PETER ROWAN: Well, you know, just to be living is a legend in my mind. That’s a nice compliment because everybody I worked with was a legend. It doesn’t have any reality, but I’m a storyteller so it makes it fun to be seen that way because that means that I can draw on my background and tell part of the legend. Legendary, Peter Rowan. Alleged, Peter Rowan. It’s helpful in terms of just relating to the audience, because I’m the teller of the tale. I’m telling the legend of the bluegrass life. So, It’s good.
AD: How and when did you decide to be a musician?
PR: As soon as I heard music when I was a kid I was picking up my dad’s tennis racket, trying to strum a tune. My dad gave me a ukelele when I was about 12. I saw a picture of Elvis Presley on the cover of LIFE magazine and I put some string on the ukelele so it would hang on me and I went, “Is this how he does it?” And then my uncle got me a guitar, a little four-string guitar. Slowly over time I learned more of the finesse of music but early on I was a strummer and a singer, you know? Just out of love.
I’ve never lost my amateur standing.
AD: This was up in Boston?
PR: Yeah. The New England area at that time, I might add, post WWII, was full of southern musicians and southern servicemen coming back from the European run so there was a lot of bluegrass influence in and around Boston.
AD: Well looking at your track record, it seems as though you followed from one great project to the next. Is that how it was?
PR: Yeah. Bill Monroe once told me, “Pete, if you can play this music you can play any music”. So I was able to draw the connection between the roots within bluegrass and how they relate to the roots within other music–whether it be playing with Flaco Jimenez Tex-Mex or the Jamaican players. It’s musical language–essentially everybody understands each other.
Of course with Jerry Garcia and Vasser Clements, and Grisman, it was that we had all played bluegrass before. Vasser had been with Bill Monroe in the 50s. I’d been with Bill Monroe in the 60s. And so in the very early 70s Old and In the Way lifted that banner up of what we call the true bluegrass quest for the legend of the bluegrass. There is something about bluegrass itself that is legendary, that lends itself to that–the stories, the songs, mysterious tunes. We tried to take that somewhere with Old and In the Way: incorporate multiple solos– lots of soloing, lots of jamming. The songs were good and long. They had a lot of legendary narratives, epics, like “Land of the Navajo” and stuff like that. And probably, we only got a piece of it on tape. But we got enough to where there is still something exciting going on there.
AD: Tell us about your time with Bill Monroe.
PR: He came up to New England and I had left school. I was playing mandolin in a band with Jim Rooney and Bill Keith and Bill had played banjo with Bill Monroe. Monroe was coming up to do a date and called Keith to play banjo and Keith called me to play guitar. I had been listening to nothing but Bill Monroe and I was hungry to play that powerful, passionate bluegrass, not the folky bluegrass, or the poppy bluegrass, but the most intense bluegrass. And you know, people thought Bill Monroe was kind of funny, almost an anachronism, like somebody who had outlived his moment, but for those of us in the folk movement, he was the father of bluegrass music.
Bluegrass has an aura, or a legend of authenticity; this is the real deal. And for every band that goes for it, they tap into that. But Bill Monroe had been so present that he was almost overlooked for awhile. And he had a very cantankerous sound, to be interpreted as harsh and unpleasant. But what it was, was passionate. It just needed a presentation that would allow his genius to flow and that pretty much meant, in my case, younger players who could help interpret his music. And I was one of those 20-year-olds that learned everything–I learned everything he ever did. When I came to the band I was fully aware of everything he had; whatever he wanted to play I could play it. Then I could ask to play tunes myself. So that was different than just coming to the band and playing one song and learning the rest.
I don’t think anybody from the north ever dreamed that Bill Monroe would even be open to them playing. See now, there’s the real difference too: where as all the other bands, Flat and Scruggs, the Osmond Brothers, they all had really tight units and the “sidemen” came and went, and those “sidemen” were very good. And every band had a certain group that made their sound what it was–Flat and Scruggs were the ones that carried the whole thing forward as a group. Whereas Monroe kind of had people here and people there, but he hadn’t had a band that was just a band. So I joined up and I didn’t know any better and took on way more than I should have–I booked the shows. I tried to be his manager, and Bill Monroe can not be managed. But I was just trying to bring Bill back out of the shadows. I don’t think that he had not, not advanced musically, I just think that he needed some new blood.
