News Column

The language of bluegrass

May 2, 2013

YellowBrix

May 02--Peter Rowan is bluegrass music.

He learned from the master -- Kentucky's Bill Monroe -- and has been speaking this American language for 50 years.

"It's not that bluegrass is such a deep well of its own," said Rowan, who's been drinking from its inspirational waters since 1963. "Bill Monroe once told me, 'If you can play my music, you can play any kind of music' "

Rowan, 70, definitely has done that in an ever-shifting evolution of musical and stylistic incarnations -- with and without brothers Chris and Lorin -- while continuing to perpetuate bluegrass' legacy with new material.

He'll show off "The Old School," a new CD of original bluegrass tunes, Saturday at Twisted Oak Winery in Vallecito.

"I'm a rarity," said Rowan, a Buddhist, who adopted the faith in '60s San Francisco. "I have to bring it somewhat into the fold where it could be cliched. But I have to tread that line, writing new songs that have roots in older materials."

Rowan discovered bluegrass as a college student, drove a 1957 Chevrolet convertible across the country, trying to embrace the liberating vibe of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," and headed South to hook up with Monroe.

His musical role models also included the Carter Family, Ralph Stanley and Jimmy Martin.

"It's a great legacy," said Rowan, who plays guitar, mandolin, mandola and sings. "A great lineage to draw upon."

He's kept it that way while recording 45 albums -- solo and in eight group alignments and affiliations -- since 1968.

Five decades later, another generation is responding to American bluegrass and folk through Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers and the Felice Brothers.

"In a way, it's kind of a rebirth of roots music," said Rowan, who's scheduled a July 7 birthday concert with his brothers at Rancho Nicasio. "Bands want to engage the crowd. The crowd likes the live music experience. It's really all good music and stomping good times."

High-tech recording techniques (ProTools, PureVoice) and distribution systems (the Internet, MP3 files) have "had a heavy footprint on music," Rowan said. "But music doesn't care. Music can go any way. You've got a lot of chants and call-and-response music with the crowd. Bob Marley, he'd get people chanting.

"Music lovers and listeners want the experience of being in a crowd. They want to be part of a musical experience. With a lot of really loud rock music, you hardly can hear the music from all that sound."

Besides, said Rowan, bluegrass music -- for purists, there are no drums -- is portably populist.

"It's all good and healthy," Rowan said recently from Point Reyes, where he lives part of the year, splitting time between a "little cabin" there and Austin, Texas. "You can take an acoustic guitar and banjo band and play anywhere. You don't need an arena. That crowd. That community feeling. People are hungry for it.

"Music is an exploration. Every guitar has a personality of its own. Every instrument has its own voice. If you can find that voice. When you pick up a guitar, you know it has songs in it. You learn to just hold it over your chest and hear those songs."

Born in Wayland, Mass., Rowan and his brothers began dancing before playing music. Their parents -- Paul, who worked in the textile business, and Elizabeth, a painter -- were "involved in every kind of dancing," Rowan said. "That gave me some inspiration."

So did "uncle Jimmy," who brought a ukulele and grass skirt home from World War II. At 12, Rowan got a plastic uke.

"I had no idea how deep the musical roots ran," Rowan said with amusement. "No judgment at all."

The Cupids, his first band, played at sock hops. At 14, he gained more inspiration at rock 'n' roll shows (the Diamonds, Johnny Burnette, Dale Hawkins).

Exposed to "English literature and poetry" in boarding school he studied philosophy at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

There, he found Kerouac (1922-69), a Massachusetts-bred novelist and poet who helped establish the Beat Generation.

"That was, like, 'Oh. wow,' " Rowan said of his Kerouac-ian odyssey. "The country was the same country. It was so incredibly moving, heartfelt and kind of sad."

He listened more to Leadbelly, Eric von Schmidt and folk-bluegrass standards such as Monroe's "In the Pines" at Wurlitzer's music store in Harvard Square: "The earliest, earliest stuff was really sparkling. I started to listen more carefully. Later, he was the well-spring with that energy."

That's after Rowan left New England for Kentucky, where he played with Monroe (1911-96).

"It was like I'd passed through the mirror onto the other side," Rowan said. "It was really different. He was a 'god' thing at home. It was him and the boys on the road."

Rowan stays on that highway in a variety of musical incarnations: Big Twang Theory; Twang an' Groove; Crucial Reggae; and Free Mexican Airforce, Still, "One of my feelings is that the bluegrass is a transcendent thing."

Contact Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or tsauro@recordnet.com.

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(c)2013 The Record (Stockton, Calif.)

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