In various configurations and eliminating live sets, Peter Rowan has recorded well over 40 albums of new music. That’s a lot, but considering his career going back to the 60s and the quality of his experimentation, both within and outside bluegrass, not an unwelcome amount.
A Blue Grass boy in the mid-60s (and co-writer of “Walls of Time” with Bill Monroe), Rowan’s pedigree is impeccable: he has earned the right to play anything he bleeding well wants.
And most recently and approaching his 80th birthday this July 4th, that has been bluegrass. Peter Rowan’s interpretation of bluegrass is a school that is as vital as ever within the contemporary perspective of the music. I was a bit surprised today to peruse the inductees of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and not see Rowan’s name. That’ll be addressed in short order, I hope and imagine.
Rowan is respected by everyone who has come to bluegrass over the last fifty or so years. Can’t imagine otherwise. The regard in which he is held as a vibrant and passionate member of the bluegrass community is demonstrated by those who have joined him on this most recent journey for Rebel Records.
Chris Henry (mandolin, harmony) has been playing bluegrass his entire life, in some ways raised by the music. Molly Tuttle (lead vocals on “From My Mountain” and clawhammer on “The Red, the White, and the Blue”) is one of acoustic music’s continually rising stars, and two-time IBMA Guitar Player of the Year. Billy Strings (guitar on “A Winning Hand and lead guitar on “Freedom Trilogy”) is Billy Strings, reigning IBMA Entertainer and Guitar Player of the Year, and multiple award recipient. Shawn Camp (twice IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year) makes lead and harmony vocal appearances, while playing guitar on a couple songs. Lindsay Lou (vocals) and Mark Howard (bass vocal) also appear, along with the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band of Henry, Max Wareham (banjo, harmony), Julian Pinelli (fiddle), and Eric Thorin (bass).
None of which would matter if the songs and performance didn’t collectively impress, as they do repeatedly.
The immediate highlight is Rowan and Camp’s duet of “The Song That Made Hank Williams Dance,” a sure contender for Song of the Year when the time comes; Henry’s mandolin playing here—and elsewhere—is noteworthy. “A Winning Hand” may be even better. Co-written with brother Lorin, “Veil of Deja Blue” is a clever song masterfully executed. “From My Mountain (Calling You)” is plain beautiful, a delightful performance from all including Tuttle and Lindsay Lou.
One imagines Rowan was inspired to compose “The Red, the White, and the Blue” by the current circumstance we find ourselves in, whether American or not. The world isn’t in the right place, and hoping isn’t going to change that. “How will we survive, when none are left alive,” he sings. Tuttle harmonizes, and we are comforted, if momentarily, of what those colours once stood for, and may again.
The Carters’ “Little Joe” is visited, as is Monroe’s “Frog on the Lily Pad.” Henry again shines on the mandolin instrumental. The “Freedom Trilogy” that closes the album is as inspirational as it is impressive. It is so pleasing to hear Billy Strings accompany Rowan.
I can’t locate a previous recording of “Light at the End of the World,” but Rowan states in the liner notes that the song hails from 1971. It is a stunning, enlightening song, impeccably recorded and perfect for these times, as are several of the contained songs.
Rowan has done some deep thinking during the pandemic, and has been artistically ignited by that which he sees surrounding him. We are the beneficiaries of that inspiration.