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The four members of the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band recently joined Fresh Air for an in-studio performance, as well as a discussion of traditional and modern bluegrass music. Grammy-winning lead vocalist Peter Rowan, along with Jody Stecher (mandolin), Keith Little (banjo) and Paul Knight (bass), played several songs from their new album Legacy and demonstrated various styles of bluegrass singing, including the three-part gospel-style harmonies Rowan learned from Bill Monroe.
Monroe, the so-called father of bluegrass, heard Rowan playing shows in New England in the early 1960s. In 1965, he hired Rowan to be the guitarist and lead vocalist of Monroe's band, the Kentucky-based Bluegrass Boys.
"I went to Nashville and started hanging out and started the long process of being assimilated into the band," Rowan says, laughing. "And people began writing in the week after I sang my first solo on the Grand Ole Opry. Bill took me aside and said, 'You know, Pete, we've had a lot of phone calls and a lot of letters. And people, they like the way you sing. And that's a good thing. And then he said, 'And they say you sound like me. And that's not a good thing.' "
Monroe was only half-kidding. He insisted that Rowan, who sang with the Bluegrass Boys for a little more than two years, develop his own voice and style. Then, one night, Rowan says he went over to Monroe's seat on a late-night tour bus and asked his mentor what he thought was the hardest aspect of being a full-time bluegrass musician.
"And he said, 'Teaching bluegrass music to people and then having them leave,' " Rowan says. "So I knew if I had to go, I had to go, and it was going to be difficult."
Rowan moved in a different direction. He returned to Boston to work on the band Earth Opera, which opened frequently for The Doors. He then moved to San Francisco, where he and David Grisman formed Old and in the Way with Jerry Garcia in 1973.
"We finished a show one evening, and the band came off the stage, and some of the members started quibbling that if we had done it this way or that way, we could have played it better," Rowan says. "And Garcia -- just like a zen master -- said, 'No thoughts.' The dressing room was very quiet. He just didn't want a whole lot of conceptualizing over something that was fleeting. And I think that permeated his worldview."