Category Archives: Biographies

Peter Rowan and the Dharma Blues

Peter Rowan and Yungchen Lhamo
Peter Rowan and Yungchen Lhamo. Photo by Charleston City Paper

Before becoming a giant on the progressive bluegrass scene, Peter Rowan performed with the first giant of traditional bluegrass: Bill Monroe. Ditching Boston in 1965, Rowan found himself playing rhythm guitar for the Blue Grass Boys for two years, recording 14 sounds with Monroe before his departure. The more traditional bluegrass practiced by the Monroe, and the artistic friction he experienced would lead him to form the psychedelic rock group, Earth Opera, with David Grisman.

It’s easy to argue that the Earth Opera sound is about the furthest departure Rowan made from Bluegrass, but I’d like you to take a listen to the later (around 6:15) vocals in “As It Is Before,” and remember them for later.

Got it?


Let’s move on.


Despite his artistic departure, Peter Rowan’s childhood love of the bluegrass sound would continue to draw him back to his roots. His next collaboration, Seatrain, had a more recognizable bluegrass influence. (Some songs more than others)


After Seatrain came two bluegrass supergroups, Muleskinner (with Richard Green, David Grisman, Clarence White, and the first bluegrass recording to include drums) and Old and in the Way (with Vassar Clements and Jerry Garcia). The second’s self-titled album, “Old and in the Way,” would go on to become the best-selling bluegrass album of all time (that is, until the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack rolled out in 2000).

(Thanks, Keith Richards)

This relatively short period (about a year) of Rowan’s career garnered him a strong following and produced many bluegrass classics (see Panama Red and Land of the Navajo), but was also a major time of spiritual development for Rowan.

While living in Marin County (near San Francisco), Rowan had a life changing encounter with Kalu Rinpoche, the Buddhist lama and Tibetan exile. His new-found faith would go on to have a deep impact on his music and the bluegrass genre itself:


“Tibetan music shares a similarity with bluegrass…They’re both from remote mountainous areas populated by hill country people. Like Tibetan music, bluegrass has a very rootsy sound, earthy, and yet with spiritual overtones, both in the straight and the sacred songs. They have a kind of longing, a yearning for transcendence.”

-Peter Rowan, Marin Independent Journal


After years working in various arrangements, Rowan began a solo career that continues to this day. His faith and his roots continue to inspire his work, as seen time and again in each of his recordings (Yes, that’s a tanpura on Dharma Blues). Most recently, Rowan has been collaborating with Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo to great effect. Check them out with folk duo Mandolin Orange (Get it? Get it?!?!) at Merlefest this year:

(If Lhamo isn’t the epitome of “high and lonesome,” I don’t know who is. If they don’t release an album, I don’t know what I’ll do.)


Rowan himself has a lot to say on the subject of his unique blending of east and west, a blending of spiritual searching that meets in his music:


“There are a lot of links. I loved bluegrass especially because it spoke of the earthiness of life. And most of the songs that I learned were all about suffering. To me, that’s all spiritual music the same as Buddhist music. You know, there’s no difference. It’s just a difference in the meaning, on a subtle level. It all lines up, if we’re not dogmatic about it and open minded about it we can make the world a good place.”

-Peter Rowan, NPR interview


Take a listen to this:

“I sing a song of freedom while I’m riding…”

Where does that song sound like it is from? America, right? I mean, who else sings about freedom and riding horses and rolling hills?

“Across the rolling hills I come riding, I’ll ramble where I will.”

What does that song sound like it’s about? The Civil War, perhaps? Maybe a cowboy?

“Om Ah Hung Vajra Guru Pema Siddhi Hung. Padmasambhava comes riding.”

Ah, okay. Wasn’t it obvious? This is a song about Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche), the Indian Spiritualist that brought Buddhism to Tibet.

(And here I thought it was some sort of newgrass tribute to She’ll Be Commin’ Round the Mountain.)


If you get a chance, take another listen (here’s a version someone overlayed with artwork depicting Padmasambhava). Focus on the seamless merging of Buddhist spirituals with the four-part harmony, a neat take on progressive bluegrass, if you ask me.


