John Lowell is not only a fine songwriter (his tune “Richmond” recently won the 2021 Hazel Dickens Songwriting Contest), he’s also a consummate guitarist and a gifted singer, with an easy-on-the-ears baritone.
His new recording, She’s Leaving Cheyenne, showcases all those qualities in a heartfelt tribute to the West – its landscape, romance and music. “I have a love affair with the American West,” he writes. He crafted this recording of favorite western and cowboy songs during the pandemic-forged isolation to “feed my creative side.”
The title tune is the lament of a heartbroken cowpoke who rides “where the meadowlarks warble in the sage” and croons, “there’s nothing so cold as a Wyoming winter, except for a girl who would betray a young man.”
Grab a partner and head to the dance floor (or the kitchen floor) for the sprightly Bob Wills-ish swing tune, “Cowboy Moon,” written by Dave Stamey. “The best way to end the day is riding ‘neath the cowboy moon.”
Lowell reunites with members of Kane’s River on Woodie Guthrie’s “Philadelphia Lawyer.” The crew, which includes fleet-fingered Julie Elkins on banjo, Jason Thomas on fiddle, David Thompson on bass and Ben Winship on mandolin, still clicks.
Surprises include Bela Fleck’s “Big Country,” which reminded Lowell of a theme song for an old western movie. He pulls in other top-notch players on this intricate instrumental: Kevin Fabozzi, mandocello; Tom Murphy, mandolin; and Ben Somers, bass.
Lowell’s popular original “Sarah Hogan,” an ode to “the sweetest flower on the prairie,” has been recorded over 14 times (twice by the songwriter). The sad tale gets a makeover here with cowboy poet Randy Rieman reciting the song/story as a poem, while Lowell traces the words on guitar and Winship adds some plaintive harmonica licks.
Other originals include the galloping “Snake Pistol,” the tragic true tale of “Belgian Jenny” (co-written with Tim Stafford), and the yearning lament of Scottish transplant Angus MacKenzie. Lowell is a natural storyteller, and these songs capture characters tough enough to carve a living during winters “when I feel like I’m frozen inside” or die trying.
He aptly wraps up this homage to the West with the pretty tune made famous 60 years ago by Eddy Arnold, “Carry Me Back to the Lone Prairie.”
Lowell, who lives in southwestern Montana, has been an integral part of several bands including Wheel Hoss, Kane’s River and Loose Ties, and a duo with Ben Winship, Growling Old Men. He’s also toured Europe with the John Lowell Band and is a sought-after guitar, voice and songwriting teacher and graduate of Leadership Bluegrass.
Bill Payne, a legendary keyboardist and founder of Little Feat, calls him “a man at ease with himself,” whose “abilities as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and human being are inseparable.” Lowell’s latest album is a testament to his talent and authenticity.
Learn more or order a copy onliine.
– Kristi Niemeyer