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Careening on the Edge

Peter Rowan leads the way to a new grass millennium

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The Free Mexican Air Force is flying tonight.
  • The Free Mexican Air Force is flying tonight.

Peter Rowan doesn't need a millennium to straddle different eras and musical cultures. He's long been regarded as one of the most vital links in the bluegrass chain; unbroken, yes, but not without its kinks.

As the Godfather of Slashgrass -- the multi-genred fusion of traditional roots music with everything from rock energy and jazz attitude to reggae grooves, Buddhist insights, Hawaiian tunings, and Czechoslovakian instrumentation -- Rowan is the ideal fulcrum for the transition to the new millennium.

As he prepares for a no-holds-barred New Year's Eve concert with fellow revolutionaries Sam Bush, John Cowan, Leftover Salmon, and Tony Furtado -- a who's who of genre-bending innovators -- Rowan took time to reflect on the State of the Grass with the Independent, speaking from his home in San Francisco.

One clear catalyst to Rowan's current fascination with the long arc of American roots music was his inheritance of Charles Sawtelle's 1937 D-18 Martin guitar. Sawtelle, a member of Hot Rize and frequent collaborator with Rowan, died in March after a long battle with leukemia, bequeathing his familiar acoustic guitar to Rowan.

"I have a new tune about Charles Sawtelle and his guitar; I want to sing that," Rowan said in anticipation of the New Year's Eve show. "It's a totally cool guitar, you can play it anywhere, but for it to be showcased in the right way I like it to be an all-acoustic show. ... I do a lot of work with Tony Rice, and in that situation, where you've got a couple of 1930s Martins and it's all acoustic and there's no other instruments, except maybe a mandolin and a bass, those guitars are featured and their crisp tone comes out."

Rowan acknowledges the special quality that came from the rainforest wood, plentiful at the time of the guitar's construction. "The trees were 300 to 500 years old to begin with," he points out. "It's interesting, some of those ecological and artistic combinations."

Known for his ability to populate his songs with mythic characters, it's no surprise that Rowan sees his new guitar as part of this unraveling mythos. "When I pick it up and strike a chord on it," he reveals in the hushed tone of someone telling a well-guarded secret, "I feel like it's touching, in the size and the shape and the big fat sound, it's touching the roots of country music in a way. ... When I look at that guitar I think this is American, man, this is not a European guitar; this is not a parlor instrument. This is big and brassy, clear, straightforward sound. ... This is like a vision of the American spirit."

Even before he joined Bill Monroe in the early '60s, Rowan was drawn to the odd appeal of bluegrass' haunting lyrics and bold musicianship. "I had a real good high school education where I got to study the Romantic poets when I was 16 years old," Rowan recalls. "It's the encouragement of having an individual response to the world as opposed to having a response that was prescribed by society ... of being moved by a natural environment, being moved by a sense of history to create your own mythology in response to it."

Rowan cites a Lord Byron lyric that showed up in a song by the Country Gentleman -- the first bluegrass radicals according to Rowan. " 'How should I meet you, in silence or tears', " he recites. " 'If I should greet thee after long years how should I meet you, in silence or tears?' So when I heard bluegrass and I heard Carter Stanley, this whole romantic stuff made all the sense in the world because that's what they were writing too. 'The dark river at midnight.' 'Wandering in the mountain looking for my darling.' 'Footprints in the snow.' That's all romantic poetry."

His own footprints blazed a revolutionary path, diverging from the purity of bluegrass music into a world of experimentation. "Everybody in the '60s was doing something different," he recalls. "Bluegrass was bursting at the seams at that point. We had a lot to do with stretching bluegrass out there, because we didn't feel any sense of boundaries," Rowan recalls of collaborations with the likes of Vassar Clements, David Grisman, and Jerry Garcia. "It had to do with the time and the place, the youthfulness and enthusiasm of the players, and the sense of unbounded optimism about what you're doing. Now, I guess I feel a little bit like an old warrior. Yeah, I will go into battle, but I got to make sure that everyone who's going in with me knows the terrain and is experienced."

Rowan carved his own niche out of the tradition of Western folklore. "For a time there I thought with 'Panama Red' and 'The Free Mexican Air Force' I was continuing a great tradition that nobody else was even thinking about which was to kind of populate the imagination with myths that we don't have. We don't really have these myths. We've got Wild Bill Hickock and a few folks. But only time will tell about those things. Panama Red may be seen as a genuine mythic figure after a while, but that'll be after I'm gone. That's what it means, right, it's got to survive the writer ... The Iliad and The Odyssey survived Homer."

It's easy to hear the frustration in his voice when Rowan talks about the purists' response, bordering on racism, to his explorations into Tex-Mex, Celtic, Czech, or Chinese music. Mention his forays into "reggae-billy" music, and you can hear his eyes light up over the long-distance telephone wires. "I'd like to go a little deeper into that. But there you go, you come up against this whole weird racism," he admits. "Maybe, just maybe in the new millennium some of the political correctness that's been prevalent for the last ten years won't matter. Maybe that's what will disappear. I hope."

Reluctant to return to the bluegrass music he recognizes as his most natural form of expression, Rowan feels its pull and recognizes that always "there's some bluegrass coming through" in his music. "Maybe playing solo is the best thing for people to get what I'm doing," Rowan sighs. "But I still have hopes that I can add elements to this that will raise a few hairs in the back of your neck and make you go 'Yeah! That's great.'"

Rowan has no worries about the State of the Grass. It's essentially a preservation project, he acknowledges, and his need for "careening on the edge" doesn't bode well for anything he would see as repetition. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of people out there "trying to be more 'high lonesome' than someone else. ... Or more 'ancient tone' than someone else." The roots purity is commendable but baffling to Rowan, and he is not lining up to join the ranks of musicians trying to prove they are "the most traditional," filling the gap that Bill Monroe left.

"I really still think that music is one of the truly amazing phenomena of the universe," Rowan concludes, "because what else is there that has no shape, no form, yet can be heard and felt and be transmitted through the air between people? Thoughts. Mental energy. Spiritual energy. Music. It's almost like every generation of musicians has sought to make a definitive moment with music that either points to the nature of music as this magical thing or uses that magical thing to create a subject matter for propaganda or whatever.

"That's the challenge. How to let music say what it has to say. Can it say it without us? I don't know. Seems like we're needed there."

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