To explain the depth and often-literal closeness of the working relationship Peter Rowan enjoys with guitarist Tony Rice, he goes straight to the source. He recalls the kind of instincts that bluegrass boss (and onetime Rowan employer) Bill Monroe shared with one of his most celebrated disciples, Del McCoury.
“Bill once said to Del, to get him to come up and really rub shoulders with him at the microphone, `Crowd me.’ That’s kind of how is it playing with Tony. We crowd up at the front of the stage, make sparks and then step back and let space develop. It’s a push-and-pull thing. In a sense, it’s almost like breathing.”
The partnership between two of bluegrass music’s most progressive stylists indeed sets off musical sparks. But listen to either of their two collaborative albums, 2004’s “You Were There for Me” or 2006’s “Quartet,” and what you hear mostly are quiet pleasures. The playing on both is as exemplary as any recorded project either has been involved in. Yet there is an unassuming air about this string music, especially on “Quartet.”
Much of that album relies on songs that have been staples of Rowan’s repertoire for years, including “The Walls of Time,” first cut with Monroe in the mid-`60s; “Midnight Moonlight,” a favorite from the early-`70s collective “Old and in the Way,” which also included Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements and Rice’s onetime employer, David Grisman; and “Dust Bowl Children,” the title tune to a 1990 Rowan solo album that many fans consider his finest work. There also are songs spotlighting the more traditional slant of Rice’s playing (“Shady Grove,” “The Sunny Side of the Mountain”), and covers by artists as varied as Townes Van Zandt (a lovely “To Live Is to Fly”) and Patti Smith (“Trespasses”).
Rowan views “Quartet,” in retrospect, as “conservative.” Where “You Were There for Me” focused on newer material cut at various sessions with different recording engineers, “Quartet” spotlighted sound. In terms of emotive spirit, the resulting music is more folkish and conversational. In terms of tone, it’s spotless. And when it comes to group spirit, the record lives up to its name with subtle but vibrant harmony vocals from bassist Bryn Davies and mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist.
“‘Quartet’ is kind of a resting place as far as the collaboration with Tony goes,” Rowan said. “We went for excellence in recording without so much emphasis on brand-new tunes. `You Were There for Me’ was all creative. It didn’t care about or have very much to do with making bluegrass. What you heard were the creative roots of what we were doing coming through.
“The material on `Quartet’ is the basis of our live show. It’s kind of a retrospective of things we’re known for, whether it’s songs of mine like `Midnight Moonlight’ or Tony’s hard-driving, bluegrass-style picking. But it was also great having two great female singers like Bryn and Sharon in there, too.”
Despite their music’s quiet confidence, a meshing of two huge musical personalities occurs whenever Rowan and Rice play together. Rowan cut his bluegrass teeth with Monroe, but along the way, he has explored western music that lets his vocals soar into a mighty yodel (listen to “Wild Mustang” from “You Were There for Me”), country roots ballads, reggae and tunes like “The Free Mexican Air Force,” which blends masterful storytelling with a mildly provocative story line (it deals with, shall we say, contraband).
Rice, on the other hand, launched a masterful bluegrass career by playing guitar in the mid-1970s with J.D. Crowe’s most-acclaimed version of his band, New South. After a second musical apprenticeship on the West Coast with Grisman, Rice explored traditional bluegrass, folk and progressive, jazz-inspired playing with equal relish.
Davies and Gilchrist moved on to other projects after initial touring for “Quartet” was complete. Since then, Rowan and Rice have used a revolving lineup of all-stars as touring companions.
“We like working with people who are capable of hearing these songs a couple of times and then being able to play them,” Rowan said. “After all, bluegrass is a felt music. It’s learned by ear, mostly. That’s why when I wrote `Midnight Moonlight,’ I aimed for a song that would be fun to play.”
But maybe another reason the song remains a joy for Rowan to sing after three decades is that he affords it new performance situations. Surely taking another stab at it with Rice freshens the song’s perspective for him.
“That’s it exactly”, he said. “But it’s also a challenge. Every night, Tony and I have to come up with the inspiration to deliver these songs. While our roles in finding that inspiration are very different, we do manage to spark off each other. And that is quite a lot of fun.”