Peter Rowan on the Country Gentlemen, Doc Watson, and Chuck Berry
It wasn’t the weather for hitchhiking, but that didn’t stop Peter Rowan, one cold winter night in the early 1960s.
“I hitchhiked from Colgate University in Hamilton, New York — way upstate — all the way down to Washington, D.C., one February around 1962 to see the Country Gentleman play at the Shamrock Bar on M Street, next to the White Castle burger joint,” he says.
“It was snowin’, really blowin’, and I got a ride with a trucker who was going to Maryland and dropped me off on M Street. I was so hungry. I ate maybe 10 of the little old burgers, drank a cup of coffee, and walked up to the barroom door in time to see through the little green glass window. Charlie Waller was lifting his guitar up to play one of his impeccable and thunderous G-runs on his incredible, vintage Martin D-28 guitar. I went in to hear my first live bluegrass show!”
The show, says Rowan, a Grammy award-winner and six-time Grammy nominee, was the best bluegrass concert he has ever heard.
Years later, though, he remembers attending another bluegrass show at the same venue, and it rivaled the Country Gentlemen’s performance.
“When I was a Bluegrass Boy, I stayed over in D.C. with Bill Monroe. Alice Foster [Gerard] and I went down to the Shamrock to hear an amazing ad-hoc band of Frank Wakefield, Red Allen, Scotty Stoneman, Peter Kuykendall [Roberts] of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. It was the most amazing music. Thise guys were in their prime, and it was just another night in a bluegrass bar. No big deal, but, for me, it was the epitome of the Northern Virginia scene that included the great Smiley Hobbs and Earl Taylor — all the great innovators who took the bluegrass ball and ran with it!”
Rowan says the concert that influenced him most as a musician, though, was performed by Doc Watson and Monroe in 1965 at Boston’s Symphony Hall.
“It was my first show with Bill and the most exciting night of music in my young life,” he says. “They played all the old Monroe Brothers duets that Doc had learned as a young man.”
As a Bluegrass Boy, Rowan sang lead vocals and played guitar with Monroe until March 1967. He then teamed with David Grisman in the band Earth Opera before joining and recording two albums with Seatrain, a progressive rock-jazz-bluegrass-country group that had a Top 40 hit with “13 Questions.”
The bluegrass band Muleskinner, which featured Clarence White, Grisman, Richard Greene, and Bill Keith, was Rowan’s next stop, in 1973. Later that year, he formed Old & In the Way with Grisman, Greene, Jerry Garcia, and John Kahn. That combination was also short-lived, and Rowan joined a country-rock and pop band led by his brothers, Chris and Lorin. His stint in the Rowan Brothers lasted less than two years. Much of his highly successful, influential solo career since has been dominated by bluegrass with stitches of rock, folk, country, gospel and whatever else he can throw in.
Though bluegrass runs through his veins, Rowan appreciates the power of rock and roll and remembers its effect on him as a young teen.
“My mother drove me, my brother Chris and a couple of friends to a Boston rock and roll show when I was 14 in fall 1956,” remembers Rowan, who was born in Wayland, Massachusetts, and learned to play guitar from his uncle. “The show was the Diamonds, the G-Clefs, the Johnny Burnette Trio, and Chuck Berry. Chuck came out in a green tuxedo and black string tie with a blonde Gibson Byrdland or maybe a Super 400. He grinned at us — nearly euphoric teenagers — and said, ‘Hey, hey, this is my foolishness suit,’ and launched into the opening chords of his hit song of the moment: ‘School Days.’ The joint was rockin’!”
Folk music has also influenced Rowan and, along with bluegrass, country, blues, and gospel, is part of his brilliant and most recent album Dharma Blues. The American roots album features several beautiful songs, including “Snow Country Girl,” backed by Gillian Welch’s lovely harmony vocals and Jack Casady’s bass. But it was a folk concert many, many moons ago that may forever remain on Rowan’s mind.
“I had a little rock combo called the Cupids, and we played dance music for the kids,” he says. “We were 14 and 15 years old and played record hops around Boston. We stopped at a coffee house in Harvard Square, and Eric Von Schmidt was singing the songs of Lead Belly at Club 47 on Mount Auburn Street. It was spellbinding, and the first hint that there was something deeper to the rock and roll we were all dancing to.”