This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 24, 2010.
In 2010, the four members of the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band 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 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."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we have an interview and performance with the members of the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. Rowan is considered one of the top bluegrass singer-songwriters of his generation. He got his start with the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Rowan was the lead singer and guitarist for Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys from 1964 to '67.
When he left the band, he entered the music counterculture. He and David Grisman co-founded the group Earth Opera, which played the big rock clubs. In 1973, they teamed up with Jerry Garcia and co-founded the progressive bluegrass band Old and in the Way, which included Vassar Clements on fiddle.
The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band's latest album "Legacy" features traditional and original compositions. We'll hear Peter Rowan on guitar and vocals, Jody Stecher, mandolin, Keith Little, banjo and Paul Knight, bass. They all join in on the harmonies. We recorded our interview and their in-studio performance in November 2010, not long after "Legacy" was released.
Peter Rowan, Keith Little, Paul Knight, Jody Stecher, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I'd love for you to start by performing a song, and by the way thank you for bringing your instruments.
I'd like you to start by performing a song that's on the new CD, and Peter, I think this shows how you're making bluegrass your own. It sounds like a bluegrass song, but at the end, there's what I think is a Buddhist chant. So why don't you play the song, and then you can explain to us what's happening at the end and why it's there. So this is a song called "Across the Rolling Hills" from Peter Rowan's new album "Legacy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACROSS THE ROLLING HILLS")
PETER ROWAN BLUEGRASS BAND: (Singing) Across the rolling hills, I come riding. Across the rolling hills, I come riding. Across the rolling hills, around to where I will, across the rolling hills, I come riding.
(Singing) With my banner in the wind, I come riding. With my banner in the wind, I come riding. With my banner in the wind, I come and gone again. Across the rolling hills, I come riding.
(Singing) I sing a song of freedom when I'm riding. I sing a song of freedom when I'm riding. I sing a song of freedom for every living being. Across the rolling hills, I come riding.
(Singing) On my winged horse at sunrise, I come riding. On my winged horse at sunrise, I come riding. On my winged horse at sunrise, we're dancing in the sky. Across the rolling hills, I come riding.
(Singing) Across the rolling hills, I come riding. Across the rolling hills, I come riding. Across the rolling hills, around to where I will, across the rolling hills, I come riding. (Singing in foreign language) I come riding.
GROSS: Oh, that sounds great. And that's the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, performing a song that's on their new CD, "Legacy," but they're performing for us in the studio. So that's Peter Rowan on guitar and lead vocals; Keith Little, banjo; Paul Knight, bass; Jody Stecher, mandolin; and I guess everybody's singing harmonies.
So Peter, tell us the story about writing this song, which sounds to me like it ends with a Buddhist chant. Is that right? And if so, what's the story behind all of this, and what's the Buddhist chant doing at the end?
PETER ROWAN: The song is about the great yogi saint who came from India, Padmasambhava, the great Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism up to Tibet from Northern India, where it originated. And it's also about the spirit of Padmasambhava riding across the rolling hills of America and the world and bringing the message of the Buddha to all the sentient beings.
GROSS: So are you a practicing Buddhist? Did you study Buddhism?
ROWAN: Yeah, I am a practicing Buddhist.
GROSS: So you sing so many hymn-like songs, and certainly when you were with Bill Monroe, you sang so many, you know, spirituals and hymns. Were you brought up Christian, and do those songs have a lot of resonance for you?
ROWAN: Well, I was brought up Christian, and I liked the music more than I thought about the theology. But, you know, Christian hymns of a certain type, especially of the type that were used in bluegrass, are not only "Christian," in quotes, they are also a kind of a universal music.
There was a composer who wrote a lot of secular gospel tunes, somebody named Stamps Baxter, and bluegrass picked up on those tunes, and they've always been part of the repertoire. And for myself, I just feel that there's a universal language that I'm reaching for.
GROSS: I want to play a song from your CD "Legacy," and this is called "God's Own Child." Peter, can you just say something about the harmonies on this?
