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Bluegrass Boy keeps on ticking

By Jon Weisberger, January 1997

Though it was more than 40 years ago, Peter Rowan can still remember the first record he bought: Homer & Jethro's take-off on what was then a brand-new media craze, "The Ballad Of Davy Crewcut."

If that makes sense for a musician who's best known for his work in and around country music, the story doesn't end there.

"I remember going to the market, thinking I was going to get another Homer & Jethro record, but there were some records by Elvis Presley, Little Richard," Rowan says.

Rowan's voice trails off on the telephone, only to pick up the thread. "The first rock `n' roll show I ever went to had Jimmy Bowen with Buddy Knox in the Rhythm Orchids, singing `I'm Sticking With You,' `Hula Love,' and more. They took hillbilly music and made it rock `n' roll."

If one could sum up Rowan's career - and that's far from an easy thing to do - it might best be done by saying that he's gone the other way: taken the energy, freshness and synthesis of rock and roll and brought it to hillbilly music.

With his recent Sugar Hill release, "Bluegrass Boy" - a collection of originals marrying traditional bluegrass music with original, distinctive lyrics - bubbling under the Americana chart's top ten, and a second project ("Yonder," a collaboration with dobroist Jerry Douglas) released around the same time, Rowan is writing new material and preparing for a busy 1997.

The near year started off with a bang for Rowan. He received nominations for two Grammy awards - best bluegrass album for "Bluegrass Boy" and best folk album for "Yonder."

Rowan, 54, attributes his early - and enduring - interest in the breadth of popular music in part to the atmosphere in his home town, Wayland, Mass.

"It was filled with a bucolic existence," he recalls. "Wayland had the second free public library in the United States; there was a sense of education, a buzz about ideas."

He traces that in part to the presence in spirit of Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson from "up the road" in Concord and the heritage of transcendentalism.

Rowan describes their efforts as "synthesizing world myths," but the phrase applies equally well to his own work.

Growing up in the Northeast during the heady post-war years of radio, Rowan had a wealth of music to hear, from Buzz Busby and Jack Clements' "Hayloft Jamboree," featuring such country acts as the Delmore Brothers and Johnny & Jack to George Lorenz's Buffalo-based rhythm and blues radio show.

"I used to listen to WILD's afternoon Black gospel hour," he says. "It was the rockingest thing going."

As the 1950s wore on, rock and roll came to dominate the airwaves.

What did he make of it? "As a kid, I remember noting the difference in my mind between rock and roll and country. Rock was up-tempo, while country was very sad, all about breaking up. Country had the sentimentality of the war years, while pop had the up-beat feel of the post-war era."

Though attracted to the popular sounds of the day - "I was always playing rock and roll as a teenager," Rowan found himself even more drawn in by what he heard of "roots" music.

"When I heard Lightning Hopkins, I started to realize that the whole Chuck Berry sound was rooted in raw country blues."

The revelation prepared him for what would become the foundation of his life in music - the style of country music called bluegrass, invented by Bill Monroe.

"When I heard Monroe," Rowan says, "I became a devotee almost immediately. When I get into something, I really dig into it deeply."

In fact, Rowan dug into bluegrass, and particularly Monroe's version of it, so deeply that by 1964 he became a Blue Grass Boy himself, joining the Big Mon as guitarist and lead singer and entering a lifelong commitment to the style.

That was a year after Rowan, who dropped out of Colgate, released his first album as a member of the Mother Bay State Entertainers for Elektra.

Rowan joined Monroe after he showed up at a Vermont festival without a band.

Rowan stayed with Monroe as rhythm guitarist and lead singer until 1967. He also drove the bus and booked shows.

He moved onto the Earth Opera, a folk rock band with David Grisman. The band supported The Doors on many dates.

Rowan then jumped to rock fusion band Sea Train, recorded three albums with his brothers as The Rowans, put together the Free Mexican Airforce in 1979 and recorded with Flaco Jimenez. He also wrote "Panama Red," a hit for New Riders of the Purple Sage.

"The best of bluegrass floats on the purity of the string sound," according to Rowan. Though he's often adopted an eclectic approach to instrumentation - "drums are sometimes appropriate" - he continues to find inspiration in the consistency of an acoustic style.Well known as a "guest" performer - witness his collaborations with artists as varied as the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Steve Earle - and a musical synthesist himself, Rowan nevertheless says he often finds himself attracted to a single sound, a unified feel.

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