Finally, after about a half hour, Rowan awoke from his slumber. I went in and there he was, one of the pillars of bluegrass music, laid out on a musty couch, legs over the armrest. We chatted for what seemed like an eternity between my nervousness and his elaborate, fascinating responses to questions posed.
Growing up outside of Boston, Rowan fell in love with old radio stations he’d hear as a child, airwaves that sent signals and sounds from as far away as Nashville and points westward. Soon, he became part of the Beantown folk scene of the early 1960s. It was there the “Godfather of Bluegrass,” Bill Monroe, crossed paths with Rowan and asked him to join his group as a singer.
“I’m a songwriter, and Bill Monroe told me if I could play bluegrass, I could play anything. I took him at his word, and I’ve done a lot of different things,” Rowan said. “I’m not trying to prove a point or wear the ‘Crown of Bluegrass.’ It’s more like a celebration of the roots of the music in my approach.”
Following his stint with Monroe, Rowan set out on his own, pushing his intent further and farther into the fate of the cosmos. Along the way, he teamed up with renowned mandolinist David Grisman. The duo formed Earth Opera, a somewhat successful string group, who oddly enough opened for The Doors in the late 1960s. Earth Opera represented a shift for Rowan, partly from his new musical exploration into free jazz, partly from the influence of Grisman, who taught him how to truly listen.
“In those days, we would listen to music for an hour at a minimum without interruption. I don’t know if people do that anymore. Listen to music for an hour, hour and a half of just listening to music. There’s a world of beauty there,” Rowan said. “A lot of it goes back to a split in the bluegrass world between those people who went for a kind of neo-traditionalism and those people like Tony Rice, myself and Grisman who got influenced by John Coltrane and Miles Davis and their attitudes about music. You can’t live out the rest of your life imagining that you’re living out their dream of what you should be doing. But what it does teach you is where is the spontaneous moment.”
Rowan and Grisman again teamed up in the ensemble Old and in the Way, a powerhouse bluegrass band also featuring Jerry Garcia (banjo), Vassar Clements (fiddle) and John Kahn (bass). Their self-titled 1975 album became the best-selling bluegrass album of all time until it was dethroned by the soundtrack to the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000).
Throughout it all, Rowan has remained a beacon of light in a world of uncertainty. You can’t change the past or determine the future, but for Rowan, all that matters is your impact on humanity on a moment-by-moment basis.
I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with Rowan many times during the years. From the backwoods of Michigan to backstage in Vermont, and points in between, he’ll walk over, and we’ll catch up like old friends — it’s a musical bond I cherish deeply.
Now 71, Rowan is just as mobile and enthusiastic as he was a half-century ago leaving Boston for Nashville. He has always looked at his craft as a lifelong journey, a laborious pursuit whose fruits will only come to those willing to seek out their destiny, knowing damn well the end truly does justify the means.
“People used to say, ‘Keep the faith.’ Look in the eyes of these guys who’ve survived along with myself. It’s unspoken, but definitely ‘Keep the faith,’” he said. “Because we’ve not had overwhelming success but we’ve had enough success to know how to celebrate with the audience. They give us their attention, and that’s what makes it all happen.”
Peter Rowan will perform on Monday, Nov. 4, at Cataloochee Guest Ranch in Maggie Valley. Tickets are $45, which includes dinner. For tickets and reservations, call 828.926.1401. www.cataloocheeranch.com.
1: Legendary singer/songwriter Peter Rowan performs with Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo at the Cataloochee Ranch in Maggie Valley on Nov. 4.
2: Vermont Americana duo The Dupont Brothers hit the stage at The Classic Wineseller in Waynesville on Nov. 1.
3: The WCU ice cream eating contest will be Nov. 2 at Jack the Dipper in Sylva.
4: Writer Gary Carden spins Halloween tales on Oct. 31 at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.
5: The Open Door” music benefit will be at HART Theatre in Waynesville on Nov. 9.