THE LONG GAME
This year marks sixty years since bluegrass master PETER ROWAN formed his first band, and he ain’t done yet, writes SAMUEL J. FELL.
If Bill Monroe is regarded as the father of bluegrass, then Peter Rowan is the prodigal son. Beginning his career as guitarist, vocalist and songwriter in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Rowan has gone on to forge a career that’s lasted a little over fifty years, himself now a legend of genre.
This month, as part of the National Folk Festival’s 50th anniversary event, Rowan and his Bluegrass Band will return to Australian shores, a place they’ve been welcomed many times over the years, keeping alive the traditions of this exalted American roots music.
While the National Folkie celebrates their gold anniversary though, it’s worth noting that Rowan has been playing for longer, for it was in 1956 that he formed his first band, The Cupids, while still at high school – sixty years playing music is an incredible accomplishment. “Well, I’m not sure if it’s incredible accomplishment, or incredible folly,” Rowan chuckles down a crackly phone line.
Most would regard it as accomplishment – he joined Monroe’s band in 1963, not long after leaving college. “One thing I started to like about the Monroe style was that there was a lot more blues in it than other styles of bluegrass,” he’s been quoted as saying. “It was darker. It had more of an edge to it. And yet it still had the ballad tradition in it, and I loved that.”
It’s this approach Rowan then took to his own projects – Earth Opera, Sea Train, Muleskinner, The Rowans (with brothers Chris and Lorin), Old & In The Way (with Jerry Garcia, amongst others), Twang An’ Groove, The Free Mexican Airforce and The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. He’s been there and done it, taking his chosen genre to the world – bluegrass wouldn’t be the same without the contributions of, firstly, Bill Monroe, but also his musical son, Rowan.
“Inspiration, the possibility of finding something new,” he says, after a little thought, on what keeps him going after fifty-odd years, what gets him out of bed in the mornings. “You know, to find the songs I haven’t written yet. And also, to keep the music moving forward a little bit. It’s a challenge to keep it fresh, but I like playing with the younger players.”
This leads the conversation towards the future of the genre – I ask Rowan how important he sees it that the style evolves in order to survive, to remain (or become) relevant to a new generation. “My approach is different to other people’s I think,” he says. “There are some people who just work on the musical side of it, because bluegrass is such an instrumental-oriented thing. My whole thing is working on vocals and vocal harmonies and kind of leaving the music to take care of itself.”
The evolution of bluegrass is obvious, the rise of the nu-grass set (Mumford, Punch Brothers, Mustered Courage et al) seeing to that. For Rowan though, at this point in his storied career, it is as he says, about keeping it fresh, something you’d imagine wouldn’t be too hard given how many combos he’s a part of.
“There’s always a key player in any of the variations I do,” he explains. “The key player in this ensemble would be my collaboration with Chris Henry, he’s a great singer and mandolin player, he’s kinda like I was at his age. So there’s always a key player, like Jerry Douglas or Jerry Garcia, Tony Rice, there’s always somebody that I have a spark with.”
This has been a key element to Rowan’s growth as a musician over the years, something he obviously still finds important, and something which brings to his music an electricity. Talk turns to albums, Rowan looking a little further afield with his next release.
“I’ve been recording in Hawaii,” he explains, “pretty much love songs. It’s starting to get a little bit of an edge to it, but I’ve always wanted to make an album that’s just about pure feeling towards another person. And Hawaiian music gives me that opportunity. I’m also doing some more Twang An’ Groove stuff in Texas.”
Sixty years since forming his first band, and Peter Rowan is talking about two more albums he’s got on the go, two more to add to an already incredibly impressive catalogue. I’ve talked elsewhere in this issue about the blues being in good hands, but it seems the future of bluegrass is completely assured – Peter Rowan will see to that.
The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band plays the National Folk Festival, March 24-28. For other dates, head here.