Music a higher calling for Rowan

For bluegrass icon, music is a spiritual experience

By John W. Barry

Poughkeepsie Journal
Tuesday, September 16, 2003

The 7-year-old boy exploring the attic of the Rowan home in suburban Boston marveled at the oversized shovel with large teeth used generations earlier in Ireland to cut peat moss from a bog.

His eyes grew wide at the saddles, branding iron with the name ''Rowan'' and handmade wooden tools.

But it was the icons in the attic from a different time in the family's history that left a bigger impression on him, one that would help chart the course of his life as a bluegrass musician who nearly two decades later would carve himself a cornerstone in the music of America.

''There was all this old Roman Catholic stuff: a burning heart with thorns around it, made of embroidery -- three dimensional -- under glass; an amazing crucifix, big, silver metal, really detailed,'' said bluegrass legend Peter Rowan, the son of a Roman Catholic father who was raised a Protestant. ''I built an altar in the attic of my house. I think I needed that ceremonial side.''

Years later, while on tour in Texas with his band Seatrain, Rowan stayed behind in San Antonio while his band mates traveled on.

Finding a shrine

''I stayed on in the town with the roadies for four or five days,'' Rowan said recently during a telephone interview. ''I just wandered around San Antonio near the Alamo, into churches that were vibrant with faith and the Virgin Mary -- there was this Mexican-Indian vibe. I just wandered. I wandered into the churches ... and there was my altar -- this is what I was building -- this is what I was imagining as a kid, with all the Roman Catholic paraphernalia, this was my shrine.''

Beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a crescent moon, Rowan pulled out a pen and paper and wrote ''Midnight Moonlight,'' perhaps his most famous tune, certainly one that has resonated strongly for decades throughout the world of bluegrass and beyond into the corners of contemporary music.

''Writing seems to be something that happens when you're just so full of experience that it overflows and spills out and that's the way it's been,'' Rowan said. ''I've relied more on inspiration than craft.''

Rowan's sensitivity toward the human experience -- inside and outside of music -- will be on display Wednesday night when he performs at a sold-out concert at the Spotted Dog in Mt. Tremper to kick off the Woodstock Film Festival, which runs through Sunday. Scheduled to perform with Rowan are fiddler Jay Ungar, banjo legend Bill Keith and 14-year-old mandolin player Jack Dwyer, all of Ulster County.

''For me, it's a challenge, I don't really play bluegrass all that often,'' Ungar said. ''It's fun to do something that pushes you a little bit, or a lot. And Peter, he's a great singer and performer and I've admired him for a long time.''

Rowan's live performance coincides with his appearance in ''Bluegrass Journey,'' a documentary that examines contemporary players of a historical musical genre and which will be shown twice during the film festival. The documentary was made by husband-and-wife filmmakers Ruth Oxenberg and Rob Schumer of Columbia County and shot primarily at the Grey Fox bluegrass festival held annually in Ancramdale, also in Columbia County.

The film offers priceless interviews and performance footage of Rowan and other bluegrass heavyweights such as Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Chris Thile of Nickel Creek, the Del McCoury Band, Buddy Merriam and Back Roads, who also appear in ''Bluegrass Journey,'' and others.

Like the many cultural influences that have shaped bluegrass over centuries, Rowan's musical wanderings have taken him through many styles of song.

He played for years with Bill Monroe, agreed on by nearly everyone to be the father of bluegrass.

''Bill Monroe always said, if you learn bluegrass, you can play anything,'' Rowan said.

He added, ''When I was playing with Bill Monroe, he would say, 'Sing it like Pete Rowan.' He didn't want people copying him. I could never figure it out -- it was such a learning process to be in his band, to bend your voice against his in a duet. You had to make a vocal style that really blended with his. Those experiences, singing with Bill, was like listening to a performance and being taken some place. I'd walk away from that microphone just shaking my head.''

Rowan also played during the early 1970s in the legendary quintet Old & in the Way, which featured David Grisman on mandolin, Vassar Clements on fiddle and Jerry Garcia on banjo.

Though an integral part of the Jerry Garcia Band's rolling repertoire for decades, ''Midnight Moonlight'' is most closely associated with Old & in the Way, an ensemble that brought Rowan a solid following, first among Deadheads and more recently among members of the contemporary jam band scene.

''The thing about Jerry, you got the feeling from him that he could kind of go along with your trip,'' Rowan said. ''You never felt you were unworthy of Jerry. He always made you feel you could be at your best with him instead of feeling diminished by this person. Your chest feels like it would kind of burst with admiration for what that person does, but it makes you feel your own possibilities and Jerry was kind of like that. He had that mystic streak.''

Rowan has also performed and recorded quite a bit of reggae. His 1999 CD, ''Reggaebilly!'' offers solid sounds and his live recorded version of Bob Marley's ''No Woman, No Cry'' is stirring.

''Roots reggae is very human ... humanity reaching high,'' Rowan said. ''And the best of bluegrass, especially the older bluegrass, is honest and it's spiritual and begins with a tragedy and also contains these soaring vocal harmonies that uplift.''

Whether standing in humility inside a San Antonio mission, using a guitar to conjure the sandy beaches and warm breezes of Jamaica or weaving himself into the fabric of bluegrass, Rowan seems to have maintained a higher calling, one that transcends guitars and microphones.

''Coming out of the '60s, music was a higher calling,'' he said. ''There was a sense that this was higher than anything you could do -- higher than any job you could have. It had an ideal about it. ... We felt that music was going to change the world. Somehow, through all its qualities, both musical and spiritual, it was going to raise the minds of the listeners and create a better world.''



Peter Rowan in concert, featuring Ulster County residents Jay Ungar on fiddle, Bill Keith on banjo and Jack Dwyer on mandolin, kicks off the 2003 Woodstock Film Festival. Buddy Merriam and Back Roads are scheduled to open. This concert is being staged in conjunction with the screening of ''Bluegrass Journey'' at the Woodstock Film Festival.

The show is at The Spotted Dog at Catskill Corners, Route 28, Mount Tremper on Wednesday night, but the concert is sold out, as is a reception following the concert at the Catamount Cafe, also at Catskill Corners, featuring music by Creative Music Studio founder Karl Berger on piano and vibraphones; Ingrid Sertso on vocals; Peter Einhorn on guitar; and a special appearance by Steve Gorn on flute.

''Bluegrass Journey'' is a documentary analyzing the contemporary bluegrass music scene, with interviews and performances by Peter Rowan, Jerry Douglas, the Del McCoury Band and many others. This documentary was made by husband-and-wife-filmmakers Ruth Oxenberg and Rob Schumer of Columbia County and was shot mostly at the Grey Fox bluegrass festival, which is held annually in Ancramdale, Columbia County.

''Bluegrass Journey'' is scheduled to be shown in the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock on Thursday at 7 p.m. and in the Catskill Mountain Theater in Hunter on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

For information on tickets for ''Bluegrass Journey'' and the Woodstock Film Festival, visit

For information on ''Bluegrass Journey,'' visit