This article/interview is a contribution from Mike Fiorito, a free lance music writer, Associate Editor for Mad Swirl Magazine, and a regular contributor to the Red Hook Star Revue.
Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Peter Rowan has been reinventing himself and acoustic American music for more than six decades. He has been called a “music visionary” by bluegrass scholar Neil Rosenberg. Peter has composed and recorded bluegrass, reggae, rock, Hawaiian, Buddhist, Tex-Mex, psychedelic, and country music. And he has collaborated and performed with some of the best musicians of our time: Bill Monroe, Jerry Garcia, Alison Krauss, Yungchen Lhamo, David Grisman, Tony Rice, Flaco Jiménez, Vassar Clements, and many others. Peter’s extensive discography reflects the incredible breadth of his career.
Peter’s new album, Calling You From My Mountain, will be released on June 24, 2022 by Rebel Records. Sparkling with talents like Billy Strings, Shawn Camp, Molly Tuttle, Lindsay Lou, and Mark Howard, the album also features Peter’s own band of extraordinary young players like Christopher Henry (mandolin), Max Wareham (banjo), Julian Pinelli (fiddle), and Eric Thorin (acoustic bass). “I’ve got a young band, it’s fabulous,” Peter has said. “They’re bursting with ideas. They’re in their years of inspiration. They’re really quick learners and their ears are wide open because this generation is built on everything we did, dare I say, all those years ago.”
Steeped in bluegrass traditions, Calling You From My Mountain also draws from Peter’s broader interests in all kinds of music. His lyrics are imbued with his studies in literature, history, metaphysics and music lore. Peter’s music is also enriched with the history he has experienced playing with the legends of our time. This is especially evident when Peter regales his audiences with stories during live performances.
Calling You From My Mountain opens with Woody Guthrie’s New York Town which Peter learned from music legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The song was transmitted — whispered lips to whispered lips, as the Buddhists say — directly from Woody Guthrie to Ramblin’ Jack and finally to Peter. Another tune, Veil of Deja Blue, one of my favorites on the album, like much of Peter’s music, mixes effusive joy with melancholy.
Every time I ramble round, I’m always missing you, shadows falling on my heart, in shades of Deja Blue.
Peter’s harmonies with Christopher Henry on Veil of Deja Blue are both heart-wrenching and beautiful. Having toured and performed together for years, Peter and Christopher create harmonies that echo with history. Their combined sound at times melds into the singularity of one voice, reverberating with Peter in harmony with Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley with his brother Carter. We experience the delight they have singing together. As Christopher said, “I was stoked for him to help me explore the high tenor harmony on Deja Blue, and was tickled that he wanted to include Monroe’s Frog on the Lily Pad as a mandolin feature.”
Reaching across the globe, the song From My Mountain (Calling You) was inspired by Peter’s long friendship with Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo, and showcases the spirit of mountain music shared between Appalachian and Tibetan cultures. The song is also a prayer for healing: calling people to expand beyond their “isolated” worlds, or mountain tops, to shake their loneliness and despair, and feel the power of interconnectedness with other beings.
Light at the End of the World, based on Rowan’s interests in Gospel music, also reminds us of Peter’s talent for writing poetic lyrics. Peter had texted me a few draft verses of Light at the End of the World before he recorded it. Getting texts like this from Peter is like receiving postcards from Walt Whitman.
When the earthquake rumbles, Floodwaters rise, Prayers of the faithful are winged on high, Like Noah of old, I’m building an arc, To float on the waters of the world growing dark.
