Regularly cited in TW's Best of Tucson issue as the readers' pick for Best Festival, the free event is a labor of love for the volunteers of the Tucson Kitchen Musicians' Association. And this year, locals won't be the only ones enjoying their efforts. Thanks to KCXI-FM, the festival goes worldwide via the Internet; folkies around the globe can tune in through the station's website, www.kxci.org. As in the past, the community radio station will broadcast the performances over the airwaves as well, at 91.3 FM, and this time they'll be live.
John Cowan, the former bassist and vocalist for New Grass Revival, headlines the festival this year. He's now fronting his own band, and has recently released a new record on the eclectic Sugar Hill label. A two-time Grammy nominee, the stunningly strong-voiced musician is touring at a number of festivals this summer in support of the album.
Back in the post-hippie '70s, the New Grass Revival, led by multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush, took a drastic departure from the way bluegrass had traditionally been played. Equally influenced by the Beatles and Bill Monroe, the band turned the genre upside down. They eschewed the suits and skinny ties worn by typical bluegrass bands at the time, favoring instead faded jeans and long hair. The Revival's bluegrass was green and smokable, and gave new meaning to the high lonesome sound. The band took the old trad style to another dimension, adding chromatic quirks that were more jazz than Appalachian.
New Grass Revival became a perennial favorite at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival from that event's earliest years, and later versions of the group saw banjo genius Bela Fleck and guitarist Pat Flynn replace original members Courtney Johnson and Curtis Birch. (After agreeing to join, Fleck reportedly deadpanned, "Does this mean I have to take drugs?") Cowan weathered the changes, playing 200 gigs a year for 16 years. By the time their single, "Callin' Baton Rouge," made the charts, the band was burned out. (Garth Brooks later covered the song, and reassembled the Revival to play on his recording.) When Fleck departed to form his Flecktones, the remaining members decided to call it quits. They played their last gig on New Year's Eve 1989, on a bill that included Bonnie Raitt and the Grateful Dead.
Cowan, newly clean and sober in 1987, admits that after the Revival he was lost. He bounced around the music business, first as a rocker à la Bad Company and Aerosmith, then worked at becoming a country music songwriter. He also spent several years touring as a member of the Doobie Brothers, and even recorded an album of soul music, entitled Soul'd Out.
Now fronting his new band, Cowan seems to have found himself. His recently released self-titled album, produced by Wendy Waldman, shows off his range, both in terms of vocal pitch and style, from a dramatic reading of Merle Haggard's "Dark as a Dungeon" to the jazz-tinged instrumental "Sligo." Several songs, including the excellent "High Above the Powerlines," the catchy "Wichita Way" and the folky "My Heart Will Follow You," have received airplay on KXCI.
Over the years, Cowan, who lives in Nashville, has played and sung as a session musician with performers such as Rodney Crowell, Wynonna, Trisha Yearwood and Vince Gill. And he remains good friends with former bandmate Bush, occasionally playing in the Sam Bush Band. He and Bush also perform as Grooveyard with dobro meister Jerry Douglas.
THE LIMELITERS, A late addition to the festival, are one of the major folk bands of the hootenanny era; the original trio of Alex Hassilev, Lou Gottlieb and Glenn Yarbrough debuted in 1959 at San Francisco's Hungry i nightclub. Since the death of Gottleib a few years ago, the Limeliters have continued under Hassiliev, with Rick Dougherty and the newest member, Bill Zorn, an ASU graduate and Phoenix resident who was a latter-day member of both the New Christy Minstrels and the Kingston Trio.
As always, the festival will feature local favorites, such as the Titan Valley Warheads, Annie Hawkins and Black Leather Zydeco, plus the ubiquitous Stefan George in at least three different incarnations. Several Phoenix musicians will do the I-10 shuffle to perform, including Mike Breen, Andy Hurlbut, Trooper and Haris Blackwood.
Cowan's band members Scott Vestal and Randy Kohrs will give free instrumental workshops on banjo and dobro, and Cowan will host a workshop on vocal technique along with Dede Wyland. The Limeliters will also offer a workshop on harmony singing on Sunday.
A special children's show begins at noon Saturday on the Main Library stage. A songwriting contest begins at the same time on the courtyard stage. And in addition to the scheduled performances, there will be song circles and lots of spontaneous picking, so feel free to bring an instrument.
Laura Love's exuberant and highly musical performances at last year's festival set a very high standard for the proceedings. If Cowan's set at MerleFest last week, which was also broadcast over the Web, is any indication, he's up to the task of carrying on the Tucson Folk Festival's legacy of high-energy entertainment.
Catch the 15th annual Tucson Folk Festival from noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, May 6 and 7, at downtown El Presidio Park, 115 N. Church Ave. Headlining the event is The John Cowan Band, performing at 9 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday. The Limeliters appear at 7 p.m. Sunday. Admission to all festival performances is free.