Peter Rowan isn't a household name but he is well known to rock obscure-ists and .ore importantly to enthusiasts of American bluegrass.
And he has been playing guitar, yodelling, singing and song writing for a long time.
Wikipedia: Rowan was born in Boston, Massachusetts (1942). From an early age, he had an interest in music and eventually learned to play the guitar. At the age of twelve, he heard Elvis Presley for the first time and later, in junior high school, he formed a rockabilly band, the Cupids. Influenced by the blues musician Eric Von Schmidt, Rowan traded his electric guitar for an acoustic and began to play the blues. He was also influenced by the folk sound of Joan Baez. In college, he discovered bluegrass after hearing The Country Gentlemen and The Stanley Brothers. He soon discovered the music of Bill Monroe, and with some help from banjo player Bill Keith, he was invited to Nashville to audition for Monroe. Accompanied by Keith, Rowan went to Nashville and was hired in March 1965 as guitarist and lead vocalist of Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. His recording debut as a "bluegrass boy" took place on October 14, 1966 and he recorded a total of fourteen songs with Monroe before his tenure ended in the spring of 1967.
Rowan teamed up with David Grisman in 1967 forming the band Earth Opera which frequently opened for The Doors. In 1969, Rowan joined Seatrain, along with Richard Greene. In 1973, Rowan, together with Greene, Grisman, Bill Keith, and Clarence White formed the bluegrass band Muleskinner. The band released one album. The same year, (1973), Rowan and Grisman formed Old and in the Way with Greene, Jerry Garcia, and John Kahn. Greene was later replaced by Vassar Clements. Old and In the Way disbanded in 1974 and Rowan joined a rock band led by his brothers. Three years later, in 1977, he left his brother's rock band. For a time, he was touring with Richard Greene in Japan and playing clubs with fiddler Tex Logan. He also formed the Green Grass Gringos.
But, how does a kid from Boston become part of the vanguard of bluegrass musicians. Well, in those days it was easier I expect. The music was more accessible, the migrations after the second world war send everyone and the folk boom in the US opened the doors to all types of roots music to urban audiences. The music was everywhere and you dint have to look hard to find it.
Rowan's blog explains a little more, "Born in Wayland, Massachusetts to a musical family, Rowan learned to play guitar from his uncle. He spent his teenage years absorbing the sights and sounds of the Hillbilly Ranch, a legendary Country music nightclub in Boston frequented by old-time acts like The Lilly Brothers and Tex Logan".
So from an early age Rowan was perfectly placed to hear the sonic boom of post war American music. The pre-war music of bluegrass, country, blues, and trad pop were all alive and well the post war would electrify everything and bring in rhythm and blues, rock n roll and many other forms of music. For a kid who was into music there was no shortage of influences.
And influenced he was. Rowan took it all in and incorporated it into the styles he liked, "Even more engaging, anyways, it’s the possibility to trace the first steps of the career of Peter Rowan, excellent guitarist and mandolin player from Boston, Massachusetts, with Texas and Mexico in the heart and a whole roots dictionary in his fingers. If you have a quick look at the most sparkling among the traditional bands that have been hitting the stage from the 1960s onward, it’s likely that Rowan (who joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1965 at the age of 23) is one of the protagonists.
From the psychedelic folk and bluegrass of the unfortunately forgotten Earth Opera of David Grisman (The Great American Eagle Tragedy is a must-have masterpiece reissued 10 years ago by Wounded Bird) to the jazzy smoked country-rock of Seatrain, from the purely hard bluegrass of Muleskinner to the freaky western of the New Riders Of the Purple Sage, ending with the Bay Area super-group Old & In The Way (starring Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements, Grisman etc…), Rowan is always there". http://nodepression.com/article/review-peter-rowan-free-mexican-airforce-classic-tracks-flying-fish-albums-roots
Rowan would always fall back on the bluegrass he loved as a kid but would incorporate new sounds … which by definition placed him amongst musicians of the "progressive bluegrass" movement.
Wikipedia: " Progressive bluegrass is one of two major subgenres of bluegrass music. It is also known as newgrass, a term attributed to New Grass Revival member Ebo Walker. Musicians and bands John Hartford, New Grass Revival, J.D. Crowe and the New South, The Dillards, Boone Creek, Country Gazette, and the Seldom Scene pioneered innovations in the genre. Some groups began using electric instruments and importing songs from other genres, particularly rock & roll. Progressive bluegrass became popular in the late 1960s and 1970s, but it can be traced back to the banjo and contrabass duets that Earl Scruggs played even in the earliest days of the Foggy Mountain Boys. The four key distinguishing elements of progressive bluegrass are (1) instrumentation, frequently including electric guitars, drums, piano, and more, (2) songs imported or styles imitated from other musical genres like jazz, rock and others, (3) non-traditional chord progressions, (4) lengthy "jam band"-style improvisation. However, not all these elements are always present in progressive bluegrass".