Prior to the pandemic, Peter wrote an entire album of songs inspired by Hank Williams’ “Luke the Drifter” persona. But before he could travel to Nashville to record it, the pandemic hit, and that album was never made. A little background on Luke the Drifter. Early in his career, Hank Williams wrote fourteen songs as “Luke the Drifter,” an idealized alter-ego who went across the country preaching the Gospel and doing good deeds, while Hank Williams, the drunkard, lived an unscrupulous life. “I included one of the songs I wrote from the Luke the Drifter album called Dream of Heaven,” Peter said. Based on conversations I had with Peter before, I knew The Song That Made Hank Williams Dance, also on the new album, was inspired by one of Peter’s dreams. In the dream a woman sang, “I know, I know, I know” to Peter. After singing, the woman said, “I’m the dance that made Hank Williams sing. I’m the song that made him dance.” Another beauty on the album is A Winning Hand. Peter tells us his tale, as echoes of Tony Rice styled guitar licks, played by Billy Strings, weave throughout the song.
I made a promise to myself, someday I’d return to these shores, The silver coastline white with waves, the heather green on the moor, For I have left a life behind, I lived as a gambling man, Searching for that wild high card to play a winning hand.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Peter backstage at the Suwannee Spring Reunion festival in Live, Oak, Florida, on March 19, 2022, to discuss his upcoming album. The entire time we spoke, Peter cradled his Eastman electric guitar, sometimes playing, sometimes just holding it.
What can you tell me about the new album?
I have a new record coming out on Rebel Records in June 2022. It’s called Calling You From My Mountain, and it’s a bluegrass record. In addition to my own new material, it has songs written by Woody Guthrie, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and the Carter Family. There are also two instrumentals: Chris Henry plays Bill Monroe’s Frog on the Lily Pad on mandolin, and Julian Pinelli, on fiddle, has a Tex Logan tune [Tex Logan played with Mike Seeger, The Lilly Brothers, Bill Monroe in the 1960s, as well as with Peter] called Come Along Jody — one of Tex’s medium tempo songs [affectionately named after Tex’s daughter, Jody], whereas Frog on the Lily Pad is a more fast-paced tune. So, we really covered the spectrum. The Lightnin’ Hopkins song is called Penitentiary Blues. I heard Lightnin’ Hopkins as a kid. I would emulate him. He was a version of Chuck Berry’s music that pointed to deeper roots. The best way I could sing the blues was in bluegrass — at the time. Lightnin’ Hopkins was important. He was a student of Blind Lemon Jefferson. He talked about Blind Lemon Jefferson like a father figure. But Blind Lemon Jefferson never treated him as an inferior; he always treated him like a talented kid. This is way back in the early twentieth century. The connection I see between bluegrass and blues is sort of my own interpretation. To be able to do a Lightnin’ Hopkins song in an album of mostly my new songs felt great.
Playing solo, I would have been hesitant to do that song singing in the black blues tradition because I wasn’t raised in that tradition. But I’ve absorbed it coming through the bluegrass tradition. As Bill Monroe said, “Pete, if you can play my music, you can play anything.” Also, I’ve lived long enough to claim the right to [now singing] sing the blues.
Did you manage to get string arrangements on the album as we had discussed a few months ago when you were recording it?
I was thinking of asking one of the Kruger Brothers to orchestrate something for the title song, From My Mountain (Calling You), but this was during COVID. There didn’t seem to be any horizon to this event, like, there it is we can work for it on that date. At that point, when I talked to you, it wasn’t a complete idea. I’d been working on this album for two years during COVID. It would have been a slightly different album if we recorded it in 2020, or 2019, but because of COVID, I wasn’t able to accomplish that. But the album benefited by having extra time to work on it. I took my new bluegrass band, Eric Thorin on bass, Julian Pinelli on fiddle, Chris Henry on mandolin, and my nephew, Max Wareham on banjo. We did a festival in the upper Midwest, at the headwaters of the Mississippi River, in Winona, Wisconsin. Then we went across to St. Paul, Minnesota to a studio and recorded everything. We had never played together as a band before. It kind of jump-started my whole creative process in terms of accomplishing recordings. You play a festival, go into the studio. And it sounded great. And it was great having Molly and Billy in the sessions. There is a connection we have, the same lineage. They are both unique and willing to jump in. Molly played banjo on The Red, the White, and the Blue, and of course sang fabulously on From My Mountain (Calling You). Billy played on A Winning Hand. I didn’t ask him to blaze a solo, but wanted his reaction to the music. His spontaneous playing on that song and Freedom are the guitar parts that you hear, grooving with the song! And Billy pays homage to Tony Rice in his rhythm playing. As we say in reggae, “He forward the music, mon!”
There’s an Indian reservation in Winona, right? Has this inspired you to write new songs about indigenous people?
I think I’m going back to that. I have a date near St. Louis this summer with my bluegrass band. It’s only a few hours down the road to the reservations by Anadarko, Oklahoma. The Kiowa Apache now live there. That’s the last place I was before I drove to Palo Verde Canyon, then up to Taos and finally over to Utah to write Land of the Navajo. I wanted to see my brothers out west. David Grisman was producing an album for my brothers. I had no idea what was going to happen. I touched every Native American spot I could. At the time — what 1969 or 1970? — there weren’t many tourists out there. I began to make contact with the history I had read about. I had read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, which tells the sad tale of how it all played out on the plains. I’m going back into that realm. I have to see where One-Eyed Jack’s [quoting lyrics from Land of the Navajo] turquoise landed when he threw it in the air. You know, that’s a Buddhist offering in the context of the Land of the Navajo. The white guy offers the indigenous person everything he can so he can redeem his spiritual connection – he throws the turquoise in the air. It’s like a mandala offering to the universe.
How do you muster all that energy to keep touring, going from live show to live show? I sometimes go to a hotel for a few days for a project and I need a week to recover.
There are a lot of people who do it. People who are motivated to bring their music out to the public. Im not unique in that way. I may be unique in some other ways that are extra-musical. Following a spiritual path, connecting to more than one tradition. Buddhism has a system in place that creates a way to engage in the goal as the path. I feel connected to Amerindian traditions as well. To the idea that all phenomena are endowed with spirit. That we are the medicine. That all is sacred. For a while, I wanted to become a tobacco ceremony holder, a pipe holder. But that’s three years of work and it’s way outside of my outreach to the public. Music moves me in a way that is healing. And I want people to feel that. It’s what music does to me that I’m trying to bring out to other people. My path doesn’t take me to North Dakota up to Sundance Ceremonies and things like that. I understand and respect that. It takes a tremendous amount of commitment and endurance. Peyote ceremonies and the sweat lodge are my connections to Native American traditions. I haven’t been part of the peyote ceremonies since 1979, but I felt that I received the message from peyote, from Mescalito. And that’s what I was writing about back then.
How does it feel playing with all those younger guys?
It’s great, I’ve been recording again with Flaco Jiménez and the younger players in Los TexManiacs. It’s the Free Mexican Airforce with Jerry Douglas as producer and dobroist! And in the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, I’m also playing with younger musicians.
What has driven you to write and play music for the past sixty plus years without pause?
My quest is to cultivate the good for all.
Calling You From My Mountain is an important album to listen to, as it is the link that connects multiple generations. As Christopher Henry said to me, “Although it is no real surprise, it is still remarkable that Peter continues to break new ground in traditional and progressive bluegrass music, always being careful to deliver the singing in a heartfelt, emotive way. The guests he picked for the album are brilliant and merge with the core band in a very complementary way, and everyone has shining moments. His poetic elegance and lyrical/melodic power on A Winning Hand brought me to tears with its charming hint of the Old World, and Freedom Trilogy featuring Billy Strings is, well, epic!”
Calling You From My Mountain will invite younger listeners to explore the ‘ancient tones’ that inspired Peter’s generation. We hear the roots that passed from Bill Monroe to Peter, but as absorbed and interpreted by younger players like Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, Christopher Henry, and others.
Mike Fiorito is an author and a freelance music writer. His book, Falling from Trees, won the 2022 Independent Press Distinguished Book Award. Mike’s latest book, Mescalito Riding His White Horse, Inspired by the Music of Peter Rowan, will be available for pre-order in August, 2022. More information can be found on his web site.