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Interview: Peter Rowan

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Peter Rowan is a living legend of Bluegrass music. Born on the the 4th of July in 1942, Peter’s musical career has led him far and wide on a genre-blurring journey. KGNU’s Neil Smart had a chance to chat with Peter Rowan on a sunny Friday morning around the time of the release of “The Old School” on Compass Records.

"So, even though you shave in cold water, drive all night and you don’t feel like it, you still get up there and sparkle for the audience. You wave your hand up high and smile because it brings people to the present. And even if they’re missing someone or grieving, you let them know it’s alright. You’re there. You’re there for them."

KGNU: Tell us about your early years in the Boston area.

Rowan: You know, I started to play and I had a little rock and roll combo when I was 14 and we were playing the local record shops for kids our age and one night the drummer - who was 16 - drove us over to Harvard Square and I heard a guy playing tunes by Lead Belly. That’s when my discovery beyond what I was hearing on the radio began. I suddenly heard this guy singing Lead Belly. And I started learning Lead Belly tunes because I just thought they were the greatest and there were local bluegrass bands playing around.

In fact on the other side of town across the Charles River were the Lily Brothers and Don Stover from Clear Creek, West Virginia, they were playing fifteen years at the Hillbilly Ranch and Stover had just worked with Bill Monroe. So I started to pay attention to this bluegrass sound. I really liked it and most of the stuff that was being played around was Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers. I got into the Stanley Brothers. Finally I heard a Bill Monroe record that let me into his approach to bluegrass. Songs like No Letter in the Mail and Florida Blues and Muleskinner Blues. There was this tune on there called In the Pines. I learned there were different folk singers around town singing these songs but it never clicked with me until I put that together with the idea that Lead belly had been singing this song like Black Girl, Black Girl, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? And In the Pines, In the Pines Where the Sun Never Shines and that kind of hooked me into the bluegrass thing and I learned that and the Muleskinner Blues.

So I started playing with one of the local bluegrass bands, Bill Keith and Jim Rooney and also the Charles River Valley Boys and Joe Val, Joe Valiante the mandolin picker. He and I formed a duet and he taught me all these ways to sing the old duet stuff - the Monroe Brothers and the Louvin Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys. He had made a study of the harmonies and he taught them to me.

So when Bill Monroe needed a band, I studied his music and I studied the way the harmonies were, and Joe really got me on track as far as how to phrase and sing it the bluegrass way.

And Bill Monroe showed up and Bill Keith put a band together for him and played Doc Watson’s birthday party at Symphony Hall. and Bill was leading the band, and I was just like in heaven. Because we had all learned his music, we were like focused on him and his whole approach. and I sang a duet or two with him and he said I should come to Nashville. I went to Nashville and became a Bluegrass Boy.

You know, one of the things about Bill is that people think that he was just somebody that got lucky with the people that were around at the time and they shaped his music. The whole thing is that he was a bandleader. Since the late 1930s and, yes, many people came and went in his band and he had accordion, and ragtime banjo, and yet every single band had that compelling Monroe drive. So, he wasn’t just picking up stuff. He knew what he wanted. He knew how he wanted those instrument’s voices, but he talked about it in a very mystical way. He talked about it as if these instruments were living creatures finding a place in the span of creation. He would talk about the fiddles - how they would rise up like the wind. Talking about the mandolin - how it would come up and support the fiddles and the guitar and the bass.

KGNU: We owe Bill Monroe a big debt here in Colorado. He was really the early driving force of the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival, called RockyGrass today.

Rowan: That’s right and Telluride, too. He played Telluride many a time.

KGNU: His fingerprints are everywhere in the music whether you’re in the DC area, where there’s a huge bluegrass scene, or you’re here in the West. Bill’s fingerprints are everywhere.

You have really been on the forefront of exploring roots music. Not just in what we generally refer to as Country, and Bluegrass, and Blues and those kinds of things. But you’ve explored roots music from a lot of different cultures.

Rowan: Yeah, that’s true. Right now I’m singing some stuff with a wonderful Tibetan singer because I find that rootsy mountain sound is worldwide. And then I’m thinking of Flaco Jimmenez as a great huge progenitor of the TexMex accordion style. His father, Santiago Senior, was the Bill Monroe of conjunto. He kind of pulled it together into a format that was crisp and definitive but, again, dance music. And the Cajun music, It’s all dance music, basically, and that’s why I’ve always liked that connection. But every music is derived from something else, and it’s been my joy to get back into what’s behind some of the sounds and working with Flaco led me to study Flamenco guitar.

