from traditional Cowan fans as well as people less familiar with his music. He will also include material from his lengthy catalog, which begins with his emergence as a key member of the New Grass Revival during the seventies. Sierra Hull has recently enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and the BBU sees this event as a welcoming to New England for the talented and much heralded young mandolin player. The event should stand as a delightful ushering in of the Christmas season and welcoming for Sierra Hull.

Sierra Hull

Sierra Hull emerged as a member of the group of extraordinarily talented young mandolin players now on the scene when she was about thirteen years old.  A small, slip of a girl from Byrdstown, TN, she was already a seasoned bluegrass player with wins at mandolin and guitar contests and soon her own touring band, Sierra Hull & Highway 111, which currently features hot young pickers Clay Hess on guitar and Cory Walker on banjo.  Her debut album, Secrets, featuring such pickers as Ron Block, Jerry Douglas, Barry Bales, Stuart Duncan, Jim Van Cleve, as well as Clay Hess and Cory Walker, both of whom perform in her band, and others. 

This fall, after giving thoughtful consideration to her future, Sierra decided to enroll at Berklee College of Music while continuing to tour with her band where possible. Berklee represents an interesting choice because of the large number of hot, young, progressive bluegrass musicians who have been graduating from there and the obvious support for acoustic roots and bluegrass music that has emerged in its programs.  The statement of purpose on Berklee's web site says it "...was founded on the revolutionary principle that the best way to prepare students for careers in music is through study and practice of contemporary music."  The program has "...evolved to reflect the state of the art of music and the music business."

In a phone conversation a few moments after returning to school from a death in the family, Sierra reflected on her first semester at Berklee.  While Sierra comes to Berklee with extensive performance experience in bluegrass and having had numerous successes as a featured performer on the mandolin, and guitar, as well as singing her own material, she was very open in saying her grasp of theory is considerably lighter than her performance record would suggest.  Her first semester has been extremely busy as she continued to fullfill her prior commitments by performing around the country on weekends and returning to school for classes during the week.  This busy schedule has interfered with her capacity to adjust to the College and to Boston, so she looks forward to her second semester as a chance to settle in.  She discussed her realization of the vast amount of knowledge others come to Berklee with that she hasn't encountered before.  She seemed less aware of how the experiences and perspectives she brings with her as she embarks on this new adventure will affect others on the campus.  It will surely be interesting to follow Sierra Hull through the next few years as this traditionally developed bluegrass musicians grows and matures in Berklee's soup of progressive musicians and instructors.  Her performance with the storied John Cowan suggests there will be lots to see.

Sierra Playing at 2009 IBMA Awards

At Merlefest 2009

The John Cowan Band

John Cowan has been a noted and creative voice within and outside bluegrass music since he emerged as lead singer for the New Grass Revival in the early seventies, just after that fabled bands first release.  The story goes that Sam Bush, NGR's founder, arrived at an audition to hear John's powerful tenor voice and immediately commented that the role of lead singer was no longer his.  During the following eighteen or so years, NGR changed the face of bluegrass, bringing influences of rock and roll, both musically and culturally, into the music.  As with other second generation groups like The Seldom Scene, The Country Gentlemen, much NGR's work went from being revolutionary to being part of the genre's standard repertoire.  John Cowan was in the center of this movement.

John Cowan

With his piercing blue eyes, impish grin, and striking blonde hair, Cowan still is at the forefront of Americana music.  He has been a genre buster from the start.  After the breakup of the New Grass Revival, he toured with rock band The Doobie Brothers for a time before continuing to follow his own muse.  Since the formation of The John Cowan Band in the in the early part of the 21st century, Cowan has merged his bluegrass and newgrass roots with those of his R&B singing and remarkable rock bass playing.  He has surrounded himself with a first rate band of acoustic players and continued to create new music while also singing older material for which he is known and loved.  At age 56, Cowan says he stays in shape with a daily regimen of swimming at least a mile while tending to home and family. His current tour is in support of his new Christmas CD Comfort and Joy for which he says producer Walter Carter wrote a series of wonderful arrangements. 

Jeff Autry

Shad Cobb

John Frazier

Bryan Larrance 

The band provides John with the sort of very strong support he wants.  He pointed out that out of consideration for the audience at this event, drummer Larrance would most likely be playing the Cajon, an Afro/Peruvian instrument, which has recently gained some acceptance in the bluegrass world, rather than the drum kit.

John Cowan


The John Cowan Band and Sierra Hull will appear at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA on Saturday evening, December 12th as part of the Boston Bluegrass Union Concert Series.  Tickets may be purchased here, or at the door at $22.00 for BBU members and $25.00 for non members.  The National Heritage Museum is located at 33 Marrett Road (Route 2A), Lexington, MA 021421:

The venue is quite pleasant with comfortable seating and excellent sound.  If you come, please take time during intermission to say hello to Irene and me.  See you there.