Out on a Limb: Tales of musical adventure and rapturous fun
By Mary Eisenhart
After all, by the time the Father of Bluegrass dispensed this advice to his young Blue Grass Boys guitarist, vocalist and tour-bus driver back in the day, Massachusetts country boy Rowan had already migrated from Tex-Mex (“Back then, ‘Tex-Mex’ was what they called the music Buddy Holly played. When I was about 14 I had a band called the Cupids that played that kind of music”) to New York’s blues and folk scenes, in the process connecting with a young bluegrass fiend named David Grisman. It was bluegrass and Grisman that brought him together with Jerry Garcia, which led to many collaborations, most notably in Old & in the Way (with Vassar Clements and John Kahn) in the ’70s, after Rowan left Monroe’s band.
From that time to this, Rowan’s renowned musical prowess has been matched only by his unwillingness to play it safe in some musical rut. His career has been a wild ride through multiple genres, mega collaborations, a fearless collection of instruments, and prolific songwriting throughout.
Rowan’s connections with the Rex Foundation spring from his multi-decade relationship with Garcia and the various musical scenes they co-inhabited. In 2001, when “The Healing Power of Music” kicked off the Rex Foundation’s renewal, Rowan (and his brothers Chris and Lorin) were on hand to perform and to reconnect with family and friends.
Rowan put together the lineup for the Rex Foundation’s 25th Anniversary Celebration, resulting in truly Sweet Music Everywhere, from every corner of the musical universe, with an inclusive, all-in-the-family vibe. Rowan himself played in numerous configurations—Tex-Mex, reggae, and a bluegrass lineup that raised the roof with the Old & in the Way classic “Pig in a Pen.” His brothers Chris and Lorin contributed a harmonious set, with David Gans joining them for a Beatles moment. SCI alum Michael Kang rocked the house with his new band Panjea, and the Brass Mafia changed quite a few preconceptions about horns. Spanning the musical generations, folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliot sang the old songs with rising star Jackie Greene.
“It was, ‘Well, I can call on my musical friends, and we can go out on another limb!’” Rowan laughs. “With them flowers! Let’s go out there and smell them again!
“It was a three-hour show—think of all the music that happened, the jazz, bluegrass, the brass band, and then the whole reggae thing with the horns and the coming and the going…
“I think the folks that are involved in Rex have that wonderful community sense about them,” Rowan adds, “and we kind of created a moment that would allow people to feel that way.”
Catching up with him after the dust had settled, as he prepared to embark on a European tour, we listened as he told a few tales.
On Bill Monroe
I was growing up out in the country in a little town called Wayland, Massachusetts, and when I was 17 or so I started to see who was playing locally in the Boston area. I started going in and hanging out at a place called the Hillbilly Ranch with these guys from West Virginia, and playing with some local bands. Bill Monroe came to town and needed a guitar player, and somebody recommended me and I got hired to do that. At the end of about a four- or five-day run I was amazed at the authoritative power of this man and his rhythmic approach.
Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler wrote an article for Sing Out! magazine calling Bill the father of bluegrass music. He could be the patriarch, and that was good, because he was kind of a jealous father for a while.
He would suffer no fools gladly. People were a little bit in awe of him, a little bit frightened of him. He was an artist, so he needed his personal alone time—even in a crowd, he was a solitary kind of guy and had a real sense of the earth.
In the ’60s the Civil War was only 100 years past. When Bill Monroe was born, in 1910 or so, the Civil War was only 50 years past. He grew up plowing behind a mule. He told me, “Pete, it was mighty lonesome for me as a kid, plowing behind a mule and wondering where my brothers were.” They were at war, the First World War, when he was 8 years old. He said, “That’s where I learned to sing, out plowing behind a mule. I’d throw my voice and whoop.”
People in the country at that time, they all had their own whoops, and that was their way of communicating. You’d know who it was by the way they called. I could relate to that; it was the same in my neighborhood in the country in the time, up in Wayland. Every kid had a call, a cry of their own. You stepped outside and wanted to know where your friends were, you’d give a whoop, and maybe half a mile away you’d hear another whoop.
These things made me feel kind of at home with Bill. I was certainly not plowing behind a mule as a kid, but I missed the country and I knew the lonesome feeling, so there was a connection between him and me as people.
He kind of kept me under wraps—he put a cap on it, and you wore the hat because you were in his band. There was a little bit of straining at the leash. When I met Jerry Garcia, he was like the mirror image of Bill Monroe. Both excellent musicians, both intense in their life. With Jerry, if I wanted to sing free and do a Navajo yodel, he didn’t put a cap on anything. He would just beam a little brighter at any musical extension.
Bill was an unpredictable guy. He would look at what was going on and he wanted to be part of it too. He told me he always heard this other music in his head, and I said, “Why don’t you ever play it?” and he said, “I would let my fans down.” He was a pragmatist.
On David Grisman and Jerry Garcia
I met David up in North Carolina before I ever went with Bill Monroe. We knew about each other from afar. David had a band that went down South and won all the fiddle contests, and I thought that was kind of uppity of these New York guys to do that—I’m from provincial Boston, and that’s not fair! (laughs) We met in North Carolina standing out in the fields, and we just kind of hit it off right away.
