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Peter Rowan carves out his legacy

By John Lupton, December 2010

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"I didn't know enough about being ‘blue' in a really deep way – I was melancholy, you know, and bluegrass spoke to me, and I liked the ‘blues' in bluegrass. I kept looking for it, and I found it in Bill Monroe. Of all those groups, he was the most ‘blue'…so, when I went with him, I was really eager, and I was very, very green."

For many fans of that era and of Rowan's tenure with Monroe, the touchstone is The Walls of Time, a mournful song of love lost forever to the grave, which Rowan says, "never would have been written, I don't think, if…after being up all night, before my shift (driving the bus) I sat and talked with Bill that night on our way up to Bean Blossom, Ind., and I'd hang with him, talking, just fooling around, and I just loved to hear him stroke that mandolin, play that blues and stuff, (then) I drove the bus, and about sunrise the bus broke down – and I was standing outside the bus. There was this area in Kentucky called Horse Cave, looks like the Grand Canyon, and I was standing out there at sunrise, and Bill actually walked off the bus – he woke up, of course, the bus wasn't moving. And he walked up to me and he sang the melody of ‘The Walls of Time'. Then we spent, oh, three or four months writing that."

Another original song from "Legacy", The Family Demon looks at pain inflicted in the name of love, and Rowan seems to have found some measure of catharsis in it.

"I guess there were certain things in my life that I never looked at, like my willfulness to be disrespectful of authority. I realized that I had a kind of aggressiveness in me that I hadn't addressed, even though I would think I'm a pacifist. It's kind of a bit of a fight in me, really, and I was just looking at where that came from. That song speaks the truth, and it's a hard truth…people go through that, that's a big thing with parents, and especially after World War II, spare the rod and spoil the child, you know, it was like ‘be firm', and what happened with all those kids everybody was so firm with, well, The Sixties happened."

He pauses a moment to reflect, and continues, "I don't hold any grudges at all. It wasn't that my dad was a wicked man, it's just that he was frustrated, and he came out of a time when the value system was different, and I challenged his value system, just as I challenged Bill Monroe's value system."

"So, you can speak of it metaphorically, or you can think of it as ‘this is how it is when you're a kid'…and you know, weirdly enough, I don't think I could say it in any other medium. I think everything on that record has to be bluegrass – it just has to be. That's where these subjects are met. And, I think I broke some new ground there. Basically, it's just being truthful. I'm not writing about characters like Panama Red or anything, I'm just saying, well, if you're gonna come home to bluegrass, you've gotta come home to some reality. For me, it's not about making commercial records so much as it is what's blocking me from getting to those ‘ancient tones'. I've got to look at that pain, I've got to deal with it…for bluegrass to grow, I think it has to expand into some kind of reality."

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