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In With the Old Makes Bluegrass New in Recent Releases From Peter Rowan

THE SAN FRANCISCO TREAT: (bottom) Tony Rice; (top) Peter Rowan

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/17/2004

Peter Rowan and Tony Rice play Owings Mills’ Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Nov. 18.

In 1973, Tony Rice represented the future of bluegrass. Along with Clarence White and Norman Blake, he reinvented bluegrass guitar, transforming it from background rhythm to foreground solo. Moreover, Rice had one of the genre’s best young voices, a honeyed baritone that could handle the conversational ease of a Gordon Lightfoot song or the driving attack of a Bill Monroe number. But in what direction would he take that talent? Would he work within the bluegrass tradition or would he strike off on a new tangent?

Even then the tradition carried the considerable weight of 33 years. The first-generation giants—Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Carter Stanley, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and Jim and Jesse McReynolds—had already made the definitive, canonical recordings. Of the 109 tracks on the new four-CD box set Can’t You Hear Me Callin’—Bluegrass: 80 Years of American Music (Columbia/Legacy), for example, 89 were recorded before 1973.

That year Rice was playing with J.D. Crowe and the New South, a quintet led by the Jimmy Martin alumnus Crowe and featuring such young and obscure pickers as Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, and Bobby Slone. This lineup made only one album, 1975’s J.D. Crowe and the New South, but it was a milestone, proof that bluegrass could tackle new repertoire (the album included songs by Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, and Fats Domino) and new harmonies (they played trickier chord changes just as fast as their elders).

That wasn’t enough of a departure for Rice. He soon left Crowe to join the newly formed David Grisman Quintet, a group devoted to playing Grisman’s original instrumentals, full of strange rhythms and stranger chord changes, on bluegrass instruments.

In three of Grisman’s earlier groups—Earth Opera, Muleskinner, and Old and in the Way—Peter Rowan was the lead singer. This Boston guitarist had impeccable bluegrass credentials—he had been a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys from 1964 through ’67—but he, too, yearned to push bluegrass forward. His specialty was writing songs that reflected a new age, songs that recognized, for example, that Tex-Mex marijuana smugglers were the modern equivalent of Appalachian moonshiners.

Rice and Rowan raised the question that has vexed many players and listeners: Just what is bluegrass? Gregg Geller tried to answer the question in compiling the Columbia/Legacy box set, picking 109 tracks, spread out over four CDs, to represent bluegrass’ essence. But his argument isn’t very convincing. He doesn’t focus on the hard-core tradition, and his choices for alternatives make no sense whatsoever.

There wasn’t any bluegrass before 1940, when Monroe first assembled his Blue Grass Boys and gave the new music its name as well as its sound, but Geller includes 13 pre-1940 tracks anyway. Geller does a pretty good job covering the early ’40s through the mid-’60s, picking representative tracks from all the first-generation giants (though he omits the Stanley Brothers’ crucial King recordings).

Geller’s most questionable choices come in the modern era. He showcases bluegrass-influenced acts who are in no sense bluegrass artists: the Byrds, Steve Earle, the Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless, the O’Kanes, Joshua Bell, and Edgar Meyer. Meanwhile, he overlooks not just Rice and Rowan but also Del McCoury as a bandleader, the Johnson Mountain Boys, the Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene, Strength in Numbers, Hazel Dickens, Bob Paisley, Lynn Morris, the Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway, and many, many more. This box set is an opportunity squandered.

A far better reflection of bluegrass’ present and future can be found on the recent recordings by Rice and Rowan. When vocal problems forced Rice to give up singing in 1993, he first devoted himself to instrumental music, such as 2001’s splendid Unit of Measure. But he missed the extra dimension that vocals lend and went looking for a singer.

By the end of the decade he had formed a partnership with Rowan, most often backed by mandolinist Billy Bright and upright bassist Bryn Bright, a married couple from Austin, Texas. This lineup was flexible enough to play mainstream festivals headlined by Ralph Stanley but also at jam-grass festivals headlined by the String Cheese Incident.

After five years of road work, this quartet has finally released an album, You Were There for Me (Rounder). Rowan wrote or co-wrote all the songs and handles all the lead vocals, but Rice’s guitar accompaniment and solos are so lyrical that the arrangements function like duets, with Rice’s guitar providing both harmony to and commentary on Rowan’s voice. It’s an unusual strategy, and it works only because Rowan’s songwriting provides such strong melodies and because Rice is uniquely qualified to exploit them. The guitarist resists the temptation to speed up those melodies into flashy solos; instead he massages them with subtle shifts in phrasing.

This tilts the tunes away from bluegrass’ usual emphasis on blistering virtuosity and high, hard singing toward a folk emphasis on a conversational delivery. Rowan’s words—which bring to life everything from a grateful lover on the other side of recovery to a child beggar on the streets of Baghdad, from an ornery old coot on the porch of a Chattanooga shack to a wild mustang trying to avoid hunters on the Montana plains—thrive in the spotlight. This is not so much a new approach to bluegrass as a very old one, a return to the old-time mountain ballads that were a form of storytelling.

Rowan, Rice, and the Brights are also featured on High Lonesome Cowboy, a Peter Rowan and Don Edwards duo album first released in 2002 and reissued this year on Dualtone. As the title implies, this project combines the “high lonesome” sound of bluegrass with Edwards’ specialty, “cowboy” music. This blend of Eastern mountains and Western deserts works surprisingly well, thanks to Rowan’s storytelling approach to bluegrass and the third “voice” of Rice’s guitar (sometimes replaced by Norman Blake’s guitar). Seldom have cowboy songs enjoyed this much instrumental dazzle behind them.

Rowan also sings harmony on a new release from his younger brothers Chris and Lorin. With Grisman producing, Chris and Lorin had released an album as the Rowan Brothers for Columbia Records in 1972; when Peter joined in and made it a trio, they released three albums for Asylum Records in the mid-’70s. Though they were an interesting footnote to the era’s California country-rock movement, the Rowans never sold many records; Peter went back to bluegrass, and Chris and Lorin carried on for a while before throwing in the towel.

The two younger brothers recently reunited to assemble the new, double-CD album Now and Then (BOS Music). Then includes 17 audio tracks and four video tracks from the mid-’70s that had never been released in the United States. Peter and various members of the Grateful Dead show up on various tracks, underlining the Rowans’ bohemian approach to country music.

Now offers 17 newly recorded tracks, most new compositions. The lyrics aren’t as strong as Peter’s and the arrangements are a bit sweet, but the close sibling harmonies do echo the Rowans’ original inspiration, the Everly Brothers. Grisman, Phil Lesh, and Richard Greene lend a hand, but most interesting to Marylanders are the prominent contributions of two Baltimore County musicians, steel guitarist Barry Sless and keyboardist Mookie Siegel.

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