David has a great enthusiasm for collaboration, and he can find his way into the musical space that’s there and enhance it. When I went to work with Bill Monroe he’d always be there whenever we were playing within two or three hundred miles of New York City—as a mandolin player, he was a big fan. When we were in New York City, Bill would ask David up to play. It was quite a congenial thing. Bill looked around and realized that these kids with shaggy hair were really devoted to him and his music, and it melted his heart. He was totally outgoing.
When I left Bill wanting to do something just a little different, David Grisman had been working on the West Coast with a group out of Berkeley called the Smoky Grass Boys. David came back with this record by the Grateful Dead that had “Cold Rain and Snow” on it. I had been singing “Cold Rain and Snow” in the Bill Monroe band, and it was like, “Hey, we’re all on the same page, or at least in the same part of the book.” David said, “Garcia loves bluegrass,” and I’m “Oh really?”
David and I formed a band called Earth Opera and made a couple of albums for Elektra. We toured around for a couple of years opening for The Doors, starting out as an acoustic duo like the Incredible String Band and ending up like a really eclectic, electric, I-don’t-know-what-to-call-it band. (laughs) The energy of those times kind of spun out at the end of it; David moved west to California with my two brothers Chris and Lorin, and I went on with a band called Seatrain.
My brothers were in Stinson Beach, working with David and Garcia, and that’s when we started playing more together. Up on the side of Mt. Tamalpais, with the eucalyptus smell in the air and the fog rolling in over the far hills—just the feeling was totally different from any other place I’d ever been. I ended up staying out here all through the 1970s.
Out of all that foggy Stinson Beach coastline came the day that David and I wandered up to Jerry’s house. We started playing with Jerry and we’d go up there every evening, and we started to play a few dates around the local area. John Hartford played fiddle with us, we did a show with the Chieftains… but we were kind of a rascally band. For Jerry it was just pure fun, and everyone in the group had a different idea of what to do and where to go with it.
When I was in the band with Bill Monroe, I heard tapes of Vassar Clements, who had retired, jamming at parties with his friends in Alabama. So I called up Vassar, and he was ready to go. We flew him out and he arrived in Boston, our first tour outside of California—our first and only tour. He arrived at the Boston airport, and me and Garcia and David came up, and we all got together and just started playing.
It was happy times. It was really good. For about a year and a half we did a lot of work. I wanted to get Jerry away from the Grateful Dead and let him do something near to his heart, something closer to where he came from. It’s amazing how far his musical roots go back into all this stuff.
When I came out to the West Coast in the ’70s the Dead were starting their second decade, and they had a certain style and a certain way of playing; Old & in the Way was like his other group. We had some contact with the Dead on the East Coast, doing a tour back to back with them—which was Jerry’s style, right, one night with them and one with Old & in the Way. So we used to go into Dead shows and then go and do our own shows—we were still in our 20s and had a lot of energy. That whole period was one of rapturous fun.
On Collaboration, Solo Work, and Going With the Flow
When you collaborate with someone, there’s always judgments being passed. Collaborations are fragile that way. You’re stepping out on a limb, to do something more—you might not dare do it.
In 1976, around the anniversary of the Revolution (laughs), I started going down to Texas more. That’s where I met (Tex-Mex accordion legend) Flaco Jimenez. I had a lot of friends in Texas, and we used to just camp out by these beautiful crystal springs. I wrote “The Free Mexican Air Force” hanging out with those people. My first album on Flying Fish had Flaco Jimenez and a wonderful Texas fiddler, Tex Logan, on it, and various little gangs and groups and bands and bluegrass players and Tex-Mex players. I had gotten so tired of the studio routine of polishing and honing until the original ragged-but-right feeling was gone.
Of course critics get all uppity about you hiring someone who’s a musical god. There was one review that said that having Flaco Jimenez playing with Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Air Force was like having B.B. King come and play with your local garage band. But it was a magic time.
I have a nice bluegrass band out here on the West Coast that you saw at the concert. Through the years I’ve come to accept my own role in a certain context, and kind of enjoy it. Relax a little bit, for God’s sake. We’re not ingenues! (laughs) It’s a fruitful time in terms of the music, and a good singing group, that’s important to me.
I’m happy to be in collaborative efforts; I like the music, I like what happens when people get together and play. But I know that the real task before me is to say something. Something about the heart, you know. As you look around in life, you have the heart connections with these people that you know, and they stump you, they inspire you.
When Jerry passed away, Bill Monroe passed away, John Hartford passed away, and my closest friend who I was collaborating with, Charles Sawtelle, passed away from cancer, it kind of threw me for a loop. I always thought that I had come to grips with the idea of mortality, but what I hadnt come to grips with was the idea of other people’s mortality.
Losing all those guys, I wasn’t prepared, and I didn’t make any solo efforts during that time, from ’98 till now, really.
I did a lot of collaboration, and now it’s come back into the phase of wanting to express my inner feelings rather than wanting to make the most interesting collaborative music I can find at the moment. I go back and forth between those two directions. It keeps it fresh.