We were all part of that. I think Roland White, myself, Del McCoury, we were all guitarists for him and we all felt a sympathy and compassion for him. We saw how hard he was working. And although we was a very taciturn and a low flash point for awhile, I think by the time we were working for him he was in his 50s, and he started to mellow out. Especially after they said, “Bill, you’re the father. You are the father!” It took the heat off. He didn’t have to compete anymore. If you’re the father, then these are your children.
When I was with Bill Monroe we would play way down in Louisiana and come up through Alabama on the way home. We would never stay the night anywhere. That was the deal in Nashville–you drive out to the gig, you play the gig and then you drive back from the gig. So if it was a 12 hour ride to the gig, you get up there and play for three hours and you’d make another 12 hour run back. But at that time diesel was cheap, probably cheaper than a hotel room and Monroe was famously tight about trying not to spend money. I mean if you wanted to sleep in a bed with the other bluegrass boys, you could probably get a room. On the way home we would always stop for basically what they call supper–which is like breakfast–after the show. About midnight we’d hit Alabama and Rual Yarbrough–who later was one of Bill’s banjo players–and a mandolin playing friend of his would host us. They would have coffee and breakfast ready for us at about 1 or 2 in the morning. It was just a tradition in bluegrass; it was just what you did. If somebody would come through you would always say, “Well, take a break at my place and get some coffee”. And often, people would crash out; they would play music. It was the time of night, those magic hours between midnight and dawn where the legend is felt. It became the moment.
AD: Tell us about how Old & In the Way came to be.
PR: Well, every time we would stop there they would play me these tapes that they recorded every New Year’s. This would have been ’64, ’65 at
this point. I had studied all of the music on the recordings with Monroe. Ed Mayfield and the Mayfield Brothers was a hot band in the 50s out in West Texas and they played all over Lubbock and everything. And then Ed went with Bill Monroe and recorded the “I Saw the Light” gospel album, he kind of came in after Jimmy Martin. So I knew who all of these people were. And so I said, “Where’s Vasser?” and they said, “Oh, Vasser’s retired”. But they played me this tape, that was the New Year’s Eve tape, two years running, when I went down there, and it was Vasser jamming on New Year’s Eve. You know, it was, “Goddamn, I can hardly play anymore”. Then, vrooom! So, I just lodged that away.
But there was always something about Vasser playing that I thought was the very best of bluegrass fiddlers that set the mark. That almost jazz rock and roll, just total go for it attitude. So in 1970, I had run the course of Seatrain and wanting to play more roots music, I moved back west. In California, there’s David and my brothers all making a record with Columbia and I was kind of the outsider. But I just took my guitar and walked barefoot down to Grisman’s house and sat on the sand dunes and we would play. We would have a smoke about ten in the morning and play until about noon or something. About the 3rd or 4th day, he said, “Hey, Garcia lives just up the hill. Let’s go on up there–he wants to pick”. I said, “Let’s go”. So we drove up there in my old Volvo and walked in and there was Jerry standing in his garden with a banjo and a big grin on his face. We just started playing almost every night. We didn’t have any gigs and then all of a sudden there were gigs, you know? Just a quartet. John Harper played fiddle for us a couple of times. Richard Greene played fiddle for us, but we could never find that person. And then we get this tour with the Grateful Dead to go out east. And Jerry was going to do one night with the Dead and then come over and hang with us. We would go to the Dead show and hang on that impossibly glorious scene and then play our show the next night.
When we went out there we said, “Let’s get a real fiddler; lets make this a real bluegrass band”. And I said, “You know what guys, Vasser Clements is still playing”. So we called around and got his number. We flew Vasser to Boston, never having played a note with us. Vasser came out and we just started picking in the living room and it’s just grins all the way around. He made it all come together. And everybody related to him because he was such a strong musician.
AD: Tell us about your writing process. Has it changed as time has gone on?
PR: The challenge is to write great tunes for great players. I always knew when I wrote something, someone would come to mind. When I wrote “Midnight Moonlight” Grisman came to mind– there were structural things that Dave got into. At the time, the ending of “Land of the Navajo” and the solo section of “Midnight Moonlight” were breathing spaces for musicians to unwind and just follow the trail.
