Peter Rowan

Rowan-leadPeter Rowan
The Lion Of Bluegrass Unveils A New Album
And Reflects On Life At 75

The music world took pause when word got out that Peter Rowan was canceling shows earlier this year due to health reasons. Rowan has toured in various capacities while in the music business since he was a young man. Now at 75, any news of canceled gigs and or a health scare is sure to get the attention of those who love his artistry.

Before the cancellations were announced in January, I spent time with Rowan at the Jam In The Trees Festival in August of 2017 in Black Mountain, N.C. While there, he looked a bit tired and walked with a cane, yet was animated and full of conversation and music. The road has taken its toll on many a younger troubadour, so no one would think less of Rowan if he took a break to relax. But, there was more to the story. Rowan is now back on the road, feeling better and excited about his first-ever album for Rebel Records called Carter Stanley’sEyes. He breaks down this new bluegrass recording and tells the story of his eventful and unexpected trip to the ER a few months ago.

“I had to take some time off to regain my strength and my health,” Rowan says. “I went to see a nurse because I thought I was having an allergy attack and was short of breath. She said, ‘No, you need to go to the Emergency Room.’ It turns out that my whole system was worn out, so I had to restart everything. I lost 30 pounds and am getting my stamina back now.” When news of Rowan’s situation spread, friends, family, music collaborators, and acquaintances all reached out to him in wonderful ways.

“It was a great time as far as woodshedding and coming up with new musical ideas. But during that period, and I could be fooling myself, I never felt that episode was signaling my time for the curtain to come down. Other people showed up in my life then. I must say, I wrote a lot of thank you notes, because I heard from everybody. I heard from anybody that I ever had anything to do with, and it made me feel humble and thankful. Their support meant a lot.”

Now back on track, his new album for Rebel Records features original songs, plus a select group of covers made famous by the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, the Louvin Brothers, Lead Belly, and others. Helping out on the project are Chris Henry, Jack Lawrence, Don Rigsby, Tim O’Brien, Patrick Sauber, Paul Knight, Blaine Sprouse, Jamie Oldaker, and Todd Pons.

“I’m glad to be with Rebel Records. In a way, it’s long overdue. This is the right record for that label because it’s a bluegrass album. Bluegrass is that tricky area where you water the roots of the bluegrass tree and keep the tree healthy, and the music stays healthy by that activity. It’s not a progressive record. It’s not about showing off how we can go here or go there. It’s a good ole hardcore bluegrass record—one that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Bluegrass is a big world, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do variations of the theme. I associate Dave Freeman [Rebel Records owner] with those people in the bluegrass world like Bill Monroe and Ralph Rinzler; guys who had a passion for the music way back when. Dave kept his focus, and I loved his County Sales business because almost everything that was on vinyl is out on CD now, and I love to hear Riley Puckett and Clark Kessinger’s music. And, Dave and [his son] Mark Freeman are still bringing out and featuring young people on their label.”

The title cut, “The Light In Carter Stanley’s Eyes,” is based on a true story about a day when Bill Monroe asked Rowan to drive him to the Clinch Mountains to spend time with Carter Stanley near the end of Carter’s life. Rowan was a young buck then, in the mid-1960s, hanging out with two older legends who admired each other. The poignancy of that visit has stayed with Rowan all these years.

“I was never really introduced to Ralph Stanley, though we would say things to each other while we were out there doing things,” Rowan recalls. “With Ralph, it was more like you were rubbing shoulders with all of these people in that world, yet nobody ever got that formal about it. Now, Bill Monroe did make sure that I was formally introduced to his brother Carter. But by then, we had already played the Newport Folk Festival and had done workshops with the Stanley Brothers, and it was like everybody was in their separate worlds. I asked Ralph if I could sing ‘White Doves’ with him one time because Old & In The Way had done it. But, the way they sang it was in a fast waltz, while the way Jerry Garcia did it with the rest of us in Old & In The Way was that ‘epic flow’ kind of version. Jerry understood space.”

The backstage atmosphere in the 1960s was fascinating, yet happened in a certain way. “There was a lot of unspoken competition in bluegrass, and a lot of stalking then,” says Rowan. “The ones who were friendly at the Newport Folk Festival were the blues guys like Willie Dixon and the guys in Muddy Waters’ band. They were like we were, as in, ‘We’re playing with the masters.’ The younger guys were all as excited to play with Muddy Waters, as we were to be Blue Grass Boys. Mike Bloomfield was over-the-top excited. You were hanging in a tent for a while and the vibe was so magical, but then everybody does their own thing and goes their own way.”