ROWAN: Well, the harmonies on "God's Own Child" are a really old-school style of gospel singing. It's a style I learned from Bill Monroe, who called it holiness singing, and it was a style taught by itinerant preachers who and choir instructors who came up through Kentucky and the Carolinas and Virginia, oh, back before the turn of the 20th century.
And it just seemed so appropriate to me, to the - what the song says, and the harmonies weave in the richness, and Jody wants to say something.
JODY STECHER: Yeah, you can tell by - because I'm moving my nose.
STECHER: I guess one of the things that sounds unusual on the recording of "God's Own Child" is that we have six voices. And almost always, there's at least five going at once. There's a lead singer and at least four backups, sometimes five. And the trick is to not step on each other's parts because we were making it up as we went along.
STECHER: This is not written out or even terribly well-rehearsed. I mean, we did rehearse, but, you know, it was that morning. I don't remember how many takes we did, not many, you know, two maybe. Yeah. So, I mean, hearing those six voices, each with a very different timbre, a different sound and a lot of experiences singing with other people, I think that accounts for the success of it.
GROSS: So let's hear Peter Rowan's song "God's Own Child," from the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band new album "Legacy," and the guest singers on this track are Dell McCoury, who'll sing the second verse, and Ricky Skaggs. So here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD'S OWN CHILD")
BAND: (Singing) I am a child, God's own holy child, by wandering on my life's sole journey. I have overcome many a strong temptation. I raise my voice to heaven high, and I pray. Oh, in my darkest hour, wandering in fiery realms, bound in chains o'er the dark night of my soul, the vision of my lord is pure...
GROSS: OK, that's Peter Rowan's song "God's Own Child," from the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band new CD, "Legacy," and the whole band's going to play for us some more in a couple of minutes, but that song is from the CD.
So let's talk a little bit about bluegrass harmonies and that old, like, gospel style of harmony that you're doing on this track. What sets bluegrass harmonies apart? They're so distinctive. So what is there a certain configuration, a certain set of intervals that are typically bluegrass harmony?
ROWAN: Yes, the typical is if you have one voice, you have your lead, right, and then if you add just one other voice, like Jody was singing with me on "Across the Rolling Hills," that's considered the tenor part, just above the melody, and it has a lot of freedom to move around.
But once you add the third part, which we refer to as the baritone part, which is traditionally below the melody, then you have a triad. You have three notes forming this tonal cluster, which is so pleasing, and it gets a little more complicated as the tenor part begins to move up into the octave that the baritone part is singing, and the baritone part will often jump over the melody. And...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We do that a lot.
GROSS: Give us a demonstration of that. Just, you know, do a verse of a song that would show what you're talking about.
ROWAN: Hmm. Let's see. Well, here's a good example of three-part harmonies, as sung in the early days of bluegrass by Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME IS PAST AND GONE")
BAND: (Singing) Summertime is past and gone, and I'm on my way back home to see the only woman I've ever loved. And the moon is shining bright. It lights my pathway tonight back to the only one I've ever loved.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So Keith, he just crossed right up above Peter, between me and Peter, to on, well, I'm on my way back home.
GROSS: That's very nice. Now, do you all have big enough ranges that you can change parts depending on what song that it is you're singing?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sure, you want to hear us change parts on that one?
You want me to sing tenor this time? That would be good.
Okay, this is (unintelligible).
I'll sing lead, sure.
I'll sing the baritone.
Acoustic trashcan of...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME IS PAST AND GONE")
BAND: (Singing) Summertime is past and gone, and I'm on my way back home to see the only one I've ever loved. Now the moon is shining bright. It lights my pathway tonight back to the only one I've ever loved.
GROSS: Very nice. It must be so hard on a stage to sing close harmonies like that when the monitors are bad, which is probably so often the case.
ROWAN: Well, you know, we that's been a whole, lifelong discovery of how to deal with that. And we owe a lot to our bass player, Paul Knight, because he'll set up the sound just the way we like it. And we sing over one microphone.
So whether we have monitors or not is much less of a concern than trying to have every microphone have its own crisp, clear monitor, and having one, big, central microphone gives us a focus.
