Peter Rowan - Biography

By J Poet

Peter Rowan has one of the widest ranging and most eclectic career of any bluegrass musician. He played with the father of bluegrass Bill Monroe, founded the folk rock band Earth Opera with David Grisman, played with Jerry Garcia in the infamous Old and in the Way, fronted country rock band The Rowans with his brothers Chris and Lorin, and carved out his own respected career as a solo artist.


Rowan was born in Boston, into a family of musicians, and was playing bluegrass by the time he was a teenager, influenced by The Lilly Brothers. He had a rock band in high school called The Cupids. They were a popular regional band, but never recorded. In 1961, he attended Colgate University, but dropped out and headed south to Washington DC where bluegrass really took hold of his soul. In 1964, he was hired to play guitar on a Bill Monroe recording session. Monroe loved his playing and singing and hired him for The Bluegrass Boys. Rowan became Monroe’s duet partner and learned how to sing bluegrass harmonies from the man who invented them.


Rowan left The Bluegrass Boys in 1967 after meeting David Grisman. They put together the first and only rock/bluegrass/psychedelic band Earth Opera. After two classic albums Earth Opera (1968 Elektra) and The Great American Eagle Tragedy (1969 Elektra) they broke up. In 1970, his brothers Chris and Lorin had settled in San Francisco. Peter joined them and reunited with Richard Greene, another former Blue Grass Boy. They started a progressive rock, bluegrass, folk, and jazzy blues band called Seatrain.


After one album, Seatrain (1969 A&M), Rowan and Green left to start Muleskinner with David Grisman, Clarence White and Bill Keith. Originally they got together to open a show for the Bluegrass Boys on a PBS special. That legendary show was finally released as Muleskinner Live – The Original Television Soundtrack (1998 Hollywood.) It may be the first newgrass recording. Warner Brothers released another great set, Muleskinner (1973 Warner), before band members moved on. Muleskinner fan Jerry Garcia tapped Rowan and Grisman for Old and In The Way (1974 Rounder), a chart hit thanks to the Grateful Dead connection. Old And In The Way reunited after Garcia's death in 1995, as Old And In The Gray (2002 Acoustic Disc.) In 1971, Rowan wrote "Panama Red," which became a signature tune for The New Riders of the Purple Sage.


In 1975, The Rowans, Peter, Lorin and Chris, played in a country/rock band that cut several albums for Asylum and Appaloosa, The Rowan Brothers (1972 Asylum) The Rowans (1975 Asylum), Sibling Rivalry (1977 Asylum), and Livin' the Life (1980 Appaloosa.)


Rowan started his solo career in 1978, continuing to blend bluegrass with other musical forms. The catalogue includes Peter Rowan (1978 Flying Fish), which included contributions from Flaco Jimenez, Richard Greene, and Tex Logan, The Walls of Time (1982 Sugar Hill), a newgrass session with Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush, Red Hot Pickers (1984 Sugar Hill), The First Whippoorwill (1985 Sugar Hill), New Moon Rising (1988 Sugar Hill), nominated for a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy, Dust Bowl Children (1990 Sugar Hill), a solo acoustic album that won the National Association of Independent Record Distributors award for Folk Album of the Year, Tree on a Hill (1994 Sugar Hill) with his brothers, Taj Mahal, and Richard Green, Reggaebilly (2002 Sea Lion), possibly the only reggae bluegrass album ever made, High Lonesome Cowboy (2002 Shanachie) a collaboration with cowboy singer Don Edwards, You Were There for Me (2004 Rounder) a bluegrass jam with guitarist Tony Rice, and Quartet (2007 Rounder) another newgrass classic featuring Tony Rice with Bryn Davies on vocals and bass and Sharon Gilchrist on mandolin. In 2013 he released The Old School.

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