KGNU: You’ve had some long musical partnerships and friendships throughout your career. I’m thinking of Richard Green, Charles Sawtelle, of course, Tony Rice and, going back with David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, and Vassar Clements with Old and in the Way. You have tended to hold onto people, it kind of a great thing. It seems like there have been gaps in times when you’ve been playing with certain people, and then you get back together and it’s like there was no time in between.

Rowan: Yeah, it’s something I’m becoming more and more aware of, the motif in my life, and it’s happened with everyone I’ve ever worked with.

But what Old and in the Way did was what Old and in the Way did and that material is what Old in the Way performs. It’s very hard to make a creative project out of stuff that’s already happened but it’s great to do a live performance of that stuff. It’s just that people move on.

The thing about Old and in the Way, and David Grisman and I talked about this, yeah, it might have felt a little too loose at the time. But what the audience was getting from it was that joy that we were all taking in playing the music and especially what Jerry Garcia was enjoying. Because you could say Garcia’s loose but it’s an art form to be so deeply in the music that you can appear to be playing it loosely which gives people a nice feeling.

I listen to Old and in the Way and I realize that we weren’t kind of burning up all that much we were finding a groove that was very pleasing to us because they weren’t all about hammering down on the techniquesof bluegrass. It was very song oriented. You know? Everything from Land of the Navajo to Catfish John.

Old and in the Way only existed for about a year and a half and of that time it just seemed like it was years because we were hanging out so much but it only existed, the entity with Vassar was for a very short time. But there are undocumented appearances and things from when we first got together and John Hartford was playing fiddle with us. It’s just curious, you know, you can’t really go back in time but there are certain musical partnerships that endure.

KGNU: I think that makes that snapshot of time all the more valuable.

Rowan: It is perspective. I don’t mean to dwell on this but it is a phenomenon to go back and listen to that. At the time you didn’t think it was the best that you could do. But all it was is a moment in time, and Garcia was very much into that. He knew more than other people about that experience. It was just a moment. Don’t dwell on its imperfections or imagined imperfections.

I remember this famous moment when Asleep at the Wheel was opening for us somewhere in Oregon and it was like they were very, very loud and they played for a long time. In those days a two hour set was the normal and it finally came time for Old and in the Way to come on and we had waited around too long and we already sort of peaked in our minds. And we went out on the stage, and the sound wasn’t quite right, and Garcia picked right up on it and he turned to us and very seriously said, “No thoughts”. In other words, clear your mind of any doubt and hesitation and let’s really just be here. He was very much like that. He was very outspoken about that. He was like a Zen master.

KGNU: Let’s talk about to the Old School, the new record. Amazing stuff, Peter. Such a great collection of songs. I’m personally drawn to Doc Watson’s Early Morning, and Keeping it Between the Lines kind of bookends this record.

Rowan: Yeah, that’s the old school song and Bluegrass Boys love to reminisce and bluegrass players love to reminisce and then there’s the present moment and that’s not about reminiscing. It’s about bringing it right to the present moment.

I asked Vassar Clemments about working for Bill Monroe, because Vassar had such great memories of working with Bill, with Jimmy Martin, and Chubby Weiss… I asked him what was it like when you were with Bill, because our thing was this old bus that just shimmied down the road and broke down more often than not, and Vassar was such a poet - I asked what was it like to play with Bill? He said, “Oh you know, Pete, drive all night, shave in cold water, raise your hand up high and smile. That’s the rule of the old school.” Vassar said that to me and I just thought, that really is how it is.

There was never any hot water on the bus. If you shaved at all you would just have to share in cold water or in a hubcap you know, next to the broke down bus with a little mirror right under the tree. And the old school too is kinda like, in a way, people that have been through combat - which is fraught with so many different points of view and conflicts. But people who have stood up for each other and watched each other’s backs, that’s kind of the old school. A lot of bluegrass music was written around World War II. A lot of old country songs and bluegrass songs.

All those themes in bluegrass music about leaving the old home, leaving the parents, leaving the sweethearts, they’re not only localized things although we tend to think of bluegrass as being very localized initially. Really they were dealing with issues of life and death.

When Vassar Clements says wave your hand up high and smile he’s basically saying that the job of the Bluegrass Boys was to show up in a community and wave your hand up high and smile. Just let everybody know you’re here. That you’re still here, because there are people going away that are not coming back, and people forget that.

So, even though you shave in cold water, drive all night and you don’t feel like it, you still get up there in your white shirt and your good looking pants and your hat - if you’re wearing a hat - your little tie or whatever. But you get up there and you sparkle for the audience. You know you wave your hand up high and smile because it brings people to the present. And even if they’re missing someone or grieving, you let them know it’s alright. Wave your hand up high and smile. You’re there. You’re there for them.