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.
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:
“The Enlightened Sound of Peter Rowan’s Buddhist Bluegrass” by Paul Liberatore of the Marin Independent Journal
Thomas Goldsmith, The Bluegrass Reader, chapters 39 and 47