I wrote those at the end of my rock and roll thing. I basically quit Seatrain and drove across the country. In San Antonio, I wrote “Midnight Moonlight” and in the Canyon de Chelly, I wrote, “Land of the Navajo”. I never saw myself as a Southwestern Troubadour kind of a guy, but I don’t know, I wasn’t real hungry to establish myself as the solo artist because I always liked the interplay with the other musicians. So the material that I wrote then was still in that time. I mean, just imagine arriving on the West Coast saying, “Hey, I’ve got these tunes” and everybody going, “Oh yeah, I can play that”. It wasn’t mature work but it had all the excitement of a fresh discovery.
If anything, when it comes to my writing now, I’m looking for real simple statements. Real direct to the heart statements. I don’t want to spin too many webs. I’ll always write the epic ballad here and there–I won’t say that my days of writing “Land of the Navajo” are over. Those are myths of history that I picked up from dreams and inspirations. But right now I just feel in a great place with this band with Tony Rice. To get those female harmonies that go all the way back to Ray Charles. I’m free to bring in any tunes I want. On the first record, “You Were There for Me”; it was all my tunes. Everything from, “Ahmed the Beggar Boy” to “Wild Mustang,” these were tunes that I had been writing and looking for a place to do them. Funny enough, it happened to be bluegrass people that got a hold of them. So I guess no matter what I’m trying to do, I am bluegrass.
This last record, that we are working on now with Tony, that is going to come out this fall on Rounder Records, I’m doing a Patti Smith song, I’m doing a Townes Van Zandt song called “To live is to Die”, I’m doing “The Walls of Time” and “Cold Rain and Snow”. The combination of unusual new tunes that really fit the groove and some of our stage songs that have been standards for us, plus two or three new ones of mine, is a good balance. I wasn’t trying to shade this record too heavily towards “Peter Rowan’s Song Writer” album. You know what I mean?
AD: So we’ve seen you do solo shows and acoustic shows with three or four pieces touring bands. And we’ve also seen you perform electric reggae. What are the differences as a performer on how you approach solo shows versus group shows versus electric reggae shows?
PR: Well this group is great because we’ve worked together for so long that it’s to that comfort zone of total grooviness. Where you can look around and feel the power of our sum. And then solo shows, you know, I don’t know, that’s for “The Me, The balladeer”. The solo shows are very different. Last Thursday, here at the festival, I had percussion, Sharon on mandolin and me on guitar, I’m singing and Sharon is singing with me. I like that format. It doesn’t have a bass, so I’m the bass.
Last year we started out, playing around and everything was finger picking and light. But Thursday night is where we’ve gotten to, where we were like, “We’ve got to be about hard driving”. The soft delicate stuff although it’s pretty and everything, and we do a lot of that, it just seemed like the rhythm and structure of bluegrass is behind the praising of the songs.
And then when I’m playing with the reggae guys, a nine-piece band, playing to a Saturday night crowd…it was just a different experience.
I’m not saying that it is the business that decides the music, but I’m just real excited about the quartet. I can dream a thousand different projects with a thousand different people but we’re going for something that is so right and it is so satisfying.
AD: So what message would you give someone that was starting out in the music business?
PR: Bill Monroe told me, he said, “You’ve got to love the music and love the melody so that when you sing it, the people will love it the same way you love it”. That to me is the best advice there is. And don’t forget to breathe. Do your Pilates. Stay in shape.
AD: Lightening Round. Here goes,
Native Seed: Hopi Mesa
Three Books: Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, and Huckleberry Finn
Favorite Foods: Lebanese lamb stuffed with garlic and rubbed with rosemary is pretty good.
I most admire ______ because: My heroes. The teachers of Buddhism that escaped from Tibet and have come here to teach us that the chain of thoughts that binds us to our limitations can be broken. Those are the people I really admire.
I’m inspired by: Dedication. Especially of other artists. And ultimately teachers of Buddhism.
What concerns me the most in the world today regarding my children’s future is: Water and air.
When I’m not performing, I like to: Paint.