Keep your chairs right there, boys: John Cowan on Watson, Scruggs and Dillard

In the 70s, when John Cowan and New Grass Revival first appeared on bluegrass festival stages, some folks revolted. Some yanked their camping chairs and headed for higher, traditional music grounds. Some fans divided and picked sides, and so did some musicians. And some, Cowan said, stretched out a helping hand: Doc Watson, Doug Dillard, and Earl Scruggs.

Looking back on a spring of losses – Scruggs passed away in March this year and Watson and Dillard followed in May – one of the original bluegrass outlaws, John Cowan, recalls what these three men had in common, and how they’ll forever keep Cowan from becoming an old curmudgeon.

IN HIS OWN WORDS | JOHN COWAN

“The thing I can tell you about all three of those people: the thing that they all had in common … they were innovators.

“Early on in the ‘70s, in the New Grass Revival days, there was this big gigantic chasm between the old guys, who kind of owned the baseball league that we were all playing in. They owned the genre so to speak: the Bill Monroes and the Ralph Stanleys and people like that.

“And they behaved in a certain way, in other words, for some reason, bands like ourselves – and there were other people like ourselves – really threatened them, and they came at it from a point of fear. … They condemned us, they said we were drug addicts, we were ruining the music.

“Now here’s what’s curious. They weren’t the only ones operating in that genre.

“You also had Doc and Merle, who were very well known, who were very popular. You had Earl Scruggs, who was very well known, who was one of the creators of the genre of bluegrass.

“And then you had Doug Dillard, who was probably 10 or 15 years older than us. And here’s what they all did: Instead of taking the tack that most people their age had done, which was [to say, in one form or the other] ‘you’re ruining our music, stop it, get out of here.’

“Doc and Merle, Earl and Doug Dillard, each person, each one of them in their own way, came to us and said, ‘we think you’re really talented, we think you’re good kids and we will support you however we can; you can play shows with us, we’ll support you in the press we’ll tell people that what they’re doing is the right thing and we approve of this.’

“So they all gave us their stamp of approval in one form or another. They were all supportive at a time when we really needed it.

“When I first joined the band, there so much disharmony and discontent in the world of bluegrass that people wouldn’t hire us.

“At one point Bill Monroe told some promoters that if they hired us he wouldn’t play the festival, so they wouldn’t hire us. And it’s one thing to be critical of somebody; it’s another thing to take food off their table.

“All three of those gentlemen, stood up and said, ‘no that’s wrong, that’s not right. They’re not doing anything wrong, they’re just expressing themselves.’

“How does it affect me today? I try not to be old and curmodgeony. When I hear some band that’s young and successful, and I don’t particularly like what they do, I keep my mouth shut and let it go and realize every young artist has their time and place and it doesn’t really matter what I think.

John Cowan performs at The Rooster’s Wife Saturday, June 16 at 8 pm and Sunday June 17 at 6:46 pm.  Tune in to his new radio show, “I Believe to My Soul,”inspired, Cowan says, by the television program, Inside The Actor’s Studio. Cowan is currently touring with the Doobie Brothers, who will play the Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion in Raleigh August 5.

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