Ok next in our series of progressive bluegrass-rooted musicians who helped to crete a new form of music from the 70’s to the present. Peter Rowan. He wasn’t in Country Cooking but he was in Muleskinner and I always meant to do a post on him. But what to say? To call him the best living singer in bluegrass would be a contentious but undeniable statement. Besides that he’s a solid instrumentalist and a fantastic songwriter. The song ‘Land of the Navajo’ should go down in history as one of the most moving looks at the encounter between white people and Native Americans. I can’t count the number of times it’s brought me to tears. Others of his songs have gone on to become staples of the Americana genre. And like all these other artists, he’s never stuck in a rut – always turning his musical itch to new sounds and cultures, from Tex-Mex to Folk to Flamenco to Reggae, he has certainly ventured far afield from the azure grassy fields of home. And once again, he makes it all sound natural. His every lyric and turn of phrase, his every vocal crack and quiver, each perfectly placed to match the draw of the song. And there is always a tint of heartache that colors each otherwise upbeat song, like the genuine heart of sadness that dwells within even the smiling giddy child. It is an ancient, universal heartbreak – an essential though unrecognized part of being human. And he sings this part to life, coaxes it out of the darkness and lets it speak. I don’t just mean through his justly placed minor and diminished chords – it comes through every high straining moan and vocal inflection. Through this music, one hears, seemingly for the first time, an aching sorrow that has travelled in one’s shadow all life long. And through the beauty of Peter’s mournful clarion call and Richard Greene’s incomprehensibly lifelike fiddle, one learns to walk side-by-side with this shadow, and maybe even do a Spanish halfstep with it.
Grammy-award winner and five-time Grammy nominee, Peter Rowan is a bluegrass singer-songwriter with a career spanning over five decades. From his early years playing under the tutelage of bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, and following his stint in Old & In the Way with Jerry Garcia and subsequent breakout as both a solo performer and bandleader, Rowan has built a devoted, international fan base through his continuous stream of original recordings, collaborative projects, and constant touring.
Born in Wayland, Massachusetts to a musical family, Rowan first learned to play guitar from his uncle. He spent his teenage years absorbing the sights and sounds of the Boston music scene, playing bluegrass at the Hillbilly Ranch and discovering folk and blues across the Charles River at the legendary Club 47 on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge. “I could sit in with the Lilly Brothers at the Hillbilly Ranch and then catch the MTA and be in time for Joan Baez’s last set at the Club 47. Bluegrass appealed to me. It was callin’ me—the harmonies, that high and lonesome calling-sound. Don Stover had played banjo with Bill Monroe, fiddler Tex Logan too, before they joined the Lillys. Mandolinist Joe Val taught me all the Blue Sky Boys and the Louvin Brothers songs. I would play a “sock-hop” with my rockin’ group, The Cupids, and then make a beeline for the clubs. Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, Josh White, Muddy Waters- they all came to town! “
Following three years in college, Rowan left academia to pursue a life in music. Rowan began his professional career in 1964 as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys, living in Nashville and playing with Monroe on the Grand Ol’ Opry every week. “One thing I liked about the Monroe style was that there was a lot more blues in it than other styles of bluegrass,” reflects Rowan. “It was darker. It had more of an edge to it. And yet it still had the ballad tradition in it, and I loved that.” Rowan stayed with Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, touring constantly both in the United States and in England, for two and a half years. ” We went from old-timey places way down south to the colleges up north, we played to all ages, long-time fans of Bluegrass and the college kids my own age.”
