Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band
5 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
Like the sight of a well-groomed baseball field, the styling of a Fender Stratocaster or the strength of a 1965 Ford Mustang, the sound of Peter Rowan’s voice to me represents freedom, and a particularly American brand at that. Half-controlled, half-wild, that voice can convey the high lonesomeness of bluegrass (Rowan was indeed once a lead singer/guitarist for Bill Monroe himself) as well as the liberation of the sort of rock that has influenced bluegrass.
The band he’s chosen—Keith Little (banjo), Jody Stecher (mandolin) and Paul Knight (bass)—supports his supple voice well, preferring to trade off tasteful licks rather than rip blistering breaks. Rowan, who wrote or co-wrote 10 songs on this 13-track, 48-minute effort, kicks things off with two strange but memorable songs over simmering grooves: “Jailer Jailer” and “The Family Demon.” In the former, the prisoner asks to remain imprisoned, among other strange sayings, and in the latter, the narrator matter-of-factly relates his travails with alcohol and abuse.
The gentle, plaintive mourning song “Father, Mother” gives way to “The Raven,” a rollicking tune in all the ways that its namesake by Poe is precise and measured. “So Good” is just that: a hippified ramble with Gillian Welch singing backup and David Rawlings cross-picking his Epiphone. (Though for some reason he doesn’t get to take a full solo.)
“The Night Prayer” is another aptly named tune, a gentle nostalgia for the traditional child’s bedtime prayer, while “Don’t Ask Me Why” is a woodsy, loping tune that ends up being a guide to living and loving.
Stecher steps to the fore with a growling vocal turn on the traditional “Catfish Blues”—one of the better blues/bluegrass crossovers I’ve heard—and on his self-penned “Lord Hamilton’s Yearling,” on which Tim O’Brien appears as guest fiddler.
While Little’s lead vocal does credit to Carter Stanley’s “Let Me Walk Lord by Your Side,” Rowan includes a couple of great new gospel tunes: “Turn the Other Cheek” and “God’s Own Child,” a gorgeous quartet featuring Ricky Skaggs and the inimitable Del McCoury, dog-whistle tenor in fine form.
“Across the Rolling Hills (Padmasambhava)” closes the album, a nature tune that mimics the rhythm of the free horseman in the lyric, giving Rowan a chance to mix in a little Buddhism with his Americana classic.