Carter Stanley’s Eyes is an acute reminder of that, when performed with talent, inspiration, and respect, bluegrass is a very powerful thing.
Peter Rowan has been a bluegrass institution for more than thirty years, with a pedigree stretching back to the mid-1960s as a member of the Blue Grass Boys. Rowan—the target of the infamous Bill Monroe quote, “Don’t go too far out on that limb, there’s enough flowers out there already”—has frequently ventured well-outside the bluegrass realm, almost always with satisfying results.
With Carter Stanley’s Eyes, Rowan returns to the formidable truck of the bluegrass tree with an album-long tribute to the music and its originators, especially Carter and Ralph Stanley. Rowan’s voice has always percolated richness infused with eternal qualities, and across the 14 songs and nearly fifty minutes of this release, everything we have come to expect from ‘bluegrass’ Peter Rowan are prominently displayed.
A pulsating and mandolin-rich rendition of “Drumbeats Along the Watchtower” (more familiarly entitled “Wild Geese Cry Again”) opens the recording, and it is an excellent start. Rowan shows he is ready to do the heaviest lifting on this his fortieth-or-so non-live album. The song is also indication of how closely tied this album will be to the Stanley tradition. “The Light In Carter Stanley’s Eyes” captures a formative moment in Rowan’s early bluegrass career, a recitation of self-deprecation and mentor validation
A number of songs made essential via the Stanley Brothers are incorporated, including “The Hills of Roane County,” “A Vision of Mother,” “Let Me Love You One More Time,” and “Too Late To Cry.” A couple numbers have a spiritual theme including, freshened with stellar recording methods and an inspired arrangement, “A Crown He Wore,” also famously recorded by the Stanleys. “A Tiny Broken Heart”— initially made popular by the Louvin Brothers, and as a bluegrass staple via Hazel & Alice, The Bluegrass Cardinals, and Dan Tyminski, among others—is a bit drippy for my tastes, but it has served its purpose for dozens of years and isn’t out of place among this set of now traditional pieces.
Within “Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” a signature element of the Monroe Doctrine, echoes of the Master are readily apparent without ever once sounding forced or artificial: Rowan has an ability to evoke Monroe while avoiding mimicry.
These performances comfortably complement the most engaging released by Rowan, in no small part due to the quality of the musicians and vocalists with which he has surrounded himself. [The only negative I can find with this entire package is that individual credits are not provided.] Connections to the legends abound, with Blaine Sprouse, who played with Monroe, on fiddle, Jack Lawrence (Doc Watson) is the credited lead guitarist, and Don Rigsby, who was closely associated with Ralph Stanley, plays mandolin. Rowan’s touring group- Patrick Sauber (banjo), Chris Henry (mandolin), and Paul Knight (bass)-are given equal billing. Produced by Rowan, and co-produced with Tim O’Brien (both of whom also contribute guitar), the album’s sound, production, and aural atmosphere are pristine.
After more than fifty years as a bluegrass professional, the light shines in Peter Rowan’s eyes: that he loves bluegrass music is without doubt. Neither is his ability to create a masterful album of bluegrass classics.