GROSS: My guests are the members of the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band: Peter Rowan; Jody Stecher; Keith Little and Paul Knight. The band's latest album is called "Legacy." We'll hear more of their in-studio performance after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Peter Rowan and the performance by his bluegrass band. Their latest album is called "Legacy." So now Peter, you grew up around Boston, right?
GROSS: So how did you end up singing with Bill Monroe, who's famous for being from Kentucky? He's considered, you know, like the or at least a father of bluegrass. So how did you hook up with him?
ROWAN: Well, Boston in the post-World War II years was a disembarkation place for soldiers coming back from Europe. And the Boston Naval Yard was a full-on, active naval base. So the music coming out of Boston on the radio when I was a kid was all basically hillbilly music, bluegrass music, because so many of the soldiers and sailors were from the South.
And as I was a kid, you know, my mother would allow me to listen to the radio when I, you know, had my so-called nap time. And I noticed right away that pop music was all about come on, let's get together. And country music was, like, woe is me. It's all gone now.
ROWAN: And then there was this other music called bluegrass that just didn't fit into anywhere. And this is pre-rock and roll. Rock and roll had not happened yet. My parents listened to, you know, everybody, Vaughn Monroe and sang songs from "South Pacific" and stuff like that. But I found this little thing on the radio, and it was bluegrass.
And there was a Saturday morning kids' program called "Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders."
ROWAN: And the lead thing - the theme song was played on the banjo, and it just literally drove me nuts to hear that. I didn't know what it was.
I went downstairs, and I got chopsticks and sticks from the yard and pots and pans and put them all around and started banging on those things because I thought that's what the banjo was, was kind of like a xylophone or a gamelan or something.
As soon as I got to be about 14, I had my own little rock-'n'-roll band called The Cupids, and we'd go around, and we'd play these things called sock hops. And...
GROSS: So I'm getting the impression that your early music, like the roots music in your life, was a combination of pre-rock and roll and bluegrass and country music.
ROWAN: Well, yeah, it was more of like just what was going on at the time. I learned how to square dance as a kid.
GROSS: I did, too, in grade school.
ROWAN: Yeah, well, that was the thing. You had to go, right? You did it in school, and then Friday nights, you'd have a square dance with a live band, mostly college kids from, you know, Harvard University, all interested in folk music...
GROSS: You know, this is just dawning on me. I learned to I mean, I was in Brooklyn. And I learned to square dance.
ROWAN: You remember? Now remember back, Terry, square dancing.
GROSS: Yes, I'd forgotten that.
ROWAN: It was part of the communist plot, wasn't it? It was a pinko thing behind all that: Get the people square dancing.
GROSS: So, okay, so you grow up with country and bluegrass music, among other things, in Boston, and how do you get to Kentucky and Bill Monroe?
ROWAN: All right, well, I didn't differentiate between musics until I had my little rock-'n'-roll band, The Cupids. And Bill Monroe came up to New England to play some shows and didn't have a band. And so he hired myself and the fiddler Tex Logan, banjo player Bill Keith, young fiddler Gene Lowinger, and Everett Alan Lilly, the son Everett Lilly of the Lilly Brothers.
And we performed about three or four shows with Bill Monroe up through the New England area. We played at some colleges and a big concert at Jordan Hall in Boston. And Bill looked at me after I'd been working with him those few days. He said: You ought to come to Nashville. I can hip you.
GROSS: Bill Monroe said I can hip you?
ROWAN: I can hip you.
GROSS: That's not the language I'd expect him to use.
ROWAN: Well, you know, help...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: H-E-L-P.
GROSS: Oh, help you, oh. I thought he was talking, like, hipster talk.
ROWAN: Well, I think people...
GROSS: I thought you were talking jive, yeah.
ROWAN: I thought what he was saying was - I couldn't tell whether it was help or hip, you know, but that's how he pronounced it was hip, hip you.
GROSS: All right, got it.
GROSS: So that's how you started to play with him, he hipped you?
ROWAN: He hipped me. He helped me and hipped me, and I went to Nashville and started hanging out, you know, the long process of being assimilated into the scene and the band.
