Americana great Peter Rowan "comes home" to bluegrass with songs of innocence, experience.
Peter Rowan buried his father on a snowy Easter morning. That evening, being a musical family, Peter and his brother Chris went out to the willow tree their dad had planted long ago and spontaneously began to sing a made-up chorus -- a hymn, Chris would later call it -- as a memorial. Just then, a shooting star streaked across the sky.
Years later, Rowan recounts the events on the song "Father, Mother," from his new album, "Legacy." The hymn he and his brother sang makes up the meat of the melody, and the tune's reverential tempo is dappled with plucked notes from guitar and mandolin that twinkle like distant stars in the heavens.
"Once that song was written, I think these other songs found an opening and it started the ball rolling toward these intimate family-type themes," Rowan said about the making of "Legacy." He was speaking by phone from Florida, where the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band had stopped on a tour that will take them to the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis on Thursday.
For some artists, titling an album "Legacy" would seem presumptuous. But at 68, Rowan has the robust résumé to back it up. As far back as 1975, he had already served a long stint with bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe and co-founded such short-lived but highly influential "progressive bluegrass" groups such as Earth Opera and Muleskinner with mandolinist David Grisman and Old and in the Way with Grisman and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. (His bluegrass/rock hybrid group Seatrain was also during this period.)
It was a wild and woolly period that saw Rowan writing the enduring marijuana tribute "Panama Red" one moment and playing saxophone and xylophone with Earth Opera the next.
"Ornette Coleman [the avant garde jazz genius] loved us," Rowan remembered with a laugh. "I have no idea why. Because we were sincere, I guess."
Rowan has also tried his hand at Tex-Mex with accordionist Flaco Jimenez, Czechoslovakian folk music with the group Druha Trava and a Bob Marley-inspired meld he christened reggaebilly. But his most substantial legacy has been in bluegrass, recording with such luminaries as Jerry Douglas, Norman Blake, Clarence White and Tony Rice. While many of those records are cherished by bluegrass fans, Rowan has been notorious for a restless nature that made it difficult for him to stick with any one style, let alone retain a band.
That has changed with the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, which has been together nearly four years now. Rowan handed the phone over to mandolin player Jody Stecher, who described the band's origin.
"Our bass player, Paul Knight, had weekly gigs at Port Reyes Station [in California], where he invites people to play with him on Sunday afternoons. About three or four years ago, he invited us [Stecher, Rowan and banjo player Keith Little] together and it felt really good. The next week, Peter called us all and asked if we wanted to do it some more."
Gospel meets Buddhism
"Legacy" is not just a collection of singles, Stecher volunteered. "It is this beautiful kaleidoscope of music around the issue of family and parents."
There is also a healthy helping of gospel and reverence that pervades the record, with song titles like "The Night Prayer" and "Turn the Other Cheek," and a cover of Carter Stanley's song "Let Me Walk Close By Your Side." It seems odd, considering that for many years Rowan has diligently practiced a form of Tibetan Buddhism. But he spent nearly 20 minutes explaining how his faith is congruent with gospel, which he calls "a universal language," and noted that "Legacy's" most penetrating gospel-oriented tune, "God's Own Child," was written "about 8 o'clock one morning after I had done some singing and chanting. It was a revelation and part of the idea of meetings and partings, which are a big thing for Buddhists.
"I come home on this record," Rowan concluded simply. "These musicians know the tradition of the music but they also know how to play it a little differently. I didn't know how our fans would respond to that approach, but when I see this big biker guy rise up in the crowd and start pumping his fist during 'The Family Demon' [another song from 'Legacy'], I know something interesting is going on.
"As Bill [Monroe] said, 'You can leave bluegrass, but it can't leave you' -- the seed is always there. 'Legacy' is my returning to Bill and accepting that you are always going to be part of the family, with that innocent child within you."