The late ’60s and early 70’s saw Rowan collaborating with musical compatriots in a number of rock, folk and bluegrass combinations: Earth Opera with David Grisman, Sea Train with fiddler Richard Greene (himself a graduate of Monroe’s band) Muleskinner with both Grisman and Greene, former Bluegrass Boy banjoist Bill Keith and the great Clarence White. From the ashes of Muleskinner, Rowan and Grisman went on to join Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements, and John Kahn, forming the legendary bluegrass band Old & In the Way. It was during this time that Rowan penned the song “Panama Red,” a subsequent hit for the New Riders of the Purple Sage and a classic ever since. Other time-honored compositions by Rowan include ” Moonlight Midnight”, ” In The Land of the Navajo” and “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy”. Jerry Garcia himself recorded Rowan’s “Moonlight Midnight” and the haunting “Mississippi Moon”. The 1970’s also saw Peter Rowan playing and recording alongside brothers Chris and Lorin Rowan as the The Rowan Brothers. Their three albums for Elektra-Asylum featured original songs highlighted by the three siblings soaring harmonies.
Rowan subsequently embarked on a well-received solo career in 1978, releasing such critically acclaimed records as Dustbowl Children (a Woody Guthrie style song cycle about humanity’s spirituality in relationship to the earth), Yonder (a record of old-time country songs and Rowan originals in collaboration with ace dobro player, Jerry Douglas) and two extraordinarily fine bluegrass albums, The First Whippoorwill and Bluegrass Boy, as well as High Lonesome Cowboy, a recording of traditional old-time cowboy songs with Don Edwards and guitarist Norman Blake. Rowan’s recent releases- Reggaebilly, a wonderful blend of reggae and bluegrass and Quartet, a recording with the phenomenal Tony Rice, coupled with a relentless touring schedule have further endeared Peter Rowan to audiences around the world.
On the road, Rowan performs internationally as a solo singer-songwriter, while stateside he plays in three bands: the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, a quartet featuring Jody Stecher, Keith Little, and Paul Knight; The Peter Rowan & Tony Rice Quartet; and his rocking band, The Free Mexican Air Force.
A major cult figure among progressive bluegrass aficionados, Peter Rowan participated in a number of adventurous projects in the late ’60s and ’70s before embarking on a highly productive solo career. Primarily a guitarist, Rowan also sang, yodeled, and played various members of the mandolin family. He was born in 1942 and grew up in Wayland, MA, near Boston; his parents and several relatives were musicians, and he and his brothers Chris and Lorin grew up playing both rock and bluegrass together. Rowan also formed a Tex-Mex band called the Cupids in high school, and after college he sang and played mandolin in the folk group the Mother Bay State Entertainers, whom he joined in 1963. He also played with Jim Rooney and Bill Keith, and in 1964 he joined Bill Monroe’s legendary Blue Grass Boys as a vocalist and guitarist. He departed in 1967 to team up with mandolin virtuoso David Grisman in the eclectic, progressive-minded folk-rock band Earth Opera, who released two albums and often opened for the Doors. Rowan next moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and joined Seatrain, a bluegrass/rock hybrid outfit. He appeared on two albums over 1970-1971, then left to play with Jerry Garcia and Grisman in the bluegrass group Old & in the Way, also joining Grisman in Muleskinner.
In 1975, Rowan teamed with his brothers Chris and Lorin in the progressive bluegrass unit the Rowans, who released several acclaimed albums over the next few years. Rowan also performed with Flaco Jimenez in Mexican Airforce and issued his first two solo albums — 1978’s Peter Rowan and 1980’s Medicine Trail — on Flying Fish. He issued the Tex-Mex project Texican Badman on Appaloosa in 1981 as well as an album with his Nashville-based group, the Wild Stallions. 1982 brought The Walls of Time, the first in a long string of albums for the Sugar Hill label that lasted well into the ’90s. Among the more notable, 1985’s The First Whippoorwill was an affectionate tribute to Monroe, while 1988’s New Moon Rising became the signature album of Rowan’s solo career, featuring some of his most popular material. 1990’s Dust Bowl Children was a completely solo performance, while 1991’s All on a Rising Day continued his creative hot streak. Several more albums followed through 1996, including one, 1994’s Tree on a Hill, that reunited him with Chris and Lorin; another, 1996’s Yonder, paired him with dobro king Jerry Douglas for a set of duets. Rowan took a break from his solo career for a few years but continued to guest on albums by other artists, including the Czech folk group Druha Trava. He returned in 2002 with High Lonesome Cowboy, a collaborative effort with Don Edwards for Shanachie that also featured Tony Rice and Norman Blake. In 2004 Rowan released You Were There for Me, a long overdue collaboration with Tony Rice that resulted in another successful recording session in 2006 called Quartet. The Best of the Sugar Hill Years compilation followed in 2007.