When it came time for Monroe and Rowan to make the journey into the mountains of Southwest Virginia to spend time with Carter, the atmosphere was totally different. In Rowan’s view, Stanley knew he wasn’t long for this world, and it seemed that he wanted to reach out to his friend Monroe. The problem was that Monroe didn’t want to drive to the mountains by himself, yet Rowan wasn’t much of a chauffeur at the time, either.

“We were playing in Knoxville and Bill said to me, ‘I need to go and see Carter Stanley. Would you mind driving me?’ He was training me as a driver. I always asked him, ‘Why do you want me to drive?’ I was always the wise guy. I said, ‘I wrecked the bus. I’m terrible at driving.’ But Bill said, ‘Pete, a man has got to learn to be a driver. A man has got to be a wheelhoss.’ I wrecked the bus one day as we were coming down from North Carolina. There were no brakes to speak of, and the only way you can stop a bus like that is to downshift. We were driving all night after the gig in North Carolina and it was all downhill, and we eventually hit Nashville and I was downshifting like crazy and suddenly I’m in traffic.”

It became a bit harrowing at that point, and one can easily picture Monroe swerving from side to side in the nearly out of control bus. “This was after driving from 11 that night until 6 in the morning, and there was no traffic on the road then. We were just barreling along. I didn’t drive the whole way, but it was my turn when we came into Nashville. All of a sudden, I’m going through all the gears, and there were just no brakes on the bus. I went through a red light and hit somebody, grazing them sideways, and we went over into a drainage ditch. That didn’t hurt the bus much, but I definitely wrecked the other person’s car and she was scared. It was a nightmare. Bill wasn’t happy. It didn’t help our relationship at all. When you think about it, I was 22 years old and I didn’t have a bus driver’s license. But, he kept me on. He put up with a lot of stuff—I was a mess.”

So, Rowan agreed to drive Monroe to see Stanley in the mountains, and it turned out to be a memorable encounter that Rowan would turn into a song over half a century later. “We borrowed a car. You didn’t rent a car in those days. You borrowed a car. We drove from Knoxville up to the Clinch Mountains and it took about six hours. We left early and, by afternoon, we were there. We drove up the side of the mountain to what appeared to be a freshly cleared field. I thought at the time, this was where the Stanley Brothers were going to have their festival and Carter wanted to show Bill what they were going to do. There were all of these tree stumps around, all torn up. Bill introduced me to him, and I loved Carter’s singing. It was a year before he passed away and the thing I remember about Carter at the time was that he had that fateful look in his eyes. His skin looked jaundiced. I think he had a liver thing going on. I knew Carter was a heavy drinker because at the Newport Folk Festival, we hung out in the Stanley Brothers’ house and there were a lot of bottles lying around in the rooms.” Carter Stanley would die on December 1, 1966.

“I knew that Carter carried the load, and his songs had the hand of fate on them,” Rowan says. “But, at the same time, his songs also had that Gloryland thing going on as well. I think that’s why Carter asked Bill to come and see him. It was a goodbye. But, I didn’t know that then. I wrote in my diary that very night something along the lines of, ‘I’ve seen a vision in Carter Stanley’s tombstone eyes.’ I thought it was so negative for me to write that, but it was typical 1960s ‘far out’ prose. I never did anything with it. I have it in the manuscript of my diaries that I’m putting together. It was Ralph Rinzler who told me to keep a journal when I went with Monroe. In the end, looking back, it was the light in Carter Stanley’s eyes that I noticed. It was his life force that I was seeing. When I wrote that down in my diary originally, however, I had a bad feeling about Carter. He didn’t look well. He looked ill. That diary entry has haunted me all these years.

“My realization about it when I wrote the song was that Carter wanted to see Bill because he felt a twinge of mortality. I think that was the whole point of going up to see him. I think it was a goodbye. I think it was one of those deep things, due to the friendship that they had. If you read Ralph Stanley’s book, Ralph gets into the whole relationship with Carter and Bill Monroe and that’s how I knew there was more to it than Carter coming in and singing a couple of songs with Bill. They wrote together. In fact, Ralph mentions the names of the songs they wrote together. Both Bill and the Stanley Brothers recorded those songs. Although, of course, they recorded them under their own names. That’s how things worked then.”

Traveling alone with a legend like Monroe was an interesting experience for a 1960s musician in his early 20s. “Bill liked his silences. I got used to them because for the first two weeks I was with him, nobody said a thing. One time, when we were coming back from Maryland, an entire road trip in and out of Nashville, and the only thing I wrote in my diary was about when we stopped at this place to get some gas and maybe a sandwich and there was this roadside area with table after table of old tools and things under a tent. At that truck stop, Bill walked around and picked up those items and the only thing I wrote in my diary was what Bill said: ‘These here belonged to the old-timers. They were good people.’ That was it—for a 48-hour trip. He might only say one thing, but he was like that.”

