Sitting on the ferry as it crossed Lake Champlain‚ my eyes began to water. I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR. It was a replay of a past interview with legendary rock drummer Levon Helm. The previous day‚ Helm had passed away after a long and courageous battle with throat cancer.
As I sat in my pickup truck and immersed myself in his wise words and hearty laugh‚ I started to slightly tear up thinking of the enormous hole and unparalleled impact he leaves behind with his death. He was an American treasure‚ one who stitched together an invaluable piece of the rich musical fabric blanketing this great land. The beauty‚ style and grace he composed himself with‚ onstage and off‚ is a testament to the authentic character and pure vigor he brought to the listener‚ day after day‚ decade after decade.
Musicians of his caliber are becoming fewer and farther between as rock 'n' roll -- and the modern industry as we know it -- crosses into the next crucial phase of its existence. The silent giants who walked with a big stick are one by one going to rest‚ to destinations beyond our knowledge and comprehension.
Emerging from the same golden vein of thirst and musicianship as Helm‚ Peter Rowan eases our souls and calms our restless thoughts with the honest passion and precision echoing from his lungs and through his fingertips. The cherished singer/songwriter remains a vital force within the bluegrass community he not only grew up in‚ but also delicately molded with a meticulousness and care that continually bears the fruits of age and wisdom as they ripen.
Closing in on his 70th birthday‚ the jovial troubadour soared into the heavens during his recent performance alongside guitar virtuoso Tony Rice and The Travelin' McCourys at the majestic Flynn Theater in downtown Burlington‚ Vermont‚ as part of a tribute to bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe.
Rowan‚ who rose to recognition playing alongside Monroe in the 1960s‚ has steadily become a beacon of light and stability within the music community. From steering the incredibly successful power group Old and in the Way‚ to crisscrossing the globe and spreading his peaceful message through song and spoken word‚ he remains as spirited and curious as the first day he packed his bags and left his native Boston for the bright lights of Nashville‚ some 50 years ago.
And with the recent death of bluegrass forefather Earl Scruggs‚ the spotlight is shifting more and more towards Rowan as he humbly and comfortably situates himself into the role. He is the keeper of the flame and holds the torch of progression high‚ in honor of those who came before‚ those who are making their way and those still searching for the sound.
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How do you feel after tonight's show? What's going through your head?
We really hit it good tonight in some places. You know‚ bluegrass is a funny thing. If it gets too standardized‚ it sounds a little stale. But it needs that ebb and flow; dynamics and volume. We had that tonight.
If Bill Monroe was sitting in the crowd tonight‚ watching the show‚ what would he say to you after?
Well‚ first of all he would have gotten onstage with us [laughs]. He would have stayed on that microphone as long as he could. He would have done the whole Bill Monroe thing right in the middle of our set‚ if he was here. But‚ if he was forced to only listen‚ he might say‚ "You boys came close." [laughs]
It's a 100 years since his birth. What is it about his music? Why does it seem so fresh until this day?
Well‚ that's the beauty of it. He knew that it's really a difficult music to play. He knew if you could get up to speed with it‚ it would always sound fresh. Most people are attracted to it because the instruments‚ especially the banjo‚ are really loud. The key is to get it to blend and fit together and the McCourys are sort of seasoned together. Things I like about bluegrass‚ that a lot of bands don't do‚ is having a fiddle lead with a mandolin backing it up playing melody. That kind of stuff really makes things soulful.
Levon Helm passed away yesterday. Did you know him at all?
I did‚ a little bit. When I was in Seatrain‚ we used to open for The Band. I just feel like Levon was a force of nature‚ that he was totally unique in the music business. Nobody else had his swing or his vocal way of singing with the drums.
Was The Band ever an influence on you?
Seatrain played a show with them in Philadelphia. This guy wrote an article about The Band and said I was just watching the whole show and just learning. I thought The Band were the senior class. Seatrain was in a class of its own‚ but in terms of that groove thing‚ I looked up to them. We did a lot of shows with them.
What about with Earl Scruggs?
Like with Levon‚ Earl was so happy. He knew about impermanence. He knew that life was fragile and he was appreciating and making every moment count. You know‚ people‚ they know it's coming. It's the big one of course‚ on the mortal side.