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Published: 2013/08/08
by Kiran Herbert

Peter Rowan Revisits The Old School

To call Peter Rowan a legend is an established truth, though it doesn’t quite capture that innovative spirit, which persists despite his 71 years. Rowan was born a Yankee in Boston, Massachusetts, but he has long been associated with Nashville, bluegrass and the father of both, Bill Monroe. He’s written songs like “Midnight Moonlight,” “The Walls of Time” and “Panama Red,” which have been covered by everyone from Willie Nelson to Railroad Earth to the String Cheese Incident. He was also a member of one of the first and most inspirational jamgrass bands, Old and in the Way, with the likes of David Grisman and Jerry Garcia.

His new album, The Old School, features an impressive roster of Nashville cats and honors Doc Watson, Bill Monroe and the musical inheritance they’ve left us all. If you get a chance to see Rowan with Twang and Groove however, you might reconsider what you think you know about his music. He is famous for his yodel, his versatility and his passion for at times staying in the lines, yet also knowing when to color outside of them. Rowan told me “Bill Monroe was “keep it between the lines” old school, [while] Jerry Garcia was, “Hey man, where are we going now? What’s the adventure now?”” The Festival Shaman and his legacy, falls somewhere in the middle.

How he came to play with Twang and Groove

A lot of it had to do with the songs, you know I’ve been doing them a certain way for a long time with a heavy bluegrass influence. I felt like elongating the lines of the story of “Land of the Navajo.” A good friend of mine out here, Jack Elliot, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot—he’s a guy I admired a lot when I was just starting to pick, when I was like twelve or fourteen, he was of the older generation, a pal of Woody Guthrie’s and he’s still on the road—I noticed that he didn’t try to keep everything within a strict boundary, like bluegrass does. You can stretch it for sure, but there’s a certain form that’s expected of a tune, and when you play it solo you don’t have that restriction. You can stretch it out a bit, sort of have it linger on lines. Especially in ballads, like ‘Land of the Navajo’ that tell a story.

So I’ve been doing this with a bluegrass band where we just take a beat and stretch it out, so that the story is being told rather than just the tune being played. When I got together with my buddies in Austin, Twang and Groove, the drummer is a guy named Jamie Olbaker from Tulsa, Oklahoma who played with Eric Clapton. He was in his band for four or five years back in the day when [Clapton] recorded down in Florida and was using Tulsa guys because he was enamored with J.J. Cale. Eric liked that groovy, kind of chilled out but rocking feeling. I met up with Jamie when we did our first gig a few months ago in Texas.

Immediately, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is really different.” Because Jamie comes from roots that are as strong as bluegrass but they come from Tulsa, Okalhoma, which is a combination of western twang and R&B. But all those guys were really enamored with…black guys playing black music. Jamie grew up in Tulsa, and I said, “Well what’s the influence out there?” And he said, “Black blues and Indians.”

Oklahoma is Indian Territory, you know I’ve written about it and I’ve been exploring the southwest again. It’s so stark out there that the vividness of things is very present, and musically too. You get out there in the desert and you hear space and you realize that music is going on, it’s very vivid in your mind, the sound of the wind and everything like that, it all contributes to it.

A lot of bluegrass oriented jam music is still going boom-dicky-boom-dicky-boom, but it kind of ignores the R&B side of it and really, it’s great to be able to adapt. Right now I’m finding these old recordings of soul singers and how they approached their ballads was really deep, deep, deep down in the groove. So that’s kind of where I’m coming from on this project, is from that place where there’s just more of a soul beat to it than a drum based bluegrass beat. However, we still do all the bluegrass tunes and some of them in that beat. It’s just tunes like ‘Land of the Navajo’ that stretch you know, really stretch them so the words are drawn out. It’s country with a R&B feel is how I look at it. Electric bluegrass with a deep R&B sensitivity to it.

From Boston to Nashville

Well, you know as a kid I was addicted to the radio. So, I would hear a world of music that was way beyond my years. When I had to take a nap when I was four years old my mother would let me listen to the radio and I pretty much listened to what was then country music coming out of WBZ in Boston, which became Channel 2, the great TV station that brought documentaries and really in-depth programming to the world. Before that started they were a radio station and they broadcast all kinds of music. I remember the pop music was kind of uninteresting, you know Frank Sinatra and stuff was still pretty popular, but it was a world I had no sensitivity to. It was my parents’ music. My parents loved Broadway shows and things like that.

When I was a kid the radio played bluegrass. I had no idea what it was. As soon as I was six years old my parents got me out going to square dances. And in square dances I got to experience people playing the instruments: I could see the fiddle, and the banjo and the guitar. And that was pretty exciting. So I started to strum on a tennis racket—I had no self-consciousness about, you know, “I’m going to play an instrument,” until I was about twelve years old and then my dad gave me a ukulele. There was this guy on the radio named Arthur Godfrey and he had a talent show on the radio and it broadcast from Hawaii. There was also another show on there called Hawaii Calls. My ears were just delighted to hear what I could hear. I heard the steel guitar, didn’t know what it was, but I could imitate it with my voice. So I’m singing with the yodeling.

Between twelve and thirteen I had this little rock and roll band and we’d go out and play concerts and then somebody turned me onto this club in Boston, two clubs. One was Club 47, where all this folk music was being played and the whole of Boston, Cambridge scene in the early 60’s was people jumping on it. Just people wanting to learn how to play, learning from other people, and I liked the bluegrass thing because it had the blues, it had the ballads, and it also had the harmony. Bill Monroe came to town and he liked the way I played and he had me join his band. That was cool.

I’m more of a Yankee, I could still be a Yankee, but I went south. I went away from the scene where people were trying to make it as folk singers and I went down and just apprenticed with a master in a style. We were on the Grand Ole Opry every weekend and it introduced me to a world where it wasn’t quite as intellectual as the New England folk scene. Living in a society with major racial discrimination at the time, and then the freedom marches, civil rights—we were in the middle of it. I used to wonder how I ever played bluegrass being a liberal Yankee, but over time everything—as best as it could—worked itself out.

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Maria Klink September 4, 2013, 12:18:49

WONDERFUL article. Just saw Peter at Mammoth Blues Festival, shaman for sure.

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