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Published: 2013/08/08
by Kiran Herbert

Peter Rowan Revisits The Old School

Recording The Old School live and in a circle

I don’t really know. It’s people sitting around microphones breathing [laughs]. I always record that way, it’s not like that’s a different thing for me. I always try and record live. But in this one it was like, “Let’s not try and make it all separated by what they call baffling, or keeping the sound in. Let’s go for whatever happens in the room and I think it sounds real good.” There’s a theory where engineering and everything is afraid of what they call leakage, and I think leakage is what gives the magic to the sound.

[We recorded it] in Nashville, in a studio. I got to give credit to Alison Brown, the producer—it’s her record company. I brought the idea of the Old School to her and she said, “We got to do this, we have to bring not just the Bluegrass Boys, but let’s go to the old school players that are still going.” And those are the ones who are right around time and it could have included Sam Bush but it’s even a little further back between the lines than Sam.

Sam Bush

Well, he and I—I give him lots of room. I’ve known him since he was twelve years old. He used to come down to Nashville and hang out backstage at the Grand Ole Opry with his dad. I don’t know how many years older I am then him, but yeah, he was part of that new generation that was open to the jam.

You can jam so many ways: one tune can develop into another tune, you can get into free sound, combinations too.

Notes on The Old School

It’s like getting people that play old-school style and get them in the studio and have them contribute—like Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds. I mean, I don’t know what is apparent to the listener, but as far as creating it, it was very, very exciting. Our music is just like wow, it’s here; it doesn’t exist until you make the music that you’re hearing in your mind. Those guys are my heroes: Jess McReynolds, Bobby Osborne, Sonny Osborne, Carter Stanley, Bill Monroe. So I think of every tune as kind of homage.

‘Drop the Bone,’ I wrote that with David Gans who does the Grateful Dead hour. As soon as David Gans told me that title, I knew it was going to be like a Jimmy Martin song. To me it sounds like something Jimmy would have sung, while Carter Stanley would have sung something like ‘True Love to Last.’ That song is about regret and concession and still pledges that the feeling isn’t dead, it’s just in transition. ‘True Love to Last’—in this darkest hour if you give, there will be love. Life is fleeting, true love to last.

Then there’s the ‘Letter from Beyond’ and that’s definitely a Bill Monroe channeling. Me and Ronnie and Rob McCoury, we went out and we were touring as a combined act to do the music of Bill Monroe in his hundredth year and we did quite a good run. After one week, the first week, he [Bill Monroe] just sat down next to me after the show and said here’s the song I never finished. You know I never heard him say that, but I wrote the ‘Walls of Time’ with him and ‘Letter from Beyond’ to me is that haunting, bluegrass thing. To me the essence of bluegrass is a music that goes beyond one life, this life; it kind of creates an ambience of the mystery of it all.

On the new record the song ‘O’ Freedom’ is a song I did for Odetta. It is one of the freedom marchers songs. When I was in Nashville they were going down to south to sing for the freedom marchers. There’s a huge history there that’s never talked about. The students of Tennessee University choir dropped their books and skipped their finals and went down to Montgomery and marched with Martin Luther King. It was their music that was made the music of the civil rights marching. To have that on the record is kind of bringing it around full circle.

Old and in the Way

Old and In the Way itself was more of an adventure. I had this rock and roll band Seatrain that I was playing with [that] found expression in this bluegrass band because of a guys like Jerry Garcia and Vasser Clements. We brought to the band our own want, need, for adventuresome playing, but you have to land with the right people that would support that. And Jerry was—he would just smile, you know? My early versions of ‘Land of the Navajo’ were certainly not one of the best. Like we didn’t know what we were doing with Indian chanting, but I knew that it was part of song and needed to be there. But Jerry never discriminated and said, “That’s kind of weird, what were you thinking.”

This idea of being progressive in bluegrass has two things. One is in terms of tunes, songs, and then the other is in terms of the instrumental work. David Grisman was all for learning jazz tunes and playing Thelonious Monk. And we all loved John Coltrane, the whole sense of freedom, playing outside the lines, you know? But in the end when you get down to material, if a bluegrass band has got enough going for it—and most of them do, especially Old and in the Way—you had both elements.

You could do a tune like ‘Wild Horses’ and then also do a tune like Vasser Clement’s ‘Lonesome Fiddle Blues.’ You know a certain level of musicianship is required and, this is the important part with a guy like Jerry Garcia, an adventuresome spirit that allowed us to be more adventuresome than we ever had been before.

David and I had worked a lot in different bluegrass ideas and even had a band called Earth Opera, which was a very slow, underground sounding kind of acoustic/electric sound and we opened for The Doors. We were bluegrass guys getting exposed to another world. In those days in the 60’s it was the beginning of that eclecticism where if it’s rock and roll you can use anything. Of course if it’s bluegrass you’re supposed to keep it strictly dobro, mandolin, guitar, bass—so we were always just straddling those two worlds. And then David went more towards jazz and I kept the song and harmony thing going.

Whereas Bill Monroe was “keep it between the lines” old school, Jerry Garcia was, “Hey man, where are we going now. What’s the adventure now?” The tunes he brought to Old and In the Way were not far out tunes, they were just good tunes: ‘Catfish John,’ and ‘White Dove.’

What’s Next

It’s too late to think about career trajectory, but at the same time that’s what drives what there is of the music business. It’s sort of that idea that you shouldn’t change, that you should always be that musician people expect you to be. It’s what Bill Monroe said, “Always respect the people,. Don’t let the fans down.” You know?

But I think the fans are broad minded these days. I love keeping his songs going, but in a short while I’ll be trying to do something, more of a solo thing. But at a bluegrass festival you got to play bluegrass and I love that. And those other festivals they want something outside, they want something jammy, they want different textures and that’s when I go towards the bass and drums.

On being called the Festival Shaman

I’ve seen them write it. Well I always felt those things, you know, those things that go beyond the walls of time, so I’m at home with that.

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