This album is Rowan's solo debut and in some ways he takes a step back … but not into straight bluegrass. He could have gone any number of ways but here he has contemporary country rock sounds but with a overlay of music past … a little straight country, some yodelling, a bit of Tex Mex, bluegrass.
This isn't the sound of some urban hipster jumping onto a musical trend (or some English hack digging through Americana looking for an identity*) . Rowan's entire musical career had been moving to this point. And, importantly, Rowan who clearly knows his music wasn't just happy to sit here, he was always introducing things, fine tuning. He had already incorporated rock into his bluegrass (or bluegrass into his rock) but he would introduce south-of-the-border Tex Mex and American roots into this album and would go on to incorporate flamenco, reggae (the most dreaded of all musical styles to me, especially when done by whites), and other styles. He never breaks from bluegrass but he adds external influences, because he is, errr progressive.
Smaller, stupid, or insincere artists will have radical shifts in their music. Their music is not organic and not an extension of what they like. Their bottom line in money or fame or both perhaps fanned by self delusion (think the incredibly irrelevant and insincere "Mumford and Sons"). This music will be, ultimately, worthless … no matter how many people buy it and love it. Rowan, on the other hand, may not make a bundle, but continues to be true to himself (no matter how corny that sounds).
Rowan's writing is clear and crisp, He doesn't sound grizzled or backwoods and nor needs to be as the music is pastoral, beautifully evocative and, not surprisingly, played beautifully. He, also, doesn't sound regional. There are no strong accents and this gives the music, perhaps, an accessibility that it otherwise wouldn't have for those who don't want to try a little harder. These are not criticisms but observations. The song writing is strong and the music comes like a cool breeze blowing pas you as you sit on a hill watching the world go by …
All tracks composed by Peter Rowan; except where indicated
Tracks (best in italics)
- Outlaw Love – a beautiful start and not unlike something off one of the country Byrd albums.
- Break My Heart Again – I'm a sucker for accordion, Mexican sounds and a yodel here and there. This could be singer songwriter with a country Mexican bent.
- Woman in Love – a pleasing love song.
- When I Was A Cowboy – (Leadbelly) – This is Leadbelly's (yes, that one) version of the old cowboy song "The Old Chisholm Trail" which was recorded by him (whilst in prison) in 1933.It's a beautiful intermingling of country and blues styles. Rowan adds his own touched and the song is disarming.
- Land of the Navajo – Originally doe with his group Muleskinner this is an indictment of the treatment of native Americans. Beautiful and quite sad.
- The Free Mexican Airforce – Where's my tequila? The accordion, the Spanish guitar and the party atmosphere always work on me. Excellent … nice Tex Mex with sly, subversive lyrics.
- Panama Red – The song was originally done by the country-rock band The New Riders of the Purple Sage (1973) who Rowan was writing for. He later performed it with his band Old and in the Way (recorded 1973 but released 1975), before doing it here. Panama red is a high potency cannabis … which explains the joyous exaltations in the song, perhaps. It is very catchy …the song that is.
- Midnite Moonlite – Nice fiddling and a pretty love song
- The Gyspy King's Farewell – Another great song like the Byrds with accordion …supplied by the great Flaco Jimenez.
A winner … I'm keeping it.
Nothing no where
Land of the Navajo
The Free Mexican Airforce
- The album is produce by Peter Rowan and dedicated to his father Paul Donovan Rowan and the blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers
- Credits: Accordion – Flaco Jimenez (tracks: A2, A4), Acoustic Bass – Buell Neidlinger (tracks: A1, A3, A5, B3), Roger Mason (2) (tracks: A4, B2), Todd Phillips (tracks: A2, B1, B4), Autoharp – Mike Seeger (tracks: B4), Bajo Sexto – Jesse Ponce (tracks: A2, B1, B4), Banjo – Lamar Greer* (tracks: A4, B2), Fiddle – Richard Greene (tracks: A1, A3, A5, B3), Tex Logan (tracks: A4, B2), Guitar, Vocals, Mandola – Peter Rowan, Harmony Vocals – Alice Gerrard (tracks: B4), Estrella Berosini (tracks: A2, B4), Laura Eastman (tracks: B4), Mandolin – Barry Mitterhoff (tracks: A4, B2), Pedal Steel Guitar – Jimmy Fuller (tracks: A2), Slide Guitar – Paul Lenart (tracks: B4)
* I refer to the rather sad (Bragg) recent "argument" with Pokey LaFarge on Americana … http://themusic.com.au/news/all/2014/03/11/billy-bragg-and-pokey-lafarge-did-not-get-along-at-womadelaide/