Every year about this time, beneath the West Marin sky, Peter Rowan puts on a Bluegrass BBQ birthday bash for fans, friends, and family to stop by and eat, drink, and pick. Peter’s birthday is on July 4, but this year the party was on July 5, as always at the fabled West Marin bar and eatery, Rancho Nicasio.
The venue is well known locally for their great food and Sunday afternoon BBQ On the Lawn shows, but mostly, West Marin is known for its beaches and access to the wonderful Point Reyes National Seashore. West Marin is a fur piece from US 101, out past the well-concealed Skywalker Ranch on Lucas Valley Road, so getting there is half the fun.
The community also has quite a musical history. As legend would have it, Peter, David Grisman, and Jerry Garcia lived in Stinson Beach when their band, Old and in the Way, started playing together at Jerry Garcia’s house, only twenty-plus miles south of the no-light town of Nicasio. Peter and fiddler Blaine Sprouse currently live in West Marin, so assembling this annual birthday bash with the Rowan Brothers, Lorin and Chris, plus a host of other great Bay Area bluegrass talent like Sharon Gilchrist (mandolin) and Paul Knight (bass) has become a wonderful tradition. Special thanks this year go to Patrick Sauber (banjo) for making the long journey north from Southern California to round out the band.
Peter started the show singing a few songs by himself before bringing up his son Michael Carter Rowan, who thanked Peter for passing on his songwriting craft. Next, Peter’s daughter Amanda Rose Rowan sang, with her husband Travis, a song that she co-wrote with Peter, On the Wings of Horses. Brothers Chris and Lorin Rowan from nearby Sausalito then did a short set featuring their duet harmonies, with Peter sitting in on a few numbers. After a short break for some great food and beverages, the full bluegrass band assembled for a fine set like only Peter Rowan can deliver — sweet, well-paced, soulful, and, some may say, humorous.
The setlist included well know Peter Rowan standards such as Midnight Moonlight, Free Mexican Air Force, and a wonderful version of Panama Red that drifted away and back from Freight Train and Wildwood Flower. Peter did his autobiographical tale, Carter Stanley’s Eyes, about a truck ride he shared with Bill Monroe to visit Carter Stanley in the Clinch Mountains. Blaine led a couple of classic bluegrass fiddle tunes, Jerusalem Ridge and Gold Rush, with help from Sharon on mandolin and Patrick on banjo. Sharon, a Texas native, sang a sweet version of Waltz Across Texas rivaled only by guest Maria Mauldaur’s haunting vocal accompaniment to Peter on Wayfaring Stranger. Throw in a few bluegrass standards — Molly and Tenbrooks featuring Patrick on banjo, and a finale of the whole ensemble doing the Stanley Brothers classic Midnight Train — and it seemed as if the birthday boy was the one giving out the presents.
One thing about Peter Rowan shows, none are the same and anything can happen, even when it’s the same players or songs. He always mixes it up telling different stories, featuring relatively unknown musical guests such as Redboy Schultz for this show, or even possibly a wardrobe malfunction. If you ever find yourself in West Marin County, California, on the way to the beach or Point Reyes Seashore, be sure to stop by Rancho Nicasio for dinner and music, and if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll see yet another 4th of July Peter Rowan Bluegrass Birthday Bash, an American tradition.
Photographs by Dave Berry and copy editing by Debbie Benrubi. Special thanks to Paul Knight for fact-checking and posting the band lineup on social media, without which we likely would not have attended. The title of this article is a nod to Peter saying Bill Monroe “always called me in plural”.