Okay, remember those vocals I asked you to listen to? Here are some more:

(A different kind of high lonesome sound, am I right?)


While these type of Vedic spiritual vocals aren’t found in any of Rowan’s music that I have listened to (though he did bring back the tanpura!), it is neat to see a musician’s style form over time. The Earth Opera years were probably the first instance of eastern influence in his sound, but they were certainly not the last. Rowan’s musical legacy helps us realize that the high lonesome phenomenon is not necessarily an Appalachian phenomenon, but a human phenomenon.


I look forward to further exploration of this high lonesome sound in the hopes that it might just explain bluegrass’s cross-cultural appeal.


For more information, check out these great resources:

Peter Rowan’s Website

“The Enlightened Sound of Peter Rowan’s Buddhist Bluegrass”  by Paul Liberatore of the Marin Independent Journal

The Fresh Air Interview: Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band

Thomas Goldsmith, The Bluegrass Reader, chapters 39 and 47




The Evolution of Ernest V. Stoneman

In 1924, the musically inclined carpenter and occasional miner, Ernest Van Stoneman heard a recording by old time musician Hank Whittler, and decided he could do better.

At the encouragement of his wife, Hattie, he left his home in Carroll Country, Virginia, and headed for New York, where he would soon record his first single and biggest hit, “The Sinking of the Titanic,” for Okeh Records (and later for Edison Records on wax cylinder). This performance is famous for its use of autoharp, Stoneman’s signature instrument, and is thought to be the first ever recording to feature the instrument. Audiences across the country recognized the talent of the pioneering musician and over four million records of the single were sold.

Leveraging his success, Stoneman convinced Ralph Peter of Victor Records to visit the south to record the local talent, and in 1927 the famous “Big Bang of Country Music” occurred in Bristol, Tennesee. With Stoneman acting as a talent scout and a sort of celebrity draw (newspapers advertised his profits from the sales of his singles), Peter recorded nineteen performers and seventy-six songs. Among the artists were the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Stoneman himself, who recorded six songs with his family band, The Dixie Mountaineers. In addition to the six, Stoneman (and his wife, Hattie) can be heard on ten additional tracks under three different names.

Listening to the Dixie Mountaineer recordings, it is amazing to hear the progression of style from the lone autoharp and harmonica of “Titanic” to the fully-fledged string band and vocal accompaniment. This shift brings us closer to the familiar sound of bluegrass that would begin to emerge in the late 1930’s. (Another bluegrass parallel is the triple vocal arrangement in Stoneman’s 1927 “Dying Girl’s Farewell.”)

The Great Depression hit the Stoneman’s particularly hard, forcing them to move into a small shack in DC and Ernest to rely on occasional carpentry jobs. His final pre-war recordings return Stoneman to the solo path but keep the stringed backup. Several of the songs (“All I Got’s Gone,” “The Poor Tramp Has to Live,” etc.) deal with the issues facing the country at the time.

Over the course of their lives, Ernest and Hattie Stoneman had 23 children (13 of which made it to adulthood), each of which participated in their own musical careers to some degree. As the economy improved, the Stoneman’s found success by performing together in groups, including  “The Stoneman Family” and “The Blue Grass Champs.” The later gained fame on ABC’s The Jimmy Dean Show, where “Pop” Stoneman would occasionally perform with them.

Ernest Stoneman’s own music is not what he is best remembered for, as evidenced by his frustratingly recent 2008 induction to the country music hall of fame. Rather, his legacy and the impact he made on the history of country music are among his greatest achievements. From his home in rural Virginia, to bluegrass and televisions across America, Ernest Stoneman and the burgeoning Stoneman family share a history that parallels that of country music itself.

Ernest “Pop” Stoneman and his characteristic autoharp and harmonica.

For more information, check out the following sources:

Thomas Edison’s Attic Podcast:

Country Music Hall of Fame:

My Kind of Country Blog:

Country Music Discographies: