Peter Rowan has a new release coming out tomorrow on Rebel Records: Through Carter Stanley’s Eyes. As the title suggests, the project was motivated by Rowan’s reminiscence about the moment he first met Carter Stanley; the album celebrates years of working with Bill Monroe (who introduced Rowan to bluegrass’ founding duo, the Stanley Brothers) and the Stanley Brothers—primarily Ralph Stanley after Carter’s untimely death — too. The album features songs written by the Stanley Brothers, songs frequently performed in their repertoire, and even one that Ralph Stanley covered that was written by Rowan, in addition to songs by Monroe, Lead Belly and the Louvin Brothers.
Americana Highways stopped to chat with Peter Rowan on the eve of his release. We asked him how the album theme originated. “I used this idea of Carter Stanley’s eyes for the album concept because that day I met Carter Stanley has been a diary entry that I have habitually returned to, it has been a focal point for me for over 50 years.” He said. “I have returned to the moment I first locked eyes with him, over and over, as a touchstone of inspiration. I figured I’d better make something out if it, it was such a defining moment of my life, and career.”
Can you define what made Carter Stanley such a profound songwriter? “Well, to begin with, music is social commentary. Really good musical social commentary is difficult, it’s all entertainment in the end, but there can be something so intangibly sacred about it at the same time.”
“The Stanley Brothers wrote about tragedies like “Flood of 1957,” where people fought for their lives; they’d tell stories, sometimes tragic stories. They wrote a song about the tragedy of a school bus that wrecked up in the mountains: “No School Bus in Heaven.” And they knew that the lonesome quality of the music could carry the message as well as the lyrics. The sounds could draw sympathy even when the lyrics remained matter of fact.”
“Carter Stanley also had such vision that he could see the tragic side of life and yet his vision took him to transcendental areas too; they found these old songs like “Man of Constant Sorrow.” These songs transcend all time.”
In addition to meeting Carter Stanley, what are some other formative experiences that have shaped your bluegrass consciousness? “Entering into the bluegrass world can be very physical. For instance, these days the modern world is more of a preoccupation for musicians. Back in the analogue world, we had to specifically go there. You’d have to physically go up to Doc Watson’s house and knock on the door and say “excuse me for bothering you, but I’m one of your followers.”
“Another physical manifestation is one of the rites of initiation in bluegrass, which is to make a pilgrimage to Uncle Pen’s cabin in Western Kentucky at night. That’s part of the bluegrass covenant, it’s a secret. Bill Monroe had an uncle named Pendleton; he did a song: “Uncle Pen played the fiddle how it would ring you could hear it talk you could hear it sing.” Bill spent his early teens growing up at “Uncle Pen’s cabin;” he didn’t live at home because his parents were gone. Arnold Shultz was an African American man from New Orleans who moved up to Kentucky, and he taught Uncle Pen how to play, and taught Bill Monroe how to play. This heritage is another part of the bluegrass history. And Bill was young enough that he’d ride the mule while Arnold Schultz and Uncle Pen would walk alongside and they’d go to these country dances. That’s bluegrass.
“So if you go on the bluegrass pilgrimage you go up to Uncle Pendleton Vandiver’s cabin and stay there and at midnight you play. You could play anytime, but there’s something about crossing the barrier of midnight at night; you have a magical experience, so you make sure to play then.“
The conversation lingered on Bill Monroe, and his ubiquitous and lasting influence. Rowan remarked: “Some bands today are really talented in unique individual ways, and others play what you could call generic bluegrass but that still makes the hair stand up on your head. And it’s all a result of Bill Monroe gathering really talented and progressive players around him back in the 40s.”
“Bluegrass is a very tight form, and we hope today’s audience appreciates the vast spectrum of stuff. I tend to return to the traditional form, because the Stanley Brothers, they ploughed fresh ground, that’s still such a potent starting point.”
“Del McCoury’s sons have a band called the Travelling McCourys. We did a gig together up in Gettysburg area last summer. That’s all bluegrass area there, in the upper reaches of Appalachia. Gettysburg is already such a heavy place for historical reasons. We decided to play some Bill Monroe songs instead of our usual, original material. There was an element of real shock when the audience heard these Bill Monroe songs done Bill Monroe style, it’s odd, it’s not what people are used to hearing. Some of the new people had maybe never heard these things.”
“When you start singing about things like dying children, and the little girl and the dreadful snake, or the muleskinner blues, it’s really the stuff from another sensibility. I think we did it right, we were true to the music when we played it. But it struck me that the audience was very surprised, appreciative yes, but also surprised to hear the tonality of that older music. That high lonesome sound, the angular mountain bluegrass kind of thing is uniquely moving. Everybody has tried to take the hillbilly out of the bluegrass. But really bluegrass needs to have a little roughness to it, although it still has to be played with this fantastic precision.”
Rowan spent some time in the 1970’s with Jerry Garcia, Dave Grisman, Vasser Clements and John Kahn in the band Old and In the Way. I asked him how those sessions were influential. “Me and Dave Grisman, and a bunch of us, ended up playing with bluegrass musicians and also jazz musicians from the northeast. So we got some of their sensibility too, some of their view of how music should be. That’s why we ended up playing longer jams.”
“We had all listened to a lot of different music and we thought bluegrass could be progressive and incorporate ideas from jazz, so took extended solos to take it out a little bit, with Vassar Clements, and, of course, Jerry Garcia was the king of the extended solos. Vassar Clements had no restrictions in his musical direction. Those ideas really fed our enthusiasm for bluegrass as a progressive music.”
“It was funny, we didn’t see Old and in the Way as commercial at all. In fact we figured the commercial possibilities of bluegrass music were impossible. We were just dumb and young – our attitude was to kind of thumb our nose at the commercial side of things. That’s just arrogance, but it comes from the fact that nobody cared. We were all in rock and roll bands trying to make a living, and we couldn’t figure out how to be able to pay for strings, let alone a roof over our heads.”
“And yet Old and in the Way ended up being on the pop music charts, it came in at number 69. We didn’t look at it like it meant something.” Indeed it did, as their one and only album was one of the best selling bluegrass albums ever.
“But Jerry’s magnetic quality brought things into a more popular focus. And Old and in the Way was selling more records than anyone in bluegrass for a long while.
“In this new record, “Through Carter Stanley’s Eyes” I am sticking to the 3 minute song model, and that’s a little refreshing. Once you go into the long extended song then every song becomes a jam. And then you’re stuck out there. Bill Monroe once said to me: “Pete, don’t go too far out on the limb, there are enough flowers out there already.” (laughs)
Considering the balance between making a living and keeping one’s head down and making music, Rowan had this to say: “Basically it gets down to you can follow the dollars or you can follow the magic, and somewhere in between you’ve got to be able to feel that you’ve done some magic and you’re getting by. That takes you into the realm of spirituality, that unknown quality of life, you know? I think that Carter Stanley, especially, touched on those things in his strange way.”
Wondering more about the new release, I asked him to say more about how he gathered musicians to particularly emulate what he learned from Carter Stanley. “One of the ways I tried to bring that out is by having Jack Lawrence on guitar, who played with Doc Watson. He brought a great sensibility to the music. And Patrick Sauber on banjo. He has a really unique melodic style but a traditional hard driving sense about him. Don Rigsby is steeped in the Stanley Brothers’ music, he’s from Kentucky so he lives and breathes the bluegrass air.”
“And then I brought in Jamie Oldaker from Tulsa OK in on percussion—he’s been in my band for a few years now, he played with Eric Clapton, he was the drummer on “Lay Down Sally.” Jaime has a tremendous beautiful sensibility, it’s a Tulsa Oklahoma sound, that J. J. Cale kind of a feel for things. I always see bluegrass as a progressive possibility in terms of its true musical content.”
“Blaine Sprouse is also there on fiddle and vocals, Chris Henry on mandolin. and Paul Knight on acoustic bass; those guys are my regular band.”
Whats coming up this spring and summer for Peter Rowan? “The Merle Watkins festival is a lot of great acts, including Jack Lawrence. The core of that festival was Doc Watson’s musical styles. For years, they’d all be there. It’s the first real rootsy festival of the season, it takes place in North Carolina April 26. That’ll be our first series of shows. Then I’ll play in the south and play in Europe, I play with a wonderful band over there called Red Wine, they are a wonderful bluegrass band.” Hope to see you on the road, Peter Rowan!
For info on Peter Rowan and his latest release, click here.
For Merlefest info, investigate here: