Singer, guitarist, songwriter
Peter Rowan is a unique figure in bluegrass music. He began his professional career as a member of the traditional Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, but later became one of the seminal figures on the progressive bluegrass scene, performing in bands including Earth Opera, Seatrain, and Old And In The Way. Rowan continued his career as a solo artist and has remained a popular as well as a "cult" figure, in part for his willingness to fuse bluegrass with diverse genres, including Tex-Mex and reggae. He has enjoyed a just-out-of-the-mainstream popularity as a solo recording artist and live performer.
Peter Hamilton Rowan was born into a family of musicians. Both parents played piano, and his uncle taught him to play the guitar. In his teens Rowan spent time listening to live music, primarily bluegrass and old-time bands, but he also was interested in the folk music scene in nearby Boston. His formative influences included The Lilly Brothers and Lightnin' Hopkins.
Rowan began playing rock and bluegrass with his two brothers, Lorin and Chris, with whom he would later collaborate. In addition to singing and playing guitar, Rowan also learned to yodel and play mandolin. While still in high school he played in a band called The Cupids, which attained some regional popularity in New England. He attended Colgate University beginning in 1961, but left school to pursue a musical career. In a 1999 interview with the Colorado Springs Independent he recalled, "I had gone to school for a couple years at Colgate University, and I was really trying to make good. My grandparents had helped put up some money for me to go to school and I was trying to do it, but I had a real good high school education where I got to study the Romantic poets when I was 16 and 17 years old. That kind of infused my mind with a sense of, well, I guess Romanticism."
Joined the Blue Grass Boys
Rowan headed to Washington, D.C., where he heard The Country Gentlemen, an influential bluegrass group, and decided he wanted to emulate their style. He joined the Mother Bay State Entertainers, a bluegrass group based in Massachusetts, as a mandolin player and singer. The group recorded one album.
In 1964 Rowan learned through friend and fellow musician Bill Keith that Bill Monroe was looking for a guitarist and singer for the Blue Grass Boys' upcoming tour of the region and Canada. "Bill Keith called me up and asked me if I wanted to play guitar on those dates. I said 'are you kidding? Yeah!,'" Rowan recalled in the Independent interview. Monroe contacted Rowan, and several weeks later Rowan was given the job.
That lineup of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys has been remembered as one of the best in the history of the group. Rowan was still relatively unformed as a musician. Monroe seemed to relish taking inexperienced but promising musicians under his fearsome wing, teaching them to play and sing in the style he desired. According to biographer Richard D. Smith, author of Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass, Rowan "would prove to be one of Monroe's greatest singing partners." Smith continued, "Monroe coached Peter on his singing. Rowan had a ringing and sincere voice, equal parts maturity and innocence. Their duets were exciting. Peter was awed by Bill as a poet and energized by his creativity. Standing next to [Monroe] onstage was like standing next to a fire, a burning bush that was not consumed."
The "Citybillies" of Bluegrass
In addition to Rowan, the group included Monroe's son James Monroe, Richard Greene, and Lamar Grier. Because most of them hailed from relatively cosmopolitan areas, the group was referred to as the "citybillies." Smith described the group as "full of enthusiastic, young talents seemingly oblivious to the hardships and lack of money." The big moneymaker for band members came at the Grand Ole Opry performances on Saturday nights, which earned them $27.50 each.
Like many musicians before him, Rowan reportedly had difficulties with the formidable Monroe. Rowan found himself on the outs with his boss after expressing a negative opinion about recording Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind." Monroe was eager to cover the song, but when band members expressed concerns, Rowan told Monroe, who was incensed. Although Rowan attempted to patch up the hurt feelings, Monroe held a grudge. "This seemingly trivial incident erased much of the legacy of this outstanding edition of the Blue Grass Boys," noted Davis. "In the studio, Peter Rowan was pointedly relegated to baritone singer in trios where James sang lead. Only one of the powerful Monroe/Rowan vocal collaborations from their concert repertoire was ever captured on record: 'Midnight on the Stormy Deep,' a lofty effort that ranks among the great Monroe duets."
Monroe and Rowan also collaborated as songwriters. They wrote the classic "The Walls of Time," which was not recorded until after Rowan left the group. "Even then," noted Smith, "Peter had to keep reminding Bill that he deserved co-writing credit."
For the Record …
Born on July 4, 1942, in Wayland, MA. Education: Attended Colgate University.
Began playing guitar and mandolin as a youth; formed The Cupids, c. 1950s; joined Mother Bay State Entertainers, c. 1962; member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, 1964-67; member, Earth Opera, 1967-69; relocated to San Francisco area, 1970; joined Seatrain, 1970-71; performed with Muleskinner, c. 1972; member, Old And In The Way, 1973; with brothers, performed as The Rowans, 1975-80; released first solo project, 1978; recorded with various musicians, including Flaco Jimenez, Jerry Douglas, Don Edwards, and Druha Trava, 1980–; released Monroe tribute The FirstWhippoorwill, 1985; Old And in The Way became Old And In The Gray, 1985; released New Moon Rising, 1988; recorded Dust Bowl Children, 1990.
