Peter Rowan isn’t the sort of guy to casually toss around a phrase like “the old school.” When he made it the title of his new album, he really and truly meant something by it.
Rowan’s new dozen-track set celebrates not just the sounds but the sense of showmanship that characterized bluegrass when he joined up with the genre’s founder, Bill Monroe, in the ‘60s. Rowan has written brand new songs that conjure that old spirit. He also gathered a generation-spanning group of pickers who get it — from guys like Jesse McReynolds and Bobby Osborne, who were there at the start, to the current cream of the bluegrass crop, such as the McCourys, Bryan Sutton and Michael Cleveland.
What makes Rowan an especially unique interpreter of tradition is that for the past half-century, he’s never stopped playing bluegrass, even as he’s explored an endless array of other pop, folk, rock and world music.
“In the end, bluegrass is about the old school,” he says. “It’s raw, acoustic sound from instruments that have to be coaxed and loved to bring the sound out.”
CMT Edge: You’ve made traditional bluegrass albums in the past that have paid tribute to Bill Monroe. This seems like a different thing. It seems almost more about where you fit, the musical generations you’re identified with.
Rowan: Yeah. Back in the ‘60s, being a Blue Grass Boy with Bill and playing on the Grand Ole Opry, I got to know the Osborne Brothers and Jim and Jesse McReynolds, and they represented a different kind of school of bluegrass. But from my perspective now, that is the old school, along with Monroe.
Really, the song “Drop the Bone” is kind of a tribute to the sassy and fun stuff Jimmy Martin brought to bluegrass. And Jimmy was a Blue Grass Boy for longer than anybody, playing guitar with Bill. He had two spasms of Blue Grass Boyhood, and in the middle he went on his own. … I think he had a lot to do with that high lonesome sound of that period, which then I inherited when I came along. I mean, that is Jimmy Martin playing on “Uncle Pen.” It’s not suave, you know, but it’s kind of peppery. I thought, “‘Drop the Bone,’ man, that’s a memory of Jimmy Martin.”
The other one [who was] a big influence on me is Carter Stanley, and the song “True Love to Last,” I really feel like that’s a Carter Stanley song, that kind of sentiment, really honest, and philosophical in the chorus. … That’s the feeling I get. Carter had a real heartfelt way of singing. It seemed so casual. Then he passed on just as my career with Bill ended. I met him once, and we hit it off. Guys of that stature back then, they’d just look at you, and they’d nod. And in that nod was either a dismissal or an acceptance.
Before I joined Bill, I knew all his material, so I could sing any request. Any duets that Bill might do, I knew them. That’s what you needed to do in those days because you didn’t sit down with a lyric sheet at a rehearsal like it all is nowadays. You learned on the bandstand. You had to step up, literally step up to the microphone and do it.
The opening track, “Keepin’ It Between the Lines (Old School),” to me, conjures what it must’ve been like to be on the road in the 1960s when you were with Monroe. There’s a sense of how grueling it could be and the level of decorum or musicianship that you were expected to maintain.
Yeah. I mean, we were often getting our clothes on and our instruments out just as we pulled in because as often as not, that old bus would break down.
Driving that bus, every time you’d change drivers after you’d done three or four hours, your next driver, one of the Blue Grass Boys, would come up, and you’d come to the crest of a hill and start going down the hill. You had to judge it carefully because you had to put it in neutral, and in that split second, you’re sliding out of the driver’s seat and the other guy’s sliding into the driver’s seat, and he double clutches to get back into gear, so it doesn’t become a runaway. That is old school, man.
It’s common practice in bluegrass for young pickers to apprentice with experienced musicians, then go off and start their own thing. I was thinking about when you made that move yourself. You were in your early 20s and Monroe would’ve been closer to your parents’ generation.
Yeah, Bill had a lot to say about my family. He told me that my dad was a great man and I should do whatever he said. I left school because music called me. I said, “What if he tells me to go back to school and not play music?” He said, “Well, that’s what you should do.” Because my dad and he hit it off, and he could see where my dad was coming from. They’d both been fathers. I had not had any children. I was a kid myself.
I read that when you made the decision to move on and find the next thing, part of the reason was you wanted to participate in what was going on musically with your own generation. What is it like making that move from apprenticing with someone of your parent’s generation back to playing with your peers?
The difference was that I had learned intuitively with Bill about songs beginning based on the shrug of a shoulder or the first three notes on the fiddle. And when I got out of there, nobody that I played with except Bill Keith had that experience to know how to jump into a song from such a subtle point of view. It was a matter of experience, and people of my generation, that age at that time, just didn’t have all that much experience.
It came full circle five years later when me and Dave Grisman hooked up with Jerry Garcia and started playing as Old and in the Way. That was five years — only five years — after working with Bill. So by then, we’d kind of caught up with ourselves.
I’ve been thinking about the old school for years. … I asked [fiddle player] Vassar Clements, “What was it like for you when you worked with Bill?” Because Vassar has some stories. …What Vassar said was, “To be a Blue Grass Boy, you drive all night, shave in cold water and get up there onstage, wave your hand up high and smile.”
You know, this was post-World War II. There may have been a mood in the nation of victory and all, but there was also a terrible mood of sadness because so many people didn’t come back. So you’d be out there playing in front of people and wearing your nice, clean, white shirt and your tie, and you’re looking your best. As Bill said, “People who listen to my music are mostly farmers, and I want to show them that I respect them.” Like Vassar said, all the old school Opry acts did this: You wave your hand up high and you smile. It means, “Glad to be here, neighbors.” You know, that old school stuff.
Back then, you were around a lot of first-generation bluegrass musicians, and you were the guy from a younger generation. What is it like to have been around long enough to be looked at as a venerable, standard-bearer yourself?
It’s a surprise. [chuckles] That’s what it’s like. But also it’s an honor. … For me, it is an honor to be even considered a representative of bluegrass music. You know, I’ve become a historian in the last few years as I’ve worked on trying to write my stuff down. People want to write my biography, and you know what they say to me? “Just turn on a tape recorder and remember as much as you can, and I’ll write your biography.” I’m like, “Excuse me. I can sit with a pencil and paper and write it myself.” [laughs]
You’ve had a lot of room to maneuver in your relationship to bluegrass, to veer off into other styles of music. I saw on your website that you still perform in six very different stylistic configurations, including Tex-Mex, reggae and R&B. There’s a big difference between being old school in the sense that you’re talking about — knowing the traditions so well that you become a natural conduit for them musically — and being a staunch traditionalist. You seem to have had a unique ability to balance roots in the bluegrass tradition with this free-ranging creative impulse.
Yeah, but, you’ve got to remember what is special about bluegrass, in terms of people and crowds. … People that come to hear bluegrass are really friendly and so appreciative. They’re not there to blow their minds and party out. They’re there to see the whole growth of things. And, truthfully, I think that playing other forms of music has helped me appreciate bluegrass more.
The straight-ahead answer would be what Bill Monroe told me. … He saw me for who I was before I did and he urged me to be me: “Sing it like Pete Rowan.” He said, “Pete, if you can play my music, you can play any kind of music.” He said that!
He knew where his music came from. It wasn’t an accident. A lot of people think it was an accident. As he said, and I quote, “I’ve had to keep as much out of my music as I’ve put in it.” … He had the power. How did he do that? Well, he wasn’t gonna tell. But I found the same path.