In referencing how music becomes something tangible to the world, Peter Rowan describes the transient process as “a strange and mysterious thing.” The words mirror his spiritual and philosophical existence on this plane. Peter Rowan has traveled near and far and with him, the adventures of playing music and the lessons of deep spiritual focus which have become interconnected within him on a cellular level. He is the commander-in-chief, the leader of contemporaries, the principle musician, the Buddhist guide and the forerunner of song compositions. He has collaborated with legends, he’s made albums with icons, he has written songs that are often covered by others and album’s that impacted musical direction.
Tabitha Clancy: Lets begin with your most recent works, of which two were released this year. Can you tell me about Dharma Blues?
Peter Rowan: I wrote that material while I was on pilgrimage to Nepal and India while doing concert dates in Japan. It was a mid-life journey. To have purgatory, paradise and hell – those are states of mind. To go on pilgrimage you actually leave behind your own world and engage in spiritual energy. Once I got to India and Nepal, my mind was open and songs started coming intensely. It was as if I was waiting my whole life to go on this journey. You surrender your baggage.
TC: When did you travel to Nepal and India?
PR: Well the first time in 1992, then I went back 1996, 2002, well, every decade. I would combine it with my Japanese dates.
TC: As musician you seem to create from the heart. How do your songs come together for you?
PR: On Dharma Blues there is a song called “Arise.” It is sort of a vow. It is the first vow someone on a spiritual path would make by sacrificing your own suffering and enlightenment for the enhancement of others. It begins by realizing all beings have been your parents. So in a way, that’s the prayers I was saying. I rehearsed different ways of playing. It’s been six years before I recorded it. I lived with those songs for a long time until I could be really comfortable with them. That’s one way of looking at it. It’s a strange and mysterious thing how any kind of music will see the light of day.
TC: What do you think about the progression of the bluegrass genre?
PR: I think it’s all great. My whole thing is I’ve been wrapped up in my own stuff. Basically I’m a songwriter whereas these other bands are about entertainment value and instrumental work. To me bluegrass has great potential for extended instrumental solos. All these bands tip their hats to Old In And The Way. I was a Bluegrass Boy; there is a self-imposed idea that I have to bring the tradition. You can draw a line and say bluegrass begins and ends at this certain traditional sound, beyond that it’s a progression of bluegrass. Right now, I don’t fit the category anymore.
TC: Can you tell me what those early years were like for you?
PR: Both my parents were musicians. My uncle Jimmy came back from World War II and brought back grass skirts and coconut bras and we all put them on and danced in living room while he played a ukulele he won in a poker game.
There was a big music scene Cambridge, MA and bluegrass was a part of it and I started playing bluegrass with different folks. Then Bill Monroe came to town and hired me to join his band.
TC: What was that like for you?
PR: Oh, it was scary! By the time I was 24, I was on the road with Bill Monroe. That is a big subject. I can tell you, when you share a mic with another, you do learn to project your voice. Ok, here’s the difference, to be really bluegrass it has to be acoustic instruments over a microphone. The point is, what I learned from Bill Monroe is projecting voice and projection of your instrument to cut the mic. And you call it “cut the mic.”
TC: You have countless collaborations and creative projects under your belt. Is there any project that stands out for you, the one album, show or musical adventure that you are proud of that you felt set you on you on your path?
PR: I’d say Old In And The Way, and the fact that I put out “In The Land of Navajo,” “Panama Red” and “Midnight Moonlight” on the same record was me finding my voice. It wasn’t that to me at that time; it was just exciting. Of course, playing with incredible greats. I’ll just give you dates and names: 1965, Bill Monroe; 1970, Jerry Garcia and Vassar Clements; all along there’s David Grisman; 1975, Flaco Jimenez. To my enjoyment, I played with these greats. In the 1980’s, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush – you know these are contemporaries. Into the nineties, we were becoming iconic. I ended up playing with Tony Rice for twelve years. He was a huge inspiration to me.
It’s been a wonderful evolution. I have my own bluegrass band now. I started writing in the first person six years ago. I feel like I’m able to share more. I like to tell stories. I like to pass on what I know.
TC: Last year you toured with Yungchen Lhamo who is someone whose musical presentation is quite different from Western style music. Where did you meet Yungchen?
PR: Years ago I was complaining that bluegrass seems limiting. So, Charles Sawtelle (Hot Rize) gave me Yungchen’s record. I listened to it for a long time both critically and joyfully. Years went by and two years ago I played a festival and saw she was on the bill. We kind of started connecting and so I invited her out to Rocky Grass in Colorado. So, I did a traditional bluegrass set and then I had Yungchen come out. We never really solidified what we do together. She did an opening prayer and then sang several of my Dharma songs with me. It was the first time we tried it on stage and it really worked. She’s an inspiration for me. She’s so direct in her approach. She made me realize that you don’t have to shy away. If you do it, just do it!
TC: You are currently touring the Northeast. What can we expect from the show at The Egg in Albany? Are you touring solo?
PR: I’m solo, that way I can tell the stories. The challenge is bringing it down to one person and let those influences be there.
Peter Rowan will be at The Egg, Saturday, November 15. Tickets available at the box office or online.