How to sing philosophically
Peter Rowan is best known as a bluegrass musician for his playing with Bill Monroe, a country rock pioneer for his work in Seatrain, a hippie New Grasser for his efforts with Jerry Garcia in Old and In the Way, and as a solo artist and bandleader for more than 30 years—and this just offers a general overview of the multitalented singer songwriter who has done everything from reggae and rockabilly to trad folk to straight country. As Rowan gets older, he gets stranger and more philosophic. About 10 years ago he wrote a ballad about white supremacist Randy Weaver (“Ruby Ridge”) that caused some hubbub in the Americana music community. Rowan’s point was about fearing untrammeled government power and the loss of innocent lives, not an endorsement of the man’s politics—but Rowan was purposely ambiguous so that one could empathize with Weaver.
In light of recent events such as the police shooting in Ferguson, Rowan’s message has changed. He’s not concerned with newsworthy events. Rowan is into more spiritual topics: life / death / love / truth etc. As the title reference to dharma suggests, the musician has more questions than answers. Even when Rowan offers a story song like “Show Country Girl”, the point expressed has more to do with the power of the mystical divine than the narrator and the title character.
Stylistically, the selections go all over the place. There are strong elements of American gospel and Indian traditional styles, yodels, chants, and straight narrative vocal deliveries, Bluegrass, Blues, Country, and Folk, ad absurdum. Rowan is rarely a purist, but mixes genres together as if he was a painter and they were different colored oils. Much credit should be given to his band: Jody Stecher on banjo and Indian bass sitar, Nepalese musician Manose Singh on bamboo flutes, Hot Tuna/Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady on bass and bass balalaika, Casey Waits on drums, and Gillian Welch’s vocals on three songs. These players know how to jam.
Despite the peaceful nature of Buddhism, Rowan is not afraid of being provocative. He begins “Dharma Blues” by clearly annunciating the lines, “Ain’t no God up in heaven / Ain’t no devil down below.” From there, Rowan takes the listener to the land of the Blues. Indian instrumental sounds accompany lyrics about the flesh and the mind, winning and losing, and the nonverbal connections between everything. There may be no God, but there is religion. This conviction is even more strongly made in the strange, trance-like drone of “Vulture Peak” where who’s to bless and who’s to blame are intermingled together. “Form is emptiness / Emptiness is form / On truth there’s no deception / No I / No we / No nose / No tongue / No taste / No conception,” Rowan sings quoting the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s “Heart Sutra in English” and in Sanskrit. Awareness is all.
“Who will live with love will never die”, Rowan croons on “Who Will Live”, and this lesson can be drawn from much of the material here. Death is an illusion, Rowan acknowledges, but it still bothers him. This darkness permeates “Raven”, sung with Gillian Welch and inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe poem. It is one thing to claim that death is just a passage on a larger journey, but as we know Poe’s raven crowed “Nevermore” not “Nevermind”. If there is no God and no devil, then why there is death is the unanswerable koan here.
While Rowan may be confused, he asks the important philosophic questions. Thanks to his musical talents, and those of his backup band, he fuses this tangled web of thought to transform it into an orderly disorder. The instinctual yearning for meaning in life stimulates Rowan. Thought just leads to chaos and paradox. Enlightenment has to come from somewhere deeper. That’s the leap the Bodhisattva made and that Rowan demonstrates. Whether you believe it is irrelevant to enjoying the complex, textured compositions here. The album succeeds at making you think and feel deeply about the big questions.
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