This piece originally was published in Nov. 2017 in The British Bluegrass News, the member publication of the British Bluegrass Music Association.
By Chris A. Courogen
When Peter Rowan’s new, yet-to-be-titled, album is released, most likely early next year, Rowan will be returning to his bluegrass roots. Inspired by a sort of pilgrimage he made years ago with the legendary Bill Monroe, Rowan’s new album will pay homage to the late Carter Stanley.
Rowan took a break from mixing the new collection to visit Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in mid August for a special set at the 75th Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. Backed by The Traveling McCourys, Del McCoury’s backup band, which includes two of Del’s sons, Rowan presented a tribute to the guy who gave him his start in bluegrass — Monroe.
It was backstage before that tribute that Rowan shared the story about the roadtrip that sparked the new album. Stanley had asked Monroe to come for a visit. Monroe asked Rowan to drive him from his home in Tennessee to Stanley’s home in Virginia.
Stanley, says Rowan, seemed jaundiced. His eyes were bright, but his skin was dull. “The body was starting to fade,” says Rowan. He could still sing, though. Stanley would die about a year later.
“Carter became sort of a spiritual mentor beyond The Walls of Time in that, without trying he had a completely effortless and passionate way of singing until his death,” says Rowan.
This album has taken almost since then to come together.
“So we’d been talking for years about doing a record — we’re mixing it now. It’s got a lot of Stanley Brothers on it and it has Don Rigsby on it,” Rowan says. “To me, he is like a modern Carter Stanley.
“I’m happy to be putting this record out. It’s not a tribute to Carter Stanley. It’s an acknowledgment of those roots, especially Carter’s roots.”
Watch the full interview
It also goes back to Rowan’s roots, Although he has played a wide variety of styles of music over the years, it was Bill Monroe who gave him his first professional music job, hiring Rowan to play guitar and sing with his Bluegrass Boys. That was in 1963.
It was as a Bluegrass Boy that Rowan first visited the United Kingdom. Rowan remembers guys like Jan Jerrold and Bill Clifton helping pave the way.
“Jan Jerrold singlehandedly kept the bluegrass alive there, in terms of relating to the public’” says Rowan. “I first went over there in 1965 with Bill Monroe, as a Bluegrass Boy. Jan was probably my age — 23 or 24. He was very helpful in publicizing through the years.”
Rowan remembers Clifton had an old bus, “some kind of European diesel,” that they toured in, playing all over, sometimes doing house concerts in exchange for a place to spend the night.
“We played the Oxford Ball, it was called, which was part of the graduation ceremonies,” Rowan recalls. “Of course it was the 60s, so things were kinda nutty. People in those days weren’t getting drunk. They were getting high.”
One night the Bluegrass Boys got wind that George Harrison and Ravi Shankar were playing a nearby pub.
“We all went out, all us Bluegrass Boys in our suits,” says Rowan. “We couldn’t get into the actual room. But we could lay on the stairs leading up to the room, and put our ears under the door, and beneath the shuffling feet of all the punters, you could hear a lit
tle bit of Ravi Shankar’s notes.”
Rowan also spent considerable time in England with his rock band, Seatrain, which recorded in London with George Martin and over the years he played there a lot as a solo artist. Things were different then in the British bluegrass world.
“I will say, since I was the only American solo artist playing in England in the 1970s and into the 80s, there was very little bluegrass that I could connect with. However there were some young kids in Kent. There were some folks in Cambridge. It was not like now where you have got kids from all over England, some of them really hot,” Rowan says.
Monroe would like those hot pickers.
“With Bill, we would play very fast. He would do it almost like ‘OK, here you kids. You have got to be able to do this’,” says Rowan.
Monroe also liked musicians who would stretch and push the limits.
“When you played with Bill Monroe, he will pick up on stuff
that you do that he likes, and he will channel it through his approach, and then he fires it back at you the way that he thinks it should be,” Rowan says. “It made for a really interesting dynamic. That is when you learned from him. If you didn’t step out a little bit and get your nose bumped, you wouldn’t learn anything.”
Rowan’s stretching led him a lot of directions. Seatrain, with fellow former Bluegrass Boy, fiddler Richard Green, is just one of the many projects Rowan has been involved in over the years. He has played country twang, traditional singer-songwriter style folk, even reggae. He has also recorded albums mostly in Spanish with Flaco Jimenez, a South Texas accordion player.
“This album was of course confusing to people, as most of my albums are, because it had bluegrass with Tex Logan, Barry Mitterhoff, and Lamar (Greer), but it also had these love songs in Spanish, and Spanish-English that I wrote because I was living more and more in Texas,” explains Rowan. “I grew up listening to collections like Alan Lomax, where you’d have a blues thing, then a bluegrass thing, it was just music of a region. So I felt no compunction about being fairly eclectic. I wasn’t trying to mix bluegrass with Tex-Mex, but side by side on the record, you know, it was a record. It was good.”
One of his projects, the band Old and in the Way, is often credited with helping to bring a whole new generation of fans to American bluegrass. The banjo player for Old and in the Way was Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia.
While Old and in the Way’s style was pretty traditional, the influx of young Grateful Dead fans has given birth to a genre of bluegrass that thus far has defied having a name pinned on it. Some call it newgrass, or jamgrass, or as flatpicker extraordinaire Larry Keel once called it, “Freaky bluegrass.”
“Old and In the Way, all we were trying to do was to play the roots. There was nothing fancy about it,” Rowan says. “We did feel it was OK to throw in some chord changes like In Land of the Navajo, or Panama Red, my tunes that made it into a certain uniqueness and made it as part of our recorded repertoire, too. I think it was the music of its time. You have to have a few little songs of the time.”
At the end of the day, all styles of bluegrass have their roots in the music of the masters like Monroe and Stanley.
Says Rowan, “Quite honestly, I think most of the spinoff music, there are so many ways you can go. You can go in a rock direction. You can go with satire. Bluegrass is strong. It will carry many, many different interpretations. But the roots are the roots. If you love the roots, you love the roots.”
The band he was performing with that night was a perfect example. When they perform without Del McCoury, the Traveling McCourys are known to stretch a little. They are not full-blown jamgrass by any account, but they’ve been known to do full sets of bluegrass covers of Grateful Dead songs.
Yet with no more practice than a 15-minute run through just before they took the stage, Rowan and the band put together a near flawless evening of Bill Monroe music.
“The Traveling McCourys are so schooled in bluegrass. They learned Bill Monroe’s music from their dad,” says Rowan, who was preceded in the Bluegrass Boys by Del McCoury. “If you could catch the feel that Bill put down, the music would lift and you would hear these harmonies that would just lift your hair up on your head. Del carries that, and he infused his sons and the Traveling McCourys, who are his band, actually.”
So where does Rowan side in the bluegrass holy war between traditionalists and those who think the mold was made to be broken.
“There is always going to be this difference of opinion because if you want that certain rootsy, bluegrass thing, there’s certain people you go to. If it is progressive bluegrass you want, there are other people who are doing it. And some do it very well,” Rowan says.
“There are all kinds of hybrids now. I mean one of the best vocalists in bluegrass, who doesn’t sound bluegrass necessarily, is Allison Krause. She has had the biggest hits bluegrass has seen since Old and In the Way,” says Rowan.
End of the day, though, when push come to shove, Rowan admits, “I for one, when it comes to bluegrass, I like stuff that is really hardcore. Really hardcore.”