Peter Rowan is a bluegrass living legend, lighting up the stage for over four decades as an evocative singer, propulsive guitarist and rock steady mandolin player. His countless musical explorations have led him through rock, folk, country and even reggae music. He was one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, formed a rock band with David Grisman that opened for The Doors in the late ’60s and joined Old and In the Way with Jerry Garcia to get back to their bluegrass roots.
Rowan’s recent travels brought him through Chapel Hill, North Carolina with an acoustic quartet featuring famed guitarist Tony Rice. JamBase sat down with Rowan before his concert for a wide-ranging conversation on politics, war, Garcia, Michael Franti and music as a healing force in the world.
JamBase: You’ve been playing with Tony Rice for a long time and decided to turn it into a quartet. What led to that decision?
Peter Rowan: About six or seven years ago [we] started being asked by different festivals to do workshops. I had known Tony for some years but we’d never really played together. He’d always had his own band and played with the David Grisman Quintet. People had told me Tony’s approach was that he had to hear music a lot before he figured out how he would play on it. And I thought, “Well that doesn’t sound like the Tony that I’m playing with.” Because I would just write new songs and he would jump right in and find a part and work on it.
I think the timing was right for us to do these things together. We were both in between projects and there began to be a call for what we were doing. So, I enlisted some young players from Texas that I knew to come out and play bass and mandolin with us and it was pretty cool, and it’s developed since then to be more of a quartet thing. We’ve done two albums. The first one’s called You Were There For Me. It was recorded right around the 9/11 time. It kind of has a melancholy feel. The new one is a little more hard driving. It’s called Quartet [released January 23, 2007 on Rounder]. It features all the people we’ve been playing with.
JamBase: 9/11 was a Tuesday and that’s the day records usually get released. Was it among that batch?
Peter Rowan: No, the writing was being done around that time and the time leading up to it, the year before. Just a sense in the world of a deep, deep melancholy and sadness and then, of course, [it] all broke out in the 9/11 thing. What I was writing during those times [had] a sense of foreboding and melancholy. I wrote a song called “Shirt Off My Back.” To me anyway, I relate it to this sense of malaise and melancholy that was in the air leading up to 9/11.
I was living in New York until two months before and someone said, “I feel spooky. I feel like something’s going to happen.”
It’s still reaction time. I wrote this song called “Skyscraper” in Alaska that summer. [Starts singing] “Skyscraper, skyscraper, there’s a hole in your sky. Skyscraper, skyscraper, let me rest in your shadow, rest in your shadow before I die.”
What made you think of skyscrapers in the middle of Alaska?
I was in the middle of Alaska on the river and I was just laughing crazily because it was such strong nature, such strong country, that the opposite image came in my mind. I looked at a tall tree and I went “Skyscraper, skyscraper.” It was one of those things that just came out. So that happened before 9/11 and all the lyrics of that song are about what’s inside a building and its disappearance. Strange, I don’t know.
Can your music bring people together and help with this sense of melancholy?
I don’t seem to play in a militant style that’s trying to shake the foundations of the empire. I wouldn’t know how to describe it. I just write songs about what I see and hear and people I know. I don’t have an agenda really. I think music is a healing force and it helps people. It certainly stirs them up but you never know what people bring to the music, you know? It used to be, when I was a kid, people would go to rock & roll shows and there’d always be these gang rumbles afterwards. But I wasn’t in a gang. I just liked the music. So, it’s different people, it’s what they bring to the situation.
