Marin Independent Journal
26 September, 2013
Courtesy of Robert Hakins Keith Little (from left), Mike Witcher, Peter Rowan and Paul Knight of the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band will perform Oct. 4 at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco.
PETER ROWAN IS just a week or so away from his apotheosis as the world’s foremost bluegrass Buddhist.
The 71-year-old Marin County Grammy winner headlines the Oct. 4 opening day of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park, performing with his five-piece string band and a special guest unlike any who has ever shared a festival stage with a traditional bluegrass group.
That would be the angelic Yungchen Lhamo, considered the world’s leading Tibetan vocalist.
“I met her at a festival last year, and we were enamored of each others’ styles,” Rowan explained the other day. “It’s my way of bringing in an element that inspires me. Very rarely have I worked with a vocalist as a collaborator. In fact never, except, of course with my brothers (Lorin and Chris). It’s kind of an adventure, really. I won’t say I know exactly what to do. But the exploration is inspiring.”
Just days after the history-making Hardly Strictly concert, Rowan, who splits his time between a home in Texas and a cabin in Inverness on Tomales Bay in West Marin, will be at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre for the Mill Valley Film Festival premiere of the “The Tao of Bluegrass,” a documentary chronicling his celebrated musical career and spiritual path.
As a young singer-songwriter guitarist, Rowan dropped out of college on the East Coast to join the Blue Grass Boys, the seminal band led by Bill Monroe, the revered inventor of bluegrass. After that priceless apprenticeship, he went on to bend the boundaries of acoustic string music with such progressive newgrass groups as Earth Opera and Seatrain and as the leader of his eclectic Free Mexican Air Force. With Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Vassar Clements and John Kahn, he exposed bluegrass to the rock generation with the short-lived Old & In the Way, the biggest selling bluegrass group of all time.
Singing his praises in the documentary are the likes of Steve Earle, Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Wavy Gravy, Ricky Skaggs, Richard Greene, Jack Casady, David Rawlings and other leading lights of Americana music.
“It is odd,” Rowan admitted, speaking about being the subject of a documentary. “If I’m as good as everybody in the movie says I am, I’d better get my act together quick.”
During his time with the Blue Grass Boys, Rowan’s 1960s generation rebelliousness eventually clashed with Monroe, who ruled his band with an iron fist. But the great man wasn’t so narrow-minded that he couldn’t see the depth of the music he helped create.
“In his heart of hearts, when he wasn’t concerned about being an object for his fans, he told me that bluegrass was a deep music that went beyond what we know,” Rowan remembered. “When he said bluegrass is a bigger music, I think he meant it can handle a lot more than just staying within a narrow format.”
Just the same, Monroe probably couldn’t have imagined a bluegrass musician performing with a Tibetan singer like Yungchen Lhamo, whose haunting a cappella Buddhist chants and mantras have been enthralling audiences all over the world since she fled from her Tibetan homeland in 1989.
Not that it didn’t take Rowan a while to get his head around it, to see it as a perfectly normal and natural melding of two styles that aren’t as disparate as one might think.
“Tibetan music shares a similarity with bluegrass,” he remarked. “They’re both from remote mountainous areas populated by hill country people. Like Tibetan music, bluegrass has a very rootsy sound, earthy, and yet with spiritual overtones, both in the straight and the sacred songs. They have a kind of longing, a yearning for transcendence.”
Rowan mentions Garcia, his late bandmate in Old and In the Way and the patriarch of the Grateful Dead, as someone who would have understood his exotic explorations into the tao of bluegrass.
“The guy who really made me feel more confident about my direction, although I think it’s just now coming to fruition, was Jerry,” he said. “Moving to the West Coast after the strictness of the Bill Monroe thing, Jerry was the Big Yes.”
In fact, it was while Rowan was playing with Garcia in Old & In the Way that he became a student of Buddhism. He just happened to see a poster one day for a class by a Kalu Rinpoche, a Tibetan teacher, stapled onto a telephone pole outside the Doggie Diner on Van Ness in San Francisco. He followed up on that impulse, and remembers joining 3,000 other curious Westerners who went to hear the 16th Karmapa in a huge outdoor ceremony at San Francisco’s Fort Mason.
“In those days, we had the (Vietnam) war going on and the silly hippie mind state going on,” he recalled. “It seemed momentous at the time that these people who escaped from Tibet after the Chinese invasion had come to America and were passing on this ancient tradition. Enlightened energy was introduced to a lot of people, and it worked its way into my music in a natural way.”
Rowan isn’t the first Western musician to fall under the spell of Tibetan chanting, and the sound of Lhamo’s ethereal voice. She has released three albums on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records and has collaborated with Annie Lennox, Michael Stipe, Billy Corgan, Sheryl Crow, Natalie Merchant and Philip Glass.
“I’m still playing bluegrass with the old-school sound, and here’s a Tibetan woman who feels at home in our tradition,” Rowan said, still sounding incredulous. “It’s the last thing I would have expected. It’s a total surprise really. But all music is healing, and when she opens her mouth to sing, joy comes out. It’s an immediate love fest.”
What: Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band
Where: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: Oct. 4, set time TBA
What: “The Tao of Bluegrass: A Portrait of Peter Rowan” at Mill Valley Film Festival
When/where: 7 p.m. Oct. 7, 142 Throckmorton Theatre, 142 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley; 2 p.m. Oct. 9, CineArts@Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton Ave, Mill Valley
Admission: $12.50 to $14