Whether it’s his stint as Bill Monroe’s guitarist, or a successful run with Old and in the Way, for Rowan, these moments — all the collaborations and events — add up to a collective legacy, and he’s paying tribute to it with his forthcoming album, appropriately titled, Legacy.
“This band I have now, this is the first time I’ve had a bluegrass band under my own name,” Rowan says. “You’ll hear a lot of Old and in the Way in this band, because it’s the same approach. And it’s the first band since Old and in the Way that gives me that feeling. We’ve come this far and lost a lot of people along the way, and so my music is all about that. It’s the legacy of the whole thing.”
The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band consists of Keith Little playing banjo, Paul Knight on bass and Jody Stecher on mandolin. Recorded in April on bluegrass artist Alison Brown’s roots music Compass label, Legacy features 12 new songs, and two traditional tunes.
“Plus, I have a new gospel tune called, ‘God’s Own Child,’ and that features Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs,” Rowan says. “And then I’ve got a tune called ‘So Good,’ and it’s got Gillian Welsh singing and Dave Rawlings playing guitar. It’s ‘Legacy’ in that it’s all my old and new compadres in the string-band music, plus some traditional tunes that we draw upon all the time. It’s a very traditional-based band. But they go with me where I want to go. If I have an adventuresome song, they’re good with it.”
For Rowan, the bluegrass legacy began back in 1964, when he won an audition in Nashville to play guitar for the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Thus began Rowan’s professional career as a musician. For two-and-a-half years, Rowan toured with Monroe across America and England, playing the Grand Ole Opry each week.
And before his tenure with Monroe ended, he had recorded a total of 14 songs as one of Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. But Rowan had the itch to expand his style, whereas Monroe had his way of doing things. To be a Bluegrass Boy meant playing it by the book, with loyalty to Monroe’s way and nothing else.
“By the time I had reached him, it was fiddle, guitar, banjo, bass and mandolin — the five solid building blocks of bluegrass,” says Rowan, who at the time wished to push the envelope stylistically. “He was in his 50s and he’d passed through that experimentation stage. I think he went through it like everybody else, always trying to find where square one is — home base. When I was with him there were sparks flying all the time, because I was young and wanting to do this and do that, and he told me, ‘It’s been as much work to keep things out of bluegrass as it is to add them to bluegrass.’“ Rowan would eventually form bluegrass-rock hybrids, complete with drums, which at the time was a disturbing blasphemy to genre purists.
But after Rowan left Monroe, he joined mandolinist David Grisman in 1967 and formed Earth Opera, which released a couple of albums on Elektra Records and even opened for The Doors on many occasions. They disbanded in 1969, however, with Grisman heading out to the West Coast, and Rowan joining up with a band called Seatrain. In 1972, Grisman brought a Grateful Dead album to Rowan that contained a cover of the traditional song “Cold Rain and Snow,” which Rowan had coincidentally played often in Bill Monroe’s band. Intrigued, Rowan went with Grisman to play with Jerry Garcia, which led to the birth of Old and in the Way, a traditional bluegrass band that included fiddle genius Vassar Clements and John Kahn. Although this was a highly structured bluegrass band, Rowan’s yearning to expand the music still called to him, and he opened the door for some extended jamming with the song “Midnight Moonlight,” in which he wrote a guitar solo.
“The first song that got recorded was ‘Midnight Moonlight,’ where I wrote a bridge that was the solo section,” says Rowan. “And I’d look over at Garcia, and his eyebrows would just be way up there going, ‘Yeah, this is good.’ Whereas other people would be like ‘Is it gonna be four bars? Is it gonna be eight bars? How long are we gonna do this? When do we come back in?’ And to this day, it’s all done by feel. And that’s what keeps it fresh.”
Old and in the Way lasted until 1974, and the self-titled album wasn’t released until 1975, a year after they disbanded. During this time, Rowan penned the rockin’ country songs “Panama Red,” and “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy,” which were staple hits for New Riders of the Purple Sage. A little later, in 1976, Rowan met Tex-Mex accordion player Flaco Jimenez, and together with fiddler Tex Logan, the three formed the Free Mexican Airforce. After that, Rowan embarked on what has become a highly successful solo career that has ranged from bluegrass to country hybrids, and even reggae. Then, in 2002, surviving members of Old and in the Way reformed for a reunion tour called Old and in the Gray.
Rowan explains that at the time, he wasn’t sure about the intentions behind the reunion.
“It was like, ‘Are we carrying on the legacy? Are we revisiting the past?’” he says. “It raised the question, ‘What are we representing?’ You had five different guys with five different minds up there. But in the end, the music wins out. The thing about Old and in the Way was, as Garcia said as we walked off stage and people started grumbling about this and that ... he said, ‘No thoughts.’ Just go for it. Go for the groove. Stop thinking.’” Rowan’s latest album was 2007’s Quartet, the second collaborative effort with acoustic guitar master Tony Rice. But with his new album, Rowan is taking all of his collective experience, all of those legendary moments, and wrapping them up in what amounts to his first traditional bluegrass album release since back in the day.
“Bill Monroe said, ‘Pete, you stick with bluegrass. If you can play bluegrass, you can play anything,’” Rowan reminisces. “I took the electric band concept as far as I could. You know, drum-based, bluegrass-style kind of jamming and picking and stuff. That was fun. Now everybody’s doing it, so now I’m back to the basics. I never dared to put the name Peter Rowan together with ‘bluegrass band’ before. But that’s how it is now.”
On the Bill:
Peter Rowan plays the RockyGrass Festival on Friday, July 23.
Gates open at 10 a.m. Day passes for Friday are $50.
Planet Bluegrass, Highway 36 just northwest of the historic area of downtown Lyons, 800-624-2422, www.bluegrass.com.