World Wide Rowan

By Pam Parrish

IF YOU'VE BEEN following Peter Rowan's long musical path, you know the only thing expected from him is the unexpected. You're probably more intrigued than surprised to hear that his next album, with dobro master Jerry Douglas, features music from the '20s "when the streams of country and blues and ragtime jazz were all kind of the same stream." You're not surprised to hear he's recently been listening to Mozart and minimalists and recognizing their influences in his music, past and future. Because this most restless and curious of souls, musically and spiritually, is always growing, thinking and feeling.

Music In turns richly romantic and lyrical, rowdy and raucous, and sometimes pointedly political, Rowan's work as a solo act or band member over the past 30-odd years has been World Music in the best sense: honoring the uniqueness and value of a variety of musical expressions while bringing out the similarities in our experience.

On the phone the other day, Rowan was enthusing about the timelessness of poetry from the long-ago French and Chinese, the power of serial music and improvisation, and the use of nature as a metaphor across ages and musical styles--the latter brought on by a mention of "The Walls of Time," a song co-written by Rowan and bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe back when Rowan was a Blue Grass Boy in the mid-'60s.

"I read these (ancient) poets who use nature as a metaphor for their emotional feelings, the same way Bill Monroe has written some of his greatest songs," Rowan said. "It just led me to feel that here was a great affinity."

And so the album he'll begin work on this month, which he describes as "a bluegrass singer/songwriter album" of his own compositions, will include some songs in which he has taken inspiration from those poems. "There is a song--it's a very bluegrassy song, but it's a view of things from the way a 7th century French poet thought, and there's another one on the album that derives from a Japanese poem about a willow tree."

Rowan will be backed by an all-star cast on the new album: Hot Rize's Charles Sawtelle, Laurie Lewis, Richard Greene and, possibly, banjo legend J.D. Crowe.

pix But when Rowan performs this weekend with Douglas, the spotlight often will be on their new collaboration, the most recent result of some 10 years of performances together.

Rowan turned his attention to these "other roots" of the '20s after touring behind the acclaimed 1994 folk album Tree on a Hill with brothers Christopher and Lorin. And somewhere in there was a perhaps more surprising collaboration, with genius/hellraiser Steve Earle on the album Train a Comin'. The acoustic, old-time flavored record marked Earle's comeback from dire troubles with drugs and the law.

Their teaming came about as a "series of coincidences." Rowan and guitarist Norman Blake had been picking together whenever schedules allowed, "listening to old 78s and making music like that." When Earle, a longtime friend of Rowan's, decided to make an acoustic album, he turned to the pair, along with Roy Huskey Jr. They just happened to have the time to work with him.

"Norman and I ended up making the kind of music we'd been talking about and listening to, on Steve's album," Rowan said. They've played some dates with Earle and will begin work on another album with him this month.

"Steve's back in the business with his own record company and just coming back full force from the brink of maybe the abyss," Rowan said.

Relationships with other musicians and their impact on him have been on Rowan's mind lately, with the recent release of more music from Old And In The Way--the mid-'70s bluegrass band that included Rowan, the late Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Vassar Clements and John Kahn--and his return to Nashville to work with Earle and up-and-comer Greg Garing.

"I'm not showing up in town talking deals as much as the relationships with people are bringing me back--relationships that have withstood the test of time and of separation," Rowan said. "So I really feel good about coming back in there.

"None of those people and I have relationships that are based on money. It's all based on a kind of deeper appreciation of the moving quality of their music."

He sees his collaborations with such "strong, strong artists" as Earle, Garcia, Monroe and others as a fulfillment of his determination to carve his own path in the music industry. "The company I keep--that's who I am in a way, oddly," Rowan said. "It gives me strength to carry on. In terms of the relationship with Garcia, especially. I'm not Garcia, but I do feel an obligation to carry on something that's a legacy of his, as well as Bill Monroe."

Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas perform at 8 p.m. Friday, February 2, at the ASDB Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway. They'll perform solo and as a duo. Tickets are $17 in advance, $16 for Desert Bluegrass Association, TFTM, TKMA and KXCI members. All tickets will cost $18 at the door. Advance ticket outlets include at Loco Records, Hear's Music and Zip's Speedway location. Call 881-3947 for information. TW

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