Many young musicians have parents who are less than supportive when artistic aspirations are announced. It’s understandable. After all, becoming a doctor, lawyer or accountant are safe career bets. Donning a guitar, writing songs and pounding on club doors for gigs? Not so much.
But Nic Cowan never had that worry. When the native Texan and transplanted Atlantan decided to get serious about his musical career, he turned to the professional musician he knew best—his dad, a drummer who regularly gigged with folk, country and jazz ensembles. As an aspiring front man and solo artist, the younger Cowan wanted dad’s ideas on what it would take to be successful. And dad, who had played behind more than a few front men—good, bad and indifferent—was more than happy to lay aside his sticks to drop some wisdom.
“He said the key is to be completely original,” Cowan recalls. “Don’t do something that people can categorize easily. You want them not to be able to put a label on you. You can be an amazing singer, amazing player, amazing songwriter, but if you sound like something that’s already out there, then you’re not going to get far.”
Cowan clearly took that advice to heart. His Southern Ground debut, Hard Headed, is winsomely crowd pleasing but unclassifiable—neatly mixing southern rock, country, soul and R&B without being hewing to any single style. Cowan’s gritty, soulful voice—redolent of whiskey, cigarettes and dues paid—completes the package, announcing the arrival of an artist ready for bigger stages.
Cowan already has played plenty of smaller stages to get there. After beginning behind a kit, in imitation of his old man, he switched to guitar in high school and immediately began seeking his own voice, playing in a punk band and even leading worship at a church for a number of years before stepping away from religion to pursue the rambling troubadour’s life.
“The second I learned how to play guitar, the moment I learned three chords, I started writing,” Cowan recalls. “The writing aspect of it was what I really got into. I decided I wanted to be a songwriter. And that’s still how I see myself—the rest of it is secondary”
Acoustic guitar in hand, Cowan joined the ranks of hopefuls haunting open mic nights, playing gigs and penning a handful of originals while juggling day jobs. Or night jobs. Or a mix of both. As he recalls, for a time he’d work a graveyard shift at UPS, then a seven-hour shift doing maintenance at an apartment complex and finally an evening performance.
Sleep? Sleep is for the weak. Or for those less hungry and hard headed.
The hard headedness—memorably captured in the album’s title track—was an asset as Cowan shrugged off disappointing gigs and kept plugging away, learning hours of cover tunes to please fickle audiences. Along the way he met Francisco Vidal a booking agent who saw promise in the guitar-slinging youngster and did his best to keep him working regularly.
It was a scene that was repeated on a larger scale later, when Vidal booked Cowan to open for the Zac Brown Band in Carrollton, GA. Before the show a friend of Cowan’s sought out Brown and asked the bandleader to check out just a few songs of his opener’s set. Brown gladly obliged. It turned out to be a banner night, with the crowd singing the hooks to Cowan’s tunes, and both artists ended the set with matching grins.
I approached him after the show, thinking I’d ask for some tips, asking what he’d do in my position,” Cowan says. “But then he said, ‘I’m going to be starting a record label and when I do, I’d love to sign you.’ Just right there.
“I was thinking I just wanted some advice but hey, we can do that too! So he got my number and I went over to his house and he asked me to play every song I’d ever written. We played for hours. Later on, we kept in contact. Five months later he signed his deal, then had his hit.”
And not too much longer, Cowan had his deal as well, and he entered a studio to turn his gritty, solo-acoustic songs into fleshed out, full-band arrangements, complete with swelling Hammond B-3, backing vocals, horns and a rock edge impossible to capture in a solo acoustic gig. Brown provides guest vocals on “Cut It Loose,” a song Cowan had originally written with him in mind.
Cowan’s songs are designed to spark a good time. Particularly in tracks like “Gutter Song,” “Wrong Side” and the title track, his bad-boy persona comes through loud and clear. But the approach is seasoned with a humorous wink, and is interspersed with heartfelt, laid-back cuts like “I Won’t Let Go” and “Reno.” While it’s sure to spark audience sing-alongs, it’s not calculated in the slightest. As Cowan sings in “New Shit”: “Let me set this straight from the start / I don’t do this so I get on the charts.”
As Cowan tells it, “Hard Headed” was written about a man’s resistance to being controlled by a lover. Despite that, it’s become a gender-spanning audience favorite. “I thought it was going to be an anthem for men everywhere, but it turns out women love this song,” he notes with a smirk. “They come up to me all the time, saying, ‘that’s my jam!’ I think at the end of the day everyone likes to think of themselves as a little bit hard headed and not easily influenced.”
It’s an attitude still carrying Cowan today. Despite the opportunity a record deal represents, he’s considered himself a success from the moment he was able to leave his day jobs (and night jobs) behind and play music full time. In fact, the building that now houses his record label and management company was once, in a prior incarnation, the prime destination for the UPS trucks he loaded. It’s a compact picture of how far his talent—and hard-headedness—has brought him already.