One of the great pioneers of modern acoustic music, Peter Rowan is not only a melodist and a lyrical tale–spinner, he’s a versatile acoustic guitar player with a fine tenor singing voice.
If that says “bluegrass” to you, well, you’re about half right. Because while Rowan was a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys for several years in the 1960s, he took roots music into new territory with the bands Earth Opera, Muleskinner and Seatrain, and proceeded to blow a whole generation of hippie minds with David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements and John Kahn in the much–loved Old & in the Way.
Rowan’s best–known songs from this era include “Panama Red” (yes, the New Riders of the Purple Sage hit) and the Tex–Mex lament “The Free Mexican Airforce.” On another early hiatus from the Grateful Dead, Garcia recorded Rowan’s “Mississippi Moon” and “Moonlight Midnight.”
While eclecticism comes naturally to Rowan – he’s played in rock bands, experimented with reggae and various forms of Asian music, and plays solo gigs and in a group with guitar great Tony Rice – his heart belongs to bluegrass.
Touring behind a new CD, Legacy, the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band performs Saturday at Randy Wood Guitars.
The band includes Jody Stecher (mandolin, vocals), Keith Little (banjo, vocals) and Paul Knight (bass, vocals).
Rowan is a deeply philosophical man, perhaps because of his longtime devotion to Tibetan Buddhism.
At 68, he says, “I can’t keep following musical traditions in all different directions – I’ve got to come home.”
On working for Bill Monroe:
“Bill assumed that everybody understood the dues he had paid, and what he expected, but he never explained it to anybody. He was like a stern father who expected you to understand what he understood. When I came to the music it was the ‘60s, bluegrass had been around for a while and I was prepared. Whereas in the early days, Bill had to describe to people what he wanted and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse – by the time I got to him, he didn’t rehearse at all.”
On co–writing with Monroe:
“Here’s a man who was rooted in the actual earth of the old Southern culture. Where if you want to farm on his land, he owns what you grow. And the band was like that. If I came up with a song that he had any part of, it was his, right from the beginning. I really did write ”The Walls of Time“ with Bill, I wrote a lot of the words. But the closer you got to the fire of Bill Monroe, the more chance you had of being burned. He was a turbulent person who could have this glacial exterior. He wouldn’t record ‘The Walls of Time’ because he knew that if he did he’d have to face up to giving me credit.”
On moving forward:
“There was no acrimony when we parted; however, he did his Bill Monroe number on the last show I played with him, down in Baltimore in March of ’67: He would do this thing where he’d drop his pick on the floor, then he’d look at you and ask you to pick it up for him. I don’t think I did it. I saw Bill a lot when I was in Nashville in the ‘80s, before he died, and he said to me ‘Pete, them were good days.’”
On Old & in the Way:
“David had an explosive sort of mind in terms of creativity. You’d play a little something and he’d say ‘Let’s go with that!’ And then Garcia was a further extension of that whole thing. Jerry was the opposite of Bill Monroe, in the sense that whatever you had personally in terms of creative direction, go for it. He was very supportive of it.”
On his return to bluegrass:
“I didn’t think, for a long time, that bluegrass was a good vehicle for all my songs. So I did things like reggae, and Spanish–influenced stuff. My personal arc of my musical journey. So I went back to the beginning. What always appealed to me are the virtues of bluegrass – the deep, soulful, two, three, four–part singing ... this ancient quality. Some dreamlike songs. Songs that put you in a place of understanding dire situations through the music – from Ernest Tubb through Bill Monroe through Merle Travis’ ‘Dark As a Dungeon, Down in the Mine.’ Stuff that came from those years and those traditions. All that music really reached me because it was talking about real things.
“It also had the fiddle tunes and stuff. But there’s a haunting to it. And what Bill Monroe called that sound was ‘The Ancient Tones.’ When you can hear the Ancient Tones, there’s a spiritual value in that. The hair starts to rise on the back of your neck. And I realize I have to play bluegrass, because there are things I have to say that couldn’t be in any other kind of music.
“I can’t keep following musical traditions in all different directions – I’ve got to come home. It’s fun to mix it all up and get eclectic and have great fun, but in terms of my own personal writing – I can do bluegrass, I can sing, and I’m not gonna waste it.”
The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band
Where: Randy Wood Guitars, 1304 E. U.S. 80, Bloomingdale
When: At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16
Contact: (912) 748–1930