Awards: National Association of Independent Record Distributors, Folk Album of the Year for Dust BowlChildren, 1990.
Addresses: Booking—Keith Case & Associates, 1025 17th Ave. S., 2nd Fl., Nashville, TN 37212, website: http://www.keithcase.com. Record company—Rounder Records, 1 Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Website—Peter Rowan Official Website: http://www.peter-rowan.com.
Rowan left the band after Greene's departure in 1967. He joined another East Coast musician with a similar approach to music, a mandolin player named David Grisman. The two were instrumental in the formation of Earth Opera, a band that was rooted in bluegrass but which ventured fearlessly into experimental rock music. The other members included John Nagy on bass, along with Paul Dillon and Bill Stevenson. "Earth Opera had as good a shot as any of being the East Coast answer to the Grateful Dead," according to Bruce Eder on the All Music Guide website. Signed to Elektra Records, the group's first recording was "as spaced out a record as Elektra had issued up to that time ... in its mix of folk and psychedelic influences," wrote Eder. Elektra asked for a follow up, despite the almost negligible attention the debut received, resulting in the 1969 The Great American Eagle Tragedy. At this point Earth Opera became a quartet through attrition. "Nagy added the cello and mandocello to their sound and Rowan and Grisman were playing tenor and alto sax," wrote Eder. The album also included numerous guests, including John Cale and Keith. The album reached the charts largely on the strength of the single "Home To You." The group parted ways in 1969, but both recordings were re-released in 2002.
Moved to the West Coast
Lorin and Chris Rowan had relocated to the San Francisco area in the early 1970s, performing as The Rowan Brothers. Peter Rowan also followed his siblings West, and once in the Bay area he reunited with Greene in Seatrain. This now-legendary but short-lived group was noted for its melting pot approach to music. The group seemed to draw its ideas equally from rock, bluegrass, folk, and blues genres. With a new lineup that included Rowan, they released Seatrain, an album that included the 1971 hit single "13 Questions," which "teamed CSNY-style harmonies with the rhythmic feel of the country Dead," according to Peter Doggett, author of Are You Ready for the Country.
"Seatrain was really interesting," said Rowan, "because they were classical musicians. There was no fooling around. It was back to the strict tempo approach that we'd used with Bill Monroe." The group paved the way for groups similarly interested in marrying rock and country into extended instrumental jams, including The Allman Brothers and Janis Joplin. Marblehead Messenger, produced by Beatles guru George Martin, followed a year later. Greene and Rowan left the band soon after, and wound up in another group called Muleskinner. Engaging in a bit of hyperbole, All Music Guide's Steve Kurutz called Muleskinner "perhaps the one and only bluegrass supergroup." Members consisted of Rowan, Greene, Grisman, Keith, and Clarence White, perhaps best known for his work on guitar with The Kentucky Colonels. The group was purportedly formed for a one-off performance on a public television special featuring Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. The soundtrack to the special has been reissued several times since its original release.
In a review in All Music Guide, Thom Owens wrote, "For progressive bluegrass aficionados, Muleskinner Live—Original Television Soundtrack is something of a watershed event. Originally broadcast on public television in the late '70s, the documentary captured the bluegrass supergroup at the peak of their powers." Owens added, "This live record is a powerhouse, illustrating everything that was right about progressive bluegrass." The tunes were a mix of blues, folk and Jimmie Rodgers tunes, and included Rowan's "Land of the Navajo" and other classic vocal and fiddle tunes such as "Dark Hollow," "Blackberry Blossom," and "Orange Blossom Special."
Another of Rowan's now-famous one-off groups was Old And In The Way. The group was organized by Jerry Garcia in 1973. Best known for his work with the Grateful Dead as a guitarist and vocalist, Garcia was originally a banjo player and had a strong background in and appreciation for the genre. Once again, Rowan was working with Grisman, along with Vassar Clements on fiddle and bassist John Kahn.
"[The album] Old & in the Way, like most anything Garcia touched, turned legions of Deadheads in a new musical direction," wrote Rick Bell in Country Standard Time. "Naturally, Garcia, Grisman and Rowan didn't set out to record what in a short period of time became one of bluegrass music's most influential records. Yet, within several months of its 1973 release, the album ... hit the pop charts and sent thousands of Deadheads rifling through record bins searching for the music of Bill Monroe and Ralph and Carter Stanley." Three of the tunes were Rowan's—"Panama Red," "Land of the Navajo," and "Midnight Moonlight." The group performed fewer than 30 times before disbanding. Old And In The Way reunited after Garcia's and Kahn's deaths in 1995, recording an album as Old And In The Gray, with Herb Pederson and Bryn Bright filling in for the departed members.
Peter Rowan began working with his brothers Lorin and Chris in 1975, and the Rowan Brothers were re-named The Rowans. The group released The Rowans in 1975 on Asylum, as well as two subsequent albums. The first albums on the Asylum label were met with critical acclaim, but after the critical fervor for the sibling group had cooled, they left Asylum, released two albums on Appaloosa in 1980, and then disbanded. The trio reunited periodically, notably in the late 1980s and in 1994.
