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art theplaceThey call him the “Tao of Bluegrass.”

It was exactly eight years this month when I first met Peter Rowan. I was 21 and on my first feature assignment as a wet-behind-the-ears journalist still in college. The Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts was our rendezvous point. I sat in that old basement green room, Rowan laid out across a musty couch, as we talked about the magic of music and performance. 

Acclaimed for his work with bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe, Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and other musical icons like David Grisman and Vassar Clements, Rowan is a renowned, Grammy award-winning performer. On Dec. 7, the 72-year-old will be returning to Cataloochee Guest Ranch in Maggie Valley for an intimate fireside performance. And through those almost 50 years of melodic destiny, Rowan remains a torchbearer of acoustic music. His words speak the history of America — it’s rich soils, deep waters and stoic mountain ranges. 

Since we first became friends, Rowan and I have crossed paths all across the country, backstage at a festival Michigan, on the streets in Vermont, and now once again at Cataloochee. With his passionate Buddhist outlook on the world, he has become a mentor of sorts to me, this cosmic bluegrass cowboy always riding towards the horizon to destinations unknown. You see, what one learns from his music and persona is that all is possible in the universe when one is pure of heart and remains open to a life well-lived in truth and pursuit of knowledge of self.

With Rowan returning to Western North Carolina, I couldn’t help but recall a conversation we had some time back, where his words echo as loudly today as they did those three years ago.

Garret K. Woodward: One of the key themes in bluegrass is mortality. You see the big picture‚ you must be aware of the moment onstage‚ soaking it all in.

Peter Rowan: That’s right. Music‚ especially‚ is temporary. It comes and goes. You can’t sustain the highest pitch all the time. You’ve got to come down from it. I thought that bluegrass definitely had that balance. It had those tragic songs of daily life as it was lived during the Great Depression. It has a tremendous capacity even now to express those same feelings. 

GKW: Do you feel as you’re getting older‚ you’re letting a lot of baggage go? That you’re seeing more humor in everyday life?

PR: Uh-huh. You can’t hold onto it‚ it’ll kill it. I wish I was erudite in humor. That’s what John Hartford had said. He said his goal was to be able to make people laugh‚ tickle their funny bone and he was very subtle about it. Maybe I see the humor more. I went out in the woods as a kid and discovered silence. You can hear a mockingbird two miles away if you really listen and I used to spend a long time just listening. This notion‚ this Buddhist idea they call emptiness‚ that refer to as egoless‚ that nothing is completely defined as any one thing permanently‚ that everything is in a state of flux. When you’re out in the woods and you can hear the state of flux and it’s magic and the light changes. All of the great Buddhist analogies of life‚ I like that stuff.

GKW: It’s about one entire journey‚ not making a quick buck and calling it a day. It’s about looking at life as one big process‚ one big exploration.

PR: The thing is‚ if you look after the universe and you look after people that need you‚ you’ll be looked after. That’s just the way it works. The great search is ultimately the life of the mind anyway. It’s difficult to prevail upon others your own attitudes and that’s what makes you look at yourself. All you can do is take care of those people that need taking care of as best you can. You can’t discover their truth for them and they can’t discover your truth for you. On the other hand‚ I’m seeing a lot of people go‚ a lot of surprise people‚ a lot of close people. I never thought it would come to this‚ never imagined these days would come‚ in terms of being older. It’s a wide-open book as far as I’m concerned. In this universe‚ here we are.


Want to go?

Bluegrass legend Peter Rowan will perform on Sunday, Dec. 7, at Cataloochee Guest Ranch in Maggie Valley. 

A 5:30 p.m. cocktail hour will then be followed by dinner and a fireside performance by Rowan. The Darren Nicholson Band will open the show. The intimate evening of music will be in memory of the late Richard Coker, co-owner of the ranch, who passed away at this time last year. As of press time, dinner tickets were sold out, with “performance only” spaces still available. or 828.926.1401. 


Hot picks

1 The Hometown Holiday Jam & Food Drive with Soldier’s heart (Americana/rock) will be held at 9 p.m. Nov. 28 at the Water’n Hole Bar & Grille in Waynesville.

The Nanta Claus Christmas Children’s Benefit will be from 6 to 10 p.m. Dec. 13 at Nantahala Brewing.

The Festival of Lights & Luminaries will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Dec. 6-7 and 13-14 in downtown Dillsboro.

Metal Night, featuring Amnesis, Hope Sets Sail, Slaves of Conscience, will be at 9 p.m. Nov. 29 at No Name Sports Pub in Sylva.

“The Christmas Shoes” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5-6 and 12-13 and at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 7 and 14 at the Smoky Mountain Community Theatre in Bryson City.

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