His hair and beard were long and white. No, Leon Russell was not Santa Claus, but he gifted the world with a lifetime of indelible music.
John Cowan, a musical wiz in his own right, while with New Grass Revival recorded and toured with the late Leon Russell. Now, with Andrea Zonn, Cowan leads The HercuLeons to the famed Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee on New Year’s Eve.
“We’ve been calling it Appalachian soul music,” Cowan said of The HercuLeons’ style. “When we first started this band, I saw that there was Herculean talent. We destroyed it.”
Cowan sings and plays bass. Andrea Zonn sings and plays fiddle. Given Cowan’s past with the mighty Leon Russell, the name The HercuLeons seemed appropriate.
“It was a strange and wonderful combination,” Cowan said of when New Grass Revival collaborated with Russell, who was known as rock’s master of space and time.
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“Leon was one of my absolute idols,” Cowan said. “For me, it took me about a year to get over the fact that I was standing on stage with Leon Russell. I’m 69. I was 25, 26 when we joined up with him. He was actually at the peak of his power.”
Now, The HercuLeons do not classify as a band in tribute of Leon Russell. They may not play any of his songs. However, the raging and widely roving musical spirit of Leon Russell does permeate the band’s pores.
“We’ve been working on a record,” Andrea Zonn, fresh from her worldwide tour as a member of James Taylor’s band, said. “We’re gonna do a whole lot of stuff off the record. Some of it is original. We’ve got a Lowell George song. We’ve got a John Sebastian song.”
Several lifetimes of music will muscle its way into The HercuLeons’ Down Home debut.
“We’re a fun little six-piece band,” Zonn said. “We’ll do some from John’s catalog. We’ll do some from my catalog. Some New Grass Revival, too. It’s our edgier side.”
Cowan knows edgy music. A powerhouse vocalist whose voice seemingly knows no boundaries, Cowan’s ventured into the bluest of bluegrass waters, embraced the lightning of progressive bluegrass, beaten the drums of rock ‘n’ roll, sizzled with soul, and well, he’s recorded country music, too.
Whew! Right? Oh, yeah, and Cowan’s also a member of rock’s Doobie Brothers.
“I just finished a week with the Doobie Brothers in California,” Cowan said. “It’s very gratifying. It’s coming up on 50 years of music. I’m clearly a really blessed person. God gifted me with a voice. Honestly, I try to not take myself too seriously.”
Then there’s Zonn. She’s toured with Vince Gill and Lyle Lovett. She’s recorded with Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Amy Grant, Neil Diamond, Keb’ Mo’ and more.
For 20 years, she’s toured as a member of James Taylor’s band.
“James Taylor, when I started with him, I joined mid-tour,” Zonn said. “We had a little gathering at James’ house in Massachusetts.”
James Taylor, the singer of such classics as “Fire and Rain” and “How Sweet it Is,” made dinner.
“He said, ‘I’ve invited Yo-Yo Ma tonight,’” Zonn said. “I cried. I was so overwhelmed. This year, 2022, was sort of the year of yes, we can. With James, the James Taylor group, we traveled all over the United States, Canada, Europe. After COVID, it was affirmation that, yes, we can go on. It’s triumphant.”
For now, and going into the new year, Cowan and Zonn maintain high hopes for The HercuLeons. Cowan tours with the Doobie Brothers and on his own. Zonn tours with James Taylor and maintains a vigorous recording schedule. When possible, more HercuLeons dates and a record are forthcoming.
The HercuLeons represent a muse and dream shared by Cowan and Zonn. And for now, their show at the Down Home classifies as a rarity.
“New Grass Revival is my calling card. It always will be,” Cowan said. “But I’m still holding on to a dream.
If You Go
Who: New Year’s Eve with The HercuLeons featuring John Cowan and Andrea Zonn
When: Saturday, Dec. 31, 9 p.m.
Where: Down Home, 300 W. Main St., Johnson City
Web, audio and video: www.johncowan.com
Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.