Peter Rowan on the Early Years, Newgrass and the Ups and Downs of Life
by Cat Johnson
Before Peter Rowan was an internationally recognized bluegrass artist, he was an Elvis Presley-loving, electric guitar-wielding product of the rock & roll ’50s. But as the ’50s rolled into the ’60s, his attention turned to the acoustic music scene that was emerging in his hometown of Boston. From folk, country and gospel to mountain ballads and the blues, Rowan took a shine to it all, but it was the high and lonesome sound of bluegrass that called him the loudest.
“Rather than just being a guy who played gospel or the blues, bluegrass took my interest,” he says from his home in Inverness, California. “It had more of the things that I liked: the country blues and wonderful singing, the richness of the tradition, the mountain ballads and the gospel.”
Bluegrass was a natural fit for Rowan. He started playing it in and around the Boston area, and within a few years he was in Nashville auditioning to be in Bill Monroe’s band. To his surprise, he got the gig.
“I was hired by the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, to be his guitar player in the ’60s,” says Rowan. “[He] brought me down to Nashville and we played the Grand Ol’ Opry every week.
“I kept pinching myself,” he adds with a laugh. “I never would have imagined it.”
Under the watchful eye of Monroe, Rowan honed his bluegrass chops and picked up the notion of pushing the boundaries of traditional bluegrass. “Bill Monroe had a very haunting quality,” Rowan says of Monroe’s edgier, blues-infused style. “There’s a sense that life is tragic and you have to rise above it and give your best.”
After his tenure in Monroe’s band, Rowan headed back to Boston and teamed up with mandolin virtuoso David Grisman in a psychedelic folk-rock band called Earth Opera. The band stayed together only two years, but the connections Rowan made laid the groundwork for a number of creative projects with Grisman, including the now-legendary supergroup Old and in the Way, which featured, among others, Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements and an occasional sit-in by John Hartford.
“When I met Jerry Garcia, I had all these songs that I had written that couldn’t find a home in the rock & roll bands,” says Rowan. “So Grisman and Garcia and I formed Old and in the Way and returned to something that was real and natural.”
The band combined traditional bluegrass numbers with covers of rock songs and came to be known as one of the pioneering groups of the emerging newgrass sound. In fact, they were just playing what came naturally.
“With Garcia and Grisman there was no limitation to the kind of songs that we could do,” he says. “Garcia was all for stretching out beyond the confines of traditional bluegrass, but we weren’t trying to do anything other than play songs that we liked.”
Since his time in Old and in the Way, Rowan has become an internationally acclaimed solo artist and bandleader who has collaborated with scores of artists in a wide variety of musical styles. He has picked up numerous awards and Grammy nods and has established himself as a musician whose concern is less with his collaborators’ style than with their spirit.
“The theme is that among these [collaborators], there’s a spark in their eye,” he says. “When they find someone trying to put out something with soul, they see it. From Bill Monroe to Garcia to Jerry Douglas, they’re always responding personally to what I do.”
Rowan’s latest release, the Grammy-nominated Legacy, features an illustrious group of musicians including Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs and Tim O’Brien and was produced by renowned banjo player Alison Brown. A return to his bluegrass roots, the album was, according to Rowan, exactly what he needed at this point in his life.
“This record enabled me to look at some very personal things,” he says. “I always thought that bluegrass was just a form that carried a vibe, but I realized with this album that I really needed that form to write about what I was going through: the ups and downs of life. Bluegrass was meant to speak about life, not just be a style.”
A version of this article appeared in the Santa Cruz Weekly.