GROSS: Oh, assimilated, the perfect word because I was wondering what was it like to go from Boston, where you were hearing, you know, bluegrass on the radio, to Kentucky, which is, particularly back then, was like a really different culture for you. And suddenly, you're representing that culture in the band.
ROWAN: Well, going from New England to the Grand Ole Opry is more like it. It was the South. It was Nashville, Tennessee, 1963 and '64. The first thing that happened was to play with Bill Monroe, you're on the Grand Ole Opry. You know, I was on the Opry.
And people began writing in the week after I sang my first solo on the Opry. Bill came up to me backstage the next - when I got there, and it - just so exciting, Terry. I can't tell you how exciting that was - Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff and Porter Wagoner and all the great old-time pickers.
Bill just sort of 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 he said that's a good thing. And I said, well, thank you. And he said: And they say you sound like me. And he said that's not a good thing.
GROSS: Now, was it not a good thing because people would confuse you or because you risked showing him up?
ROWAN: No. Bill Monroe was extremely proprietary about what he felt he had created. And he was hipping me and helping me. And he would stand behind me onstage, whenever I would, like, fall into, like, a bluegrass kind of cliche type of voice, you know, like I was trying to sing bluegrass, and he would yell at me. Sing it like...
ROWAN: Onstage. He would stand behind me and chop that mandolin. He would yell right at the back of my head. He'd say: Sing it like Pete Rowan or Pete Roans(ph). He would say: Sing it like Pete Rowan. Sing it like it's - tell them it's Pete Rowan singing.
GROSS: Peter Rowan and his bluegrass band Jody Stecher, Keith Little and Paul Knight will be back in the second half of the show for more conversation and performance. Their latest album is called "Legacy." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our in studio performance and interview with the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. The band features Peter Rowan on guitar and vocals; Jody Stecher, mandolin; Keith Little, banjo; and Paul Knight, bass. They all join in on the harmonies. The band's latest album is called "Legacy."
At the beginning of Peter Rowan's career, he played with the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Rowan was the lead singer and guitarist for Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys from 1964 to '67. Here's Rowan singing with Bill Monroe from a 1965 live recording. It's a song they co-wrote called "The Walls of Time."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WALLS OF TIME")
BILL MONROE AND THE BLUEGRASS BOYS: (Singing) The wind is blowing cross the mountains and out on the valley way below. It sweeps the grave of my darling. When I die that's where I want to go.
Lord send the angels for my darling and take her to that home on high. I'll wait my time out here on Earth, love and come to you when I die.
GROSS: So, did you get along well with Bill Monroe while you were with the band which was, what, a year that you were with the band?
ROWAN: I was in it for two and a half years.
ROWAN: Yeah. We got along very well on a kind of a spiritual, musical level. But there were a lot of things about Bill that were authoritarian in that he had paid his dues and he knew exactly what he wanted in his music. And there's a lot of joking among the former Bluegrass Boys of kind of like the sense where Bill finally enters your mind and you are an extension of his vision.
ROWAN: And so there was all of that. There was all of that. We got along really well. Bill was very kind, deep man, but he had been through some hard times and he had struggled and...
GROSS: What did he teach you about singing or about harmony or guitar?
ROWAN: Well, on the guitar he taught me to make the rhythm stroke a full stroke. Instead of playing like this...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROWAN: But to play like...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROWAN: ...to really bring the tone out of a guitar. And as far as vocalization, you know, he would insist that you virtually rub shoulders with him around the microphone and like rub your voices together like two pieces of wood and make a spark fly out of it, you know, that was -it was friction. And he always would say that bluegrass is about one person doing something really great then you've got to step in behind that person and then do something that you can do better. In other words, there was always a sense of competition and friction. He did say when to sing - to sing with a full breath and when you finish the line you should give the last syllable of the last word the same power that you gave the first syllable of the first word.
GROSS: That sounds really good.
GROSS: That sounds like, you know, really good advice.
GROSS: So, I'm going to ask you all to do a song that Bill Monroe wrote but that was also recorded by Elvis. And I think this is a song that bridges all of your - the music that you liked when you were a teenager because you loved bluegrass, you loved Elvis.
GROSS: So you must've known both of these versions - both of their versions.
ROWAN: Well, I heard Elvis's version first, you know. And while I was playing with Bill Monroe, an interviewer asked him if, you know, bluegrass is always held to be like this sacred purity of, you know, country music and roots and it is for sure. But Bill fielded the question of whether he thought Elvis had ruined his, you know, bluegrass. This was from a journalist who was holding Bill in very high esteem. And he said Mr. Monroe, do you think Elvis ruined your song "Blue Moon of Kentucky"? And Bill said, no sir, them are powerful checks.
GROSS: Yeah. Right, right, right answer. OK. So before you perform this...
GROSS: ...tell us who is singing what. Like who is doing what on the harmonies?
ROWAN: Well, I, Peter, am going to sing this solo as Bill Monroe sang it. In fact, this is, OK, this is good, Terry. This is the arrangement Bill Monroe came up with after Elvis made a hit of his song "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Bill had recorded it early on as a waltz with three-quarter time all the way through. But once Elvis had made a hit of it in four-four time, Bill in his, you know, his search for ever bringing the music forward, as he might say, added a fast section to the song.
So what you'll hear is Jody Stecher on mandolin, Paul Knight on bass, and Keith Little on banjo. And we are going to play "Blue Moon of Kentucky" halfway through according to how it was originally written, and the second half will be Bill Monroe's arrangement of "Blue Moon of Kentucky" as he used to play it based on Elvis's hit version.
GROSS: Very good.
ROWAN: Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE MOON OF KENTUCKY")
BAND: (Singing) Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and proved untrue. Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and made me blue. It was on one moonlight night the stars shining bright. They whispered from on high, your lover said goodbye. Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and said goodbye.
I said blue moon of Kentucky, won't you keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and proved untrue. Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and made me blue.
It was on one moonlight night. The stars shining bright. They whispered from on high, your lover said goodbye.
Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and said goodbye.
GROSS: That's the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band performing "Blue Moon of Kentucky." The band members are Peter Rowan, Jody Stecher, Keith Little and Paul Knight. The band's new album is called "Legacy." More of their in studio performance after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Peter Rowan and the performance by his Bluegrass Band. Their latest album is called "Legacy."
So Peter, when did you know it was time to leave Bill Monroe?
ROWAN: You know, I asked him one day what's the hardest part about -well, I have to say that, you know, most people always respected Bill Monroe's silence and I did too. But I figured after six hours of driving that bus, I had the right to ask him some questions after my shift. So about two o'clock in the morning is when I would talk with Bill and he'd take out his mandolin and he'd play all his stuff. And I really wanted him to know that I wasn't prying into his world and, you know, that I was sincerely looking for the heart of the music to carry it forward.
And I asked him one - he used to play examples of rhythms and things that he picked up in New Orleans and places like that when he was out there trying to, you know, trying to make bluegrass. Trying to invent bluegrass. He looked at it as that he did, that he invented it. He said I've had to keep as much out of bluegrass as I've put in it.
And I said what was the hardest part, what's the most difficult part of going all these years - that point he was 25 years on the Grand Ole Opry and had been on the road 15 years before that. And he said the hardest part is teaching bluegrass music to people and then having them leave. So I mean I knew that I - if I had to go I had to go and it was going to be difficult.
This was during the Vietnam War and I - my views and my music were becoming more about what my generation was thinking about. And although I did think that bluegrass was about as psychedelic as you could get, I just, I needed to go. I needed to be with kids my own age, you know, and playing with Bill Monroe, most of the audiences were in their 50s and 60s. And they were great people. They were great people.
He said he used to - I asked him why he wore - he liked to wear a coat and tie and everything like that. He said that when you play for farmers they know how much you respect them and the music that you're bringing to them when you dress up like that. But he said the audience would come there in clean right white shirts and overalls and you stand up on stage in your clean white shirt and your tie and your hat and you give them something special, you know. It's not church. It's beyond, you know? It's having a spiritual experience with the audience that's non, you know, quote "religious." It's not Sunday morning. You bring Sunday morning to Saturday night, sing the gospel tunes and everything like that.