Looking back, one fascinating thing that Rowan remembers from those crazy days in the 1960s was that the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia could have become a Blue Grass Boy. “There’s a tape that exists that has Sandy Rothman and Jerry Garcia on it, recorded during Garcia’s pilgrimage to try out with Monroe,” Rowan notes. Rothman was a member of the Black Mountain Boys with Garcia in the early ’60s and would later play in Garcia’s Acoustic Band. “They were in a hotel in Pennsylvania and, on the tape, they’re sitting there watching Jim & Jesse on TV and they recorded the audio of the TV show on a tape recorder. But, it’s the comments that are so funny because they’re watching Allen Shelton take a banjo break and Garcia is saying, ‘Oh man, that’s how they do it!’ Nobody had ever seen bluegrass live and you would hear a weird sound back then and think, ‘How did they do it?’ As for Jerry, he never auditioned with Bill. He got there and chickened out. They went to Sunset Park and watched Monroe’s show, and Sandy had played a bit with Bill and introduced Jerry to him, but Jerry didn’t try out.”

As for Rowan’s new album, he’s thrilled with the results and with the musicians he chose to play with him. Some of the highlights on the album include “Drumbeats On The Watchtower,” “The True And Trembling Brakeman,” “Hills Of Roane County,” “A Tiny Broken Heart,” “A Crown He Wore,” “Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” “Alabama Bound,” and “A Vision Of Mother.”

“Chris Henry brings a lot to the table on this project,” says Rowan. “Chris is underrated as a musician. Everybody knows he’s great, yet perhaps under-appreciated. But he’s getting his due now. Pat Sauber is another one. He plays banjo on the record. He’s very busy now because everybody wants him. He’s wonderful to work with—a great musician. Pat and Chris together [with me] are my favorite trio at this point. I brought Jack Lawrence in because he’s one of the great guitarists. His solo on ‘Drumbeats On The Watchtower’ is a sassy solo, especially the way he leaves space at the end and then throws in a final lick. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, man!’ With Jack’s playing, you can hear a lot of Southern Rock in it. I like players that can show their influences. But, he wasn’t required to show anyone his traditions, because I said to him, ‘Just be Jack.’ He plays with great wit.”

Rowan brought in other veterans and friends to add to the project as well. “It was great having Tim O’Brien in the studio, too. He’s just a confidence builder. And so is Don Rigsby. I met Don up in Ireland. Geesh, ‘up in Ireland.’ I sound like Bill Monroe,” Rowan laughs. “Anyway, in Northern Ireland, they have this American colonial village with log cabins that were imported from the U.S., and both Don and his band and my band were playing there. There’s this thing in bluegrass where everybody is friendly, but there’s always a little bit of suspicion. ‘Who are these people?’ But, Don was totally welcoming and was very encouraging, and we got to play together.”

It was Rigsby who suggested that Rowan record “The True And Trembling Brakeman.” Originally heard by Rigsby on a live recording of Carter Stanley singing it many years ago, the cut is based on a true story witnessed by the song’s writer, a West Virginia mine worker named Orville Jenks who wrote it around 1915.

“Don has made albums of Stanley Brothers music in recent years and Dave Freeman suggested that Don and I work together. I thought that this was my opportunity to sing some duets with somebody who can really lay the lead in there. I’m usually the lead singer, and I don’t mind it, because I like singing lead. But, Joe Val taught me to sing Ira Louvin’s parts on those Louvin Brothers songs before I went with Monroe. He told me, ‘Peter, if you learn this, you’ll understand.’ So, once I contacted Don Rigsby and I said, ‘Let’s do some duets. I’d love to sing tenor to your lead.’ He said, ‘Yes. I’m a fan.’”

Rowan didn’t know what Rigsby’s reaction would be to his offer of collaboration, knowing that Rigsby stayed true to the traditional side of the bluegrass ledger. “I thought that Don would think my music was way out there,” Rowan says. “But, it’s not if you really listen to it. I tried to tow the line, man. People say, ‘I love that progressive stuff you play.’ I say, ‘That’s just me trying to play it straight.’ I remember one time I showed up at the Winterhawk Festival and Sam Bush and I were standing around jamming by the fire. Every time we would mention Bill Monroe, the smoke would turn from the fire and blow in our faces. We laughed, because we knew Bill thought we were black sheeps. Each time we’d play a Bill Monroe song, the smoke would turn on us. That’s one of those magical things you experience and always remember.”

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