I have a full-scale reggae band with up to nine pieces, and when we play it’s like a gathering of the vibes. That kind of brings the people in because lyrically it’s kind of anthemic and spiritual. The lyrics are like, “Fetch wood, carry water, pull the Devil by the tail.” It’s kind of teasing and with that presentation, that kind of beat, and that kind of sound, it’s more body music. People get hit in their bodies. They move to it, they stand up, they dance. But what I’m doing in acoustic music right now is not based on drums. It’s based on acoustic guitars and rhythms that have developed in bluegrass music, and it’s a different thing. Just the pure facility that Tony Rice has on the guitar, the brilliance and the genius, just frees me up so I can sing with a full voice and not feel like I have to drag the band along with my rhythm guitar playing. So it’s a different situation.
Our new bass player is going to be with us tonight. Catherine Popper was working with Ryan Adams and she said the bigger he got, the louder he got, the harder it was to play music anymore. And Sharon [Gilchrist], my mandolin player, and I just played with Yonder Mountain String Band and [when] we got off stage we looked at each other. It was like, “I was just acting. What were you doing?” I don’t know, I couldn’t hear a thing so I was acting like I was playing and playing notes and things but it wasn’t music because it wasn’t a musical experience. It was just a lot of people making a lot of noise and a big crowd of people making more noise.
That’s the kind of success that happens when you start playing these venues, and you deal with it however you deal with it. The band, they’ve got their thing together. They’ve got their in-ear microphones and everything. But for us, it comes down simply to an acoustic instrument over a microphone, and it really keeps you honest from a musical point of view ’cause we’re just going to be playing whatever sound we can make from the instrument. There’s nothing plugged in. I don’t feel like it makes us better. It does keep you from getting too caught up in a sense – it keeps you from being too successful actually is what I could say [laughs].
If you can spread joy that sort of takes on its own political meaning.
Yeah. The people feel the joy inside themselves. The music is just a little key into the locks of the people’s hearts. It makes them feel good, have a good time. Then there’s an artist like Michael Franti who is overtly political and the music is a world-beat kind of sound. Well, the audience isn’t pondering his words but they’re just sort of rocking out dancing. And I don’t know if those people are conservative or liberal, they could be anything. And he says some sort of political thing and everybody gives a big cheer but what it means ultimately I don’t think you can say. They’re just having a good time. Republicans will dance to the same music [laughs]. It’s all a theatrical display, you know? You never know the motivations.
Franti’s actually out there doing more than a lot of folks to organize.
No, that’s a great band. His drummer Manas [Itene] is the best guy on that stand. I mean he is really good. I just tried to get him for a recording session but unfortunately he was on tour. He’s played with my reggae band before. He’s the major guy in that band. He’s a very powerful guy.
A lot of the musicians from Africa really have a thing. I’ve been listening to Ali Farka Toure. He has a record called Savane – King of the Desert Blues. African music has such a strong spirit to it, especially with these individual artists. But then you look at the liner notes, you realize, wait a minute, there were a lot of overdubs done in Paris. So it’s a French connection. Oh, it was a French colony. Oh, okay. It’s very clever with what they’re doing with what the world music market is, but you’ve got to love it for what it is.
It’s the same in Jamaica. A lot of those guys get their backing from somebody in England because if you’re Jamaican you can live in England because it’s a former British colony.
So it’s the time of reciprocal colonization from all these former empires, and the music reflects that, comes back and forth. The British in Jamaica put in a whole school system. It was the educational system that gave rise to the first generation of great horn players and studio musicians. The ska players, they were all educated in the British school system, and, in fact, if you wanted to learn a trade, music was part of a trade school. So here’s a colonization of a country that gives them what they thought was the best of the imperial educational system and it gave rise to reggae music, which always ended up talking about slavery and anti-colonialism. It’s weird, man.