Well, it came time for me to leave and I wanted to - I wanted to create music of my own really, you know. I stood next to that fire for almost three years and I was well singed and well cooked when I left. And it wasn't so much a career move for me to leave Bill Monroe. It was just a sense of I was standing in the shadow of the man. I wanted to figure out what I could do, so...
GROSS: I'm thinking about how many different cultural switches you went on when you were young because, you know, you start out in Boston, then you go to Kentucky, you perform with Bill Monroe and the Grand Ole Opry. You leave Bill Monroe. You start with David Grisman, a band called Earth Opera and you open for The Doors at shows. I'm thinking, The Doors audience and Bill Monroe's audience are probably as different as you're going to get in the 1960s. And then after that you play - you co-found a band - did you co-found Old and in the Way? You did, right?
ROWAN: Me and Grisman were standing down on the sand dunes Stinson Beach.
ROWAN: We were - and we - he said, you know, Garcia lives up the hill.
GROSS: Yeah, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.
GROSS: Yeah, so he's a member of the band, too. So you get into the whole kind of Jerry Garcia, San Francisco scene via Old and in the Way, a band in which violin player...
ROWAN: Vassar, Vassar Clements.
GROSS: ...Vassar Clements the violin player was in. Yeah. So just talk a little bit about that cultural shift going from bluegrass with Bill Monroe to playing with Jerry Garcia, to opening for The Doors, you know, to being in - back in youth culture and also in a kind of psychedelic part of youth culture.
ROWAN: I really didn't think that much about it. It was an opportunity at the time to play a lot of music. When I think back about it, Old and in the Way out in San Francisco with Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Vassar Clements and John Kahn, that was only five years after I left Bill Monroe, but I had already been through a lot of musical changes. And to come back to bluegrass five years later was just as natural as anything could be. You know, there was a sense of people were always demanding authenticity in the folk music world and bluegrass music world back then.
Bluegrass music had its own authenticity in its world. But as it began to come out of that world and you still had people like Carter and Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, it was like, OK, there is the touchstone. These guys are there at the beginning, you know, so where does that leave me?
Coming back to Old and in the Way, I suddenly found that, yeah, I was there too. You know, it was like I actually learned something, you know. It wasn't that because I played music as an outsider that I wasn't valid. When Old and in the Way began to play together we were just having fun.
We played more offstage than we did on stage. It was just a jam session we had. And then we started playing for the people and really, thanks to Jerry Garcia's huge audience with the Grateful Dead, suddenly people began to discover bluegrass.
GROSS: So you wrote a couple songs for Old and in the Way that became, you know, pretty well known. One of them is called "Panama Red" and the other, which I'm going to ask you all to perform, is "Midnight Moonlight." And by way of introduction, Peter, what's the story behind the song?
ROWAN: Well, before Old and in the Way - I was in two bands when I left Bill Monroe. One was Earth Opera with Dave Grisman, and then another one was called Sea Train and it included the fiddle player Richard Greene, who had been a Bluegrass Boy with me with Bill Monroe.
So here are these two bluegrass boys in a rock and roll band. And when I left Sea Train, I left the band, I gave my notice in San Antonio, Texas, and I still had a few shows to play but I gave myself a week in San Antonio.
San Antonio had not boomed since the cattle days in the 1880s and it was a fantastic place, a border town of the highest degree with pharmacias, you know, which would have the whole herbology and drawers of herbs and, you know, very old ways but a sort of sense of magic was in the air. And that - I wrote the song "Midnight Moonlight" as my first song of leaving Sea Train.
It would have been a song Sea Train could have done easily but they weren't of that mind. So I was thinking bluegrass and I was thinking of the chord changes it would be fun for folks to play in bluegrass. And "Midnight Moonlight" is the description of being in San Antonio for those five days.