Continued to Thrive on Collaboration
He joined Flaco Jimenez, the well-known accordion player, in The Mexican Free Air Force in the 1980s. The band mixed rock and bluegrass with Tex-Mex. The two teamed again on Flaco Jimenez and Peter Rowan: Live Rockin' Tex-Mex; Rowan appeared as one of Flaco's Friends with Ry Cooder and others on the 1989 project. Rowan has collaborated with many other artists, including Jerry Douglas, Don Edwards, and Druha Trava, a Czech folk-bluegrass group. He also formed a group called The Wild Stallions. In 2004 he and Tony Rice, a guitar player well known and respected for his work with The David Grisman Quintet, teamed up to create You Were There For Me.
In 1978 Rowan released his first solo project, Peter Rowan, on the Flying Fish label. This was followed by several other solo albums, including Texican Badman in 1981 and The First Whippoorwill in 1985. Perhaps his most acclaimed solo project was 1988's New Moon Rising, which was ultimately nominated for a Grammy award. Dust Bowl Children in 1990 won an award from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors for Folk Album of the Year. Rowan has also experimented with fusing bluegrass and reggae music, in concert as well as on 2001's Reggaebilly.
Many of Rowan's songs have been recorded and performed by artists including the Desert Rose Band,Emmylou Harris, Michael Martin Murphy, and New Riders of the Purple Sage. "Sometimes I'll write a poem, a verse, and I'll look at it and put music to it later. Sometimes I'll write the words and I'll hear the music right away," said Rowan in the Colorado Springs Independent interview. "What I look for is breakthrough moments where it's just absolutely right."
Rowan has kept returning to bluegrass despite his interest in other music. "Bluegrass is pretty effortless really," he said in the Independent interview. "When I play bluegrass, people say 'Peter Rowan returns to his deep roots in bluegrass music.' And in fact, as much as I don't want to play bluegrass all the time, probably I accomplish more musically in that genre."
Peter Rowan, Flying Fish, 1978.
Medicine Trail, Flying Fish, 1980.
Peter Rowan & the Wild Stallions, Appaloosa, 1981.
Texican Badman, Appaloosa, 1981.
The Walls of Time, Sugar Hill, 1982.
Red Hot Pickers, Sugar Hill, 1984.
Revelry, Waterfront, 1984.
The First Whippoorwill, Sugar Hill, 1985.
New Moon Rising, Sugar Hill, 1988.
Dust Bowl Children, Sugar Hill, 1990.
All on a Rising Day, Sugar Hill, 1991.
Awake Me in the New World, Sugar Hill, 1993.
Tree on a Hill, Sugar Hill. 1994.
Bluegrass Boy, Sugar Hill, 1996.
Yonder, Sugar Hill. 1996.
Reggaebilly, A-Train Entertainment, 2001, 2002.
High Lonesome Cowboy, Shanachie, 2002.
(With Earth Opera) Earth Opera, Elektra, 1968; reissued, Wounded Bird Records, 2002.
(With Earth Opera) The Great American Eagle Tragedy, Elektra, 1969; reissued, Wounded Bird Records, 2002.
(With Seatrain) Seatrain [Second Album], One Way, 1970.
(With Seatrain) The Marblehead Messenger, One Way, 1971.
(With Muleskinner) Muleskinner, Warner Brothers, 1973.
(With Old And In The Way) Old&In the Way (live), Round, 1973; reissued, Arista, 1996.
(With Old And In The Way) That High Lonesome Sound (live), Acoustic Disc, 1996.
(With Old And In The Way) Breakdown: Live Recordings1973, Acoustic Disc, 1997
(With The Rowans) The Rowans, Asylum, 1975.
(With The Rowans) Sibling Rivalry, Asylum, 1976.
(With The Rowans) Jubilation, Asylum, 1977.
(With The Rowans) Livin' the Life, Appaloosa, 1980.
(With The Rowans) Texacan Badman, Appaloosa, 1980.
(With The Rowans) Crazy People, Rowantone Records, 2002.
(With Old And In The Gray) Old & In the Gray, Acoustic Disc, 2002.
(With The Rowans) Now and Then, Bos Music, 2004.
(With The Rowans) Sibling Rivalry/Jubilation (re-release, compilation), Collectors Choice, 2004.
(With Tony Rice) You Were There for Me, Rounder, 2004.
Doggett, Peter, Are You Ready for the Country, Penguin, 2000.
Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: A History, Illini, 1985.
Smith, Richard D., Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of BillMonroe, Father of Bluegrass, Little, Brown, 2000.
Wolff, Kurt, Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, 2000.
"Old and in the Way becomes Old and in the Gray," Country Standard Time, http://www.countrystandardtime.com/oldandinthegrayFEATURE.html (August 23, 2004).
"Peter Rowan," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (August 9, 2004).
"Peter Rowan: The Millennial Interview," Colorado SpringsIndependent,http://www.csindy.com/csindy/1999-12-30/webextra2.html (August 23, 2004).
Peter Rowan Official Website, http://www.peter-rowan.com (August 9, 2004).
"The Rowans," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (August 9, 2004).
"Seatrain," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (August 9, 2004).
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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