Everything is colonization. You work in a restaurant in San Francisco and you go in the kitchen and you make a dessert from Charleston, South Carolina and people are loving it, right? It’s the importation of ideas. Music, because it’s so fluid, is a great place for the importation of ideas. Music is feelings. You don’t have to really pin it down very much. It’s just a vibe. I think the challenge is [deciding] what feeling you’re going [for]. Are you going to form a band that’s like a Neville Brothers band and just up the dance part of the show? Or are you going to have a subtler band with hand percussion and more of a mystical kind of sound? A lot of ways to go in music.
Someone like yourself, who could call on a lot of people to play with, it must be hard to decide.
Oh yeah, that’s all I do is I just go, “Hmmm, whom in my galaxy of musical heroes can I pick now?”
Is there anyone left that you haven’t played with that you really want to?
To me, it’s always back to the drawing board. A thing comes up in me that I have to let out. It can be any kind of subject. It can be political. I wrote a song about these Iraqi kids fleeing the bombing of Baghdad and this American soldier who sees them coming across the desert like a mirage. His captain tells him, “Lock, load and fire when ready,” and he’s like, “Oh shit.” There are kids on a camel and he has a split second to decide whether these guys are suicide bombers or kids. So there’s this suspense in the song, and finally he takes the chance. He doesn’t kill them, he doesn’t shoot them, and they come riding through on this crazed camel and that’s the comedic part of it. That’s political, but it’s political from the point of view that we understand the human dilemma. Unfortunately the real dilemma is now – that was written three years ago – and now the dilemma is so much more. Nobody knows who to trust. Everything’s blowing up.
I did see something interesting. I think for the first time on the front page of the New York Times they showed a body. It was the other day. They showed a guy, a suicide bomber. He was still in the car but they showed it. It was shocking. We haven’t seen them. During the Vietnam War, they showed you six months of photos of dead people and the people were on the streets [protesting]. But even the New York Times – that’s pretty critical of the administration – they’re not showing [it], whereas in Europe they’re showing it all the time, in color. You go to one of these international bookstores and buy a German magazine [and] it’s shocking. Here, everything is kind of nice, you know, it’s not too shocking.
Today we have a volunteer army. Vietnam, when the soldiers came home, they were spit on, thrown rocks at, and those people didn’t volunteer to do that, they got drafted. You either shot yourself in the leg, moved to Mexico, or you went.
No, what you did in those days was you put peanut butter under your arms and you went in for your Army physical and they would just take one look at you and [say], “You’re out of here, buddy.” I lost good friends in Vietnam. You’re only in that age group once in your life, and kids you grew up with go off to war and die. Could war ever be justified? That’s the big question. Who would you stand up to, if they’re coming down the street, and I’m going to save your life? Am I going to sacrifice myself or am I going to defend myself? It may be something stuck in people’s heads. Maybe this is the way we’re born into this life, with a predisposition towards certain types of activities. And those people, in their heads, think that the nobility of war itself is a good cause or that you’re fighting for your country. Cooler heads have to prevail really.
Let’s shift back into music. Do you think that traditionalists like Bill Monroe would enjoy today’s progressive bluegrass with the new directions it’s taking?
Yeah, but Bill enjoyed all kinds of things. He liked good music, you know? He appreciated craft and inspiration in other people but when it got too close to his territory then he’d pass judgments about whether it measured up. It was almost impossible to tell when Bill was pulling your leg or not ’cause he’d say some pretty funny things about people’s attempts. You know what he liked? He just liked music. He referred to it as “music that people could follow.” It wasn’t too challenging. It was a high level of accomplishment in the playing of music that brings you along into it.
Tells you a story.
Yeah, brings you along, tells you a story, involves you. It’s like why he said the band wore white shirts because he wanted the country people to know how much he respected what he was doing. It was unusual. Musicians in those days, well, early on you see photographs in the ’30s of even blues players like Robert Johnson in a coat and tie and a snappy brim. All the old-time music guys from North Carolina, they never appeared in overalls ’cause that would be like playing the fool to their own people. When you play onstage in overalls it’s either an act or you’re being obtuse to the fact that people wear overalls when they’re working the ground.