GROSS: OK. So this is going to be performed for us in the studio by Peter Rowan on guitar and vocals, Keith Little banjo, Paul Knight bass, Jody Stecher mandolin. And is everyone singing harmonies on this?
ROWAN: The harmonies will be sung by, now he's singing tenor on this one? This...
KEITH LITTLE: I'm singing tenor, Keith.
ROWAN: OK. So on this one Keith Little is singing tenor and Jody is singing the baritone.
ROWAN: All right. So, "Midnight Moonlight."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT MOONLIGHT")
BAND: One, two, three. (Singing) If you ever feel lonesome, and you're down in San Antone, beg, steal, or borrow two nickels or a dime, and call me on the phone. I will meet you at Alamo Mission, and we can say our prayers. The Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mother will heal us as we kneel there.
(Singing) In the moonlight, in the midnight, in the moonlight, midnight moonlight. In the moonlight, in the midnight, in the moonlight, midnight moonlight. A-ha. Yeah.
GROSS: That's the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band performing "Midnight Moonlight" for us. The band features Peter Rowan on guitar and vocals, Jody Stecher, mandolin, Keith Little, banjo and Paul Knight, bass. More of their in studio performance after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our in studio performance with the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. In 1973, Peter Rowan co-founded the bluegrass band Old and in the Way that featured Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on banjo. I asked Rowan how Garcia compared with his popular image.
ROWAN: Yeah, you know, he was a real person. He just got - he gave himself to the music. He gave himself to his audience and he became a big blank screen upon which people could project anything. And that's one of the sacrifices of being a performer. And he loved to play so he never turned down an opportunity to play music. If it was going to be music he'd do that over anything.
And I think, you know, I think it's just - it's kind of dangerous to - I mean, he was so open and so giving and that's what turned the crowd onto him essentially, but then the crowd got distracted. The crowd started thinking that it was all about the psychedelia and drugs and things like that. And Jerry would never, he would never deny it. I mean, he would never deny anything I ever heard him. I never heard him say no about anything.
Only thing I ever heard him say was about a kind of a cutting through. We finished a show one evening and came off the stage and, oh, some members of the band started quibbling about how if we had done it this way or done it that way and we could've played it better and this. And Garcia, just like a Zen master said, no thoughts. The dressing room was very quiet.
ROWAN: He just didn't want a whole lot of conceptualizing over something that was fleeting and I think that permeated his worldview.
GROSS: Well, I'd love to close with another song. And, thank you so much for performing for us. It's been really a treat. I really appreciate it. Thank you all.
ROWAN: Thank you, Terry. We love you.
LITTLE: Thank you. It's been our pleasure.
STECHER: Thank you, Terry. You're welcome and what great questions.
GROSS: Oh, thanks. Thanks. You were great. It would be nice to hear something with those beautiful harmonies that you sing together.
ROWAN: Well, let's take it all the way back to one of the first songs Bill Monroe recorded. There were two recordings that I know of, and Jody may be able to confirm this.
They were two recorded versions of this song that I know of as a kid just starting to learn the music and one was by Hooty Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, a song we call "Black Girl." And then there was the song by Bill Monroe. To my knowledge I don't know if there was another version of it.
STECHER: Oh, yeah, quite a few.
ROWAN: There were some old ones?
STECHER: But they're all variants of the same thing, for sure.
ROWAN: So this is how we learned the song down through the music of Bill Monroe, a great old-timer. I'm going to play it for you now called "In the Pines."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE PINES")
BAND: (Singing) The longest train I ever saw went down that Georgia line. The engine passed at six o'clock and the cab passed by at nine. In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines and we shiver when the cold wind blows. Hoo-hoo-hoo. Hoo-hoo-hoo. Hoo, hoo, hoo.
(Singing) I asked my captain for the time of day. He said he throwed his watch away. The long steel rails and the short cross time, I'm on my way back home. In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines and we shiver when the cold wind blows. Hoo-hoo-hoo. Hoo-hoo-hoo. Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo.
GROSS: Our thanks to the members of the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. Their latest album is called "Legacy." The band spoke to us from and performed at the studio of Minnesota Public Radio in November 2010. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.