New Grass Revival

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New Grass Revival
Classic (1972–1981) line-up of the band: Sam Bush, Curtis Burch, John Cowan, Courtney Johnson.
Classic (1972–1981) line-up of the band: Sam Bush, Curtis Burch, John Cowan, Courtney Johnson.
Background information
OriginLouisville, Kentucky, United States
Years active1971 (1971)–1989 (1989) (one-off reunions: 1993, 1996, 1997, 2007)
LabelsStarday, Flying Fish, Rounder, Sugar Hill, Capitol, Liberty
Past membersSam Bush
Courtney Johnson
Ebo Walker
Curtis Burch
Butch Robins
John Cowan
Béla Fleck
Pat Flynn

New Grass Revival was an American progressive bluegrass band founded in 1971, and composed of Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker, Curtis Burch, Butch Robins, John Cowan, Béla Fleck and Pat Flynn. They were active between 1971 and 1989, releasing more than twenty albums as well as six singles. Their highest-charting single is "Callin' Baton Rouge", which peaked at No. 37 on the U.S. country charts in 1989 and was a Top 5 country hit for Garth Brooks five years later.

In 2020, the group were inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.[1]


The origins of New Grass Revival lay in the Bluegrass Alliance, which Sam Bush (vocals, fiddle, guitar, mandolin) and Courtney Johnson (banjo, vocals) joined in 1970.[2] At the time, the Alliance also featured bassist Ebo Walker and fiddler Lonnie Peerce.[2] Following this, Curtis Burch (dobro, guitar, vocals) joined the band, whilst in 1972, Peerce left the band, but the remaining members decided to continue under the new name New Grass Revival.[2] The band released their debut album, The Arrival of the New Grass Revival, later in 1972 on Starday Records.[3]


Separation from mainstream bluegrass[edit]

The New Grass Revival bucked tradition, with long hair, informal clothing, and performances of songs from a variety of genres, including music by Jerry Lee Lewis ("Great Balls of Fire"), the Beatles ("Get Back"; "I'm Down"), and Bob Marley ("One Love/People Get Ready"), plus protest songs ("One Tin Soldier"). This break from bluegrass tradition was not well received in some quarters—some thought it was not the way Bill Monroe meant for bluegrass to be played.[4] "Our reason for doing the newer-type music wasn't pretentious or irreverent or sarcastic or disrespectful," explained Curtis Burch. "We just felt like people were ready to see that you could really expand the sound, using those same instruments."[5] In 1979, they became the backup group and opening act for Leon Russell.[3]

First line-up (1972–1981)[edit]

After the release of their debut, Walker left and was replaced by Butch Robins, who was with the band from July 1973 to November 1974.[2] He was replaced by John Cowan, an Evansville, Indiana, native.[2] This line-up was stable throughout the 1970s, recording albums on Flying Fish Records.[2] New Grass Revival never played traditional bluegrass — all of the members brought elements of rock and roll, jazz, and blues to the group's sound.[3] Consequently, certain portions of the bluegrass community scorned them, but they also gained a devoted following of listeners.

Second line-up (1981–1989)[edit]

In 1981, Johnson and Burch left the band being tired of touring.[2] Bush and Cowan continued the group, replacing them with virtuoso banjoist Béla Fleck and guitarist Pat Flynn.[2] Fleck's compositions such as "Metric Lips", "Seven by Seven" and "Big Foot" were well received as were Pat Flynn's "Do What You Gotta Do", "Lonely Rider" and "On The Boulevard". Pat Flynn also brought strong lead and harmony vocals to the group as well as a distinctive guitar style.

In 1984, the group moved to Sugar Hill Records, and released their first album featuring the new line-up, On the Boulevard.[3] In 1986, the band signed with EMI Records and released an eponymous album, which proved to be their breakthrough into the mainstream.[2] Two of the singles from the album, "What You Do to Me" and "Ain't That Peculiar", were minor hits on the country chart, and Fleck's showcase "Seven by Seven" was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental.[2] Hold to a Dream, released in 1987 contained hit singles including "Unconditional Love" and "Can't Stop Now."[2]

In 1989, New Grass Revival released their third major-label album, Friday Night in America, which was another commercial success.[2] "Callin' Baton Rouge" became their first Top 40 single, followed by the number 58 hit "You Plant Your Fields." Even though the band was more popular than ever, Bush decided to pull the plug on the group after the release of Friday Night in America.[2] Bush formed The Sam Bush Band, and Fleck went on to a successful and respected solo career.

New Grass Revival reunion at beneficial concert for Courtney Johnson in 1996. From left: Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Curtis Burch.

After break-up[edit]

In 1993, Bush, Cowan, Fleck, and Flynn returned to the studio, to back Garth Brooks, on his recording of "Callin' Baton Rouge".

Banjoist Courtney Johnson died of lung cancer in 1996 at age 56.[6] Bush, Fleck, Cowan, and Burch reunited for one concert (September 24, 1996) at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee to benefit his widow.[7] The concert included a number of musicians and groups, such as John Hartford, Hot Rize, Tim O'Brien, Vassar Clements, Del McCoury Band, Ricky Skaggs, Pete Rowan, Jerry Douglas and others.[7]

In 1997, when Garth Brooks was invited on Late Night with Conan O'Brien to perform "Do What You Gotta Do", a song written by Pat Flynn, he asked Flynn, Bush, Cowan, and Fleck to join him in performing it. Since that performance, Flynn has worked with both Cowan and Fleck, but not Bush. Likewise, Bush has also worked with Cowan and Fleck on numerous occasions. Bush and Cowan have also played with Burch.

In April 2007, Bush, Fleck, Cowan, and Flynn stepped into the spotlight together during the Merlefest 20th Anniversary Jam and played the Townes Van Zandt song "White Freight Liner."[2] The single-song reunion was the first time the four of them had played together in a decade.

Sam Bush, John Cowan and Curtis Burch performed with their own groups on the world's first International Newgrass Festival 21–23 August 2009 at Ballance Motox, Kentucky.[8]



  • Sam Bush - mandolin, fiddle, guitar, vocals
  • Curtis Burch - guitar, Dobro, vocals
  • Courtney Johnson - banjo, guitar, vocals
  • Ebo Walker - acoustic bass, vocals




1996 reunion[edit]

(Benefit concert for Courtney Johnson)



  1. ^ "2020 winners of the International Bluegrass Music Awards". 2 October 2020. Retrieved August 8, 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "New Grass Revival | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved August 8, 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d Colin Larkin, ed. (1993). The Guinness Who's Who of Country Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 288. ISBN 0-85112-726-6.
  4. ^ Cooper, Peter (September 28, 2010). "Sam Bush ponders state of bluegrass ahead of IBMA awards". The Tennessean. Retrieved 6 December 2013.
  5. ^ Price, Leslie Blake (2011). "Bluegrass Nation: A Historical and Cultural Analysis of America's Truest Music". Chancellor's Honors Program Projects. University of Tennessee Honors Thesis Projects: 38. Retrieved 6 December 2013.
  6. ^ "Courtney Johnson -- obituary". Retrieved August 8, 2021.
  7. ^ a b "A Bluegrass Tribute to Courtney Johnson". 23 July 2012. Archived from the original on 2012-07-23. Retrieved August 8, 2021.
  8. ^ "International Newgrass Festival". 8 February 2011. Archived from the original on 2011-02-08. Retrieved August 8, 2021.
  9. ^ a b c d "New Grass Revival". 18 May 2011. Archived from the original on 2011-05-18. Retrieved August 8, 2021.

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