Peter Rowan: Gather The Spirit

Listen to Peter Rowan on Rhapsody...

By: Paul Kerr

Peter Rowan by Paul Cheney
Peter Rowan is a bluegrass living legend, lighting up the stage for over four decades as an evocative singer, propulsive guitarist and rock steady mandolin player. His countless musical explorations have led him through rock, folk, country and even reggae music. He was one of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, formed a rock band with David Grisman that opened for The Doors in the late '60s and joined Old and In the Way with Jerry Garcia to get back to their bluegrass roots.

Rowan's recent travels brought him through Chapel Hill, North Carolina with an acoustic quartet featuring famed guitarist Tony Rice. JamBase sat down with Rowan before his concert for a wide-ranging conversation on politics, war, Garcia, Michael Franti and music as a healing force in the world.

JamBase: You've been playing with Tony Rice for a long time and decided to turn it into a quartet. What led to that decision?

Peter Rowan: About six or seven years ago [we] started being asked by different festivals to do workshops. I had known Tony for some years but we'd never really played together. He'd always had his own band and played with the David Grisman Quintet. People had told me Tony's approach was that he had to hear music a lot before he figured out how he would play on it. And I thought, "Well that doesn't sound like the Tony that I'm playing with." Because I would just write new songs and he would jump right in and find a part and work on it.

I think the timing was right for us to do these things together. We were both in between projects and there began to be a call for what we were doing. So, I enlisted some young players from Texas that I knew to come out and play bass and mandolin with us and it was pretty cool, and it's developed since then to be more of a quartet thing. We've done two albums. The first one's called You Were There For Me. It was recorded right around the 9/11 time. It kind of has a melancholy feel. The new one is a little more hard driving. It's called Quartet [released January 23, 2007 on Rounder]. It features all the people we've been playing with.

JamBase: 9/11 was a Tuesday and that's the day records usually get released. Was it among that batch?

Peter Rowan: No, the writing was being done around that time and the time leading up to it, the year before. Just a sense in the world of a deep, deep melancholy and sadness and then, of course, [it] all broke out in the 9/11 thing. What I was writing during those times [had] a sense of foreboding and melancholy. I wrote a song called "Shirt Off My Back." To me anyway, I relate it to this sense of malaise and melancholy that was in the air leading up to 9/11.

I was living in New York until two months before and someone said, "I feel spooky. I feel like something's going to happen."

Yeah, it was in the air. Things are in the air before they happen. Of course once it happened there was no thought of what had led up to it. I mean it was all...

...reaction time.

It's still reaction time. I wrote this song called "Skyscraper" in Alaska that summer. [Starts singing] "Skyscraper, skyscraper, there's a hole in your sky. Skyscraper, skyscraper, let me rest in your shadow, rest in your shadow before I die."

What made you think of skyscrapers in the middle of Alaska?

I was in the middle of Alaska on the river and I was just laughing crazily because it was such strong nature, such strong country, that the opposite image came in my mind. I looked at a tall tree and I went "Skyscraper, skyscraper." It was one of those things that just came out. So that happened before 9/11 and all the lyrics of that song are about what's inside a building and its disappearance. Strange, I don't know.

Can your music bring people together and help with this sense of melancholy?

I don't seem to play in a militant style that's trying to shake the foundations of the empire. I wouldn't know how to describe it. I just write songs about what I see and hear and people I know. I don't have an agenda really. I think music is a healing force and it helps people. It certainly stirs them up but you never know what people bring to the music, you know? It used to be, when I was a kid, people would go to rock & roll shows and there'd always be these gang rumbles afterwards. But I wasn't in a gang. I just liked the music. So, it's different people, it's what they bring to the situation.

Peter Rowan
I have a full-scale reggae band with up to nine pieces, and when we play it's like a gathering of the vibes. That kind of brings the people in because lyrically it's kind of anthemic and spiritual. The lyrics are like, "Fetch wood, carry water, pull the Devil by the tail." It's kind of teasing and with that presentation, that kind of beat, and that kind of sound, it's more body music. People get hit in their bodies. They move to it, they stand up, they dance. But what I'm doing in acoustic music right now is not based on drums. It's based on acoustic guitars and rhythms that have developed in bluegrass music, and it's a different thing. Just the pure facility that Tony Rice has on the guitar, the brilliance and the genius, just frees me up so I can sing with a full voice and not feel like I have to drag the band along with my rhythm guitar playing. So it's a different situation.

Our new bass player is going to be with us tonight. Catherine Popper was working with Ryan Adams and she said the bigger he got, the louder he got, the harder it was to play music anymore. And Sharon [Gilchrist], my mandolin player, and I just played with Yonder Mountain String Band and [when] we got off stage we looked at each other. It was like, "I was just acting. What were you doing?" I don't know, I couldn't hear a thing so I was acting like I was playing and playing notes and things but it wasn't music because it wasn't a musical experience. It was just a lot of people making a lot of noise and a big crowd of people making more noise.

That's the kind of success that happens when you start playing these venues, and you deal with it however you deal with it. The band, they've got their thing together. They've got their in-ear microphones and everything. But for us, it comes down simply to an acoustic instrument over a microphone, and it really keeps you honest from a musical point of view 'cause we're just going to be playing whatever sound we can make from the instrument. There's nothing plugged in. I don't feel like it makes us better. It does keep you from getting too caught up in a sense – it keeps you from being too successful actually is what I could say [laughs].

Continue reading for more with Peter Rowan...

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