So, these old-time players would dress up a little bit. When Leadbelly got out of prison, Alan Lomax had him in overalls playing up around New York City ’cause he was part of the people. Finally Leadbelly demanded that he got paid. He went out and he bought himself a tailored suit and he never appeared in overalls again. He wore beautiful gold cufflinks and it kind of blew the scene a little bit because it was no longer the convict Leadbelly in overalls. He wasn’t going for the Negro image. He was like, “I’ll take that fine cut suit, thank you very much.” That’s really thinking outside the box of stereotypes, you know? Then again, he just wanted to feel grand, and it disconcerted the Lomax people. They were like, “Well, I don’t know. He’s just going out with his people after the show and getting drunk, and he won’t wear overalls anymore.”
I just don’t think you can tie music down like that. I think that it’s a free, spontaneous and energetic expression of, really, joy, underneath it all. If it has to come through a painful disguise then it does that. If it has to come through a jubilant disguise it’ll do that. If it has to sound dark it does that. There’s an audience for every single kind of sound you can imagine. I like things I hear from all over the world that just spark you. Who can say what music really is? It’s a formless energy that moves people. It’s a good place to put your head. Whether it’s from stuff you’ve heard or whether it’s from stuff you want to say, you just put your head in that space. Sometimes you pick up an instrument and it does all the talking for you. It just leads you, and you end up writing the songs that feel [of] the moment.
Somehow it seems to connect you with other like-minded people.
Yeah, man. It brings people out. It’s a joy.
Best concert you ever saw, if you had to pick one?
When I was 14 years old, Chuck Berry, standing up on stage grinning in his green tuxedo and black tie going, “Heh heh, this is my foolishness suit,” and playing “School Days.”
Label: Flying Fish
This album was former Bill Monroe Blue Grass Boy Peter Rowan’s debut solo album, released in 1978. Joining him are Flaco Jimenez, accordion; Mike Seeger, autoharp; Lamar Greer, 5-string banjo; Roger Mason, Buell Neidlinger, Todd Phillips, acoustic bass fiddle; Richard Greene, Tex Logan, fiddles; Barry Mitterhoff, mandolin; Estrella Berosini, Laura Eastman, Alice Gerrard, harmony vocals and others.
1 Outlaw Love – Rowan – 3:21
2 Break My Heart Again – Rowan – 5:14
3 A Woman in Love – Rowan – 2:21
4 When I Was a Cowboy – Leadbelly – 2:38
5 Land of the Navajo – Rowan – 6:19
6 The Free Mexican Airforce – Rowan – 6:01
7 Panama Red – Rowan – 3:01
8 Midnite Moonlite – Rowan – 4:13
9 The Gypsy King’s Farewell – Rowan – 4:15
one-eyed jack’s farewell.
mp3 128kbps | w/ small cover
Label: Sugar Hill
Review by Jason Ankeny
Joining Rowan on this 1995 release are the Red Hot Pickers, a group comprised of Richard Greene, Roger Mason, Andy Statman, and Tony Trischka. The record marks a reunion for Rowan and Greene, both of whom were Blue Grass Boys with Bill Monroe before joining forces in Earth Opera, Sea Train and Muleskinner.
1 Hobo Song – Bonus – 4:37
2 Old, Old House – Bynum, Jones – 3:16
3 Willow Garden – Traditional – 2:53
4 Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy – Carter – 3:20
5 Wild Bill Jones – Traditional – 5:30
6 Hiroshima Mon Amour – Rowan – 3:42
7 Come All Ye Tender-Hearted – Traditional – 4:47
8 Oh, Susannah – Foster, Mahal, Traditional – 3:46
9 Rosalie McFall – Garcia, Hart, Kreutzmann, Lesh … – 3:09
10 A Good Woman’s Love – Coben, Cobin – 3:14
mp3 160kbps | w/ cover
and once again a request. If anyone has his albums Medicine Trail, Revelry, Peter Rowan & the Wild Stallions, or Best of the Sugar Hill Years, I would love to hear them.