Calling the almost 80-year-old Peter Rowan a “boy” is not an insult. Instead, it’s in recognition of Rowan’s status as one of the legendary Bill Monroe‘s “Bluegrass Boys” back in the 1960s. More than 50 years later, Rowan’s still making nifty bluegrass records. His latest effort, Calling You from My Mountain, is as fresh and tasty as Rowan’s work with Monroe back in the day.
Since bluegrass directly descends from old-timey music, Rowan always sounded older than his years during his youth as a singer/guitarist with Monroe. After his split with Monroe in the 1970s, Rowan helped found several heralded bands, including Earth Opera, Seatrain, and the satirically named acoustic act Old and in the Way with Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. Rowan explored different musical styles, but bluegrass has always been at the core of his identity. He took the genre to new places even when playing in traditional styles through improvisation and experimentation.
The same is true in Calling You From My Mountain. Rowan penned or co-wrote more than half of the baker’s dozen numbers here. Many are rooted in concepts like personal liberty with quasi-religious overtones, including “Freedom Trilogy”, “The Red, The White and the Blue”, and “Light at the End of the World”. Rowan’s politics have always been on the extreme side of individual rights. He once penned a song in tribute to the Randy Weaver.
This philosophy also aligns Rowan with radicals such as Woody Guthrie, whose ode to the Big Apple (“New York Town”) leads Calling You From My Mountain. Other covers include a hot take of Bill Monroe’s instrumental piece “Frog on the Lilly Pad”, a wailing version of Lightnin’ Hopkins‘ “Penitentiary Blues (Big Brazos”), and a jaunty rendition of A.P. Carter’s jaunty “Little Joe”. The songs may veer from serious and sincere to the sometimes silly, but the singing and playing are always tight.
Rowan’s backed up by a top-notch string band that includes Chris Henry on mandolin/harmony vocals, Max Wareham on banjo/harmony vocals, Julian Pinelli on fiddle, and Eric Thorin on acoustic bass. Distinguished guest performers include Billy Strings on guitar on two tracks and Molly Tuttle on vocals and clawhammer banjo on two other cuts. Tuttle’s singing on the title song is especially poignant as she croons about being “cold and lonely” with an aching warble in her throat that makes her seem particularly lonesome and in need of comfort.
With a discography that dates back to 1968, it’s easy to hear that Rowan hasn’t changed much over the years. His voice has aged pleasantly, and its rough edges hew to a more fluid rasp. His playing seems more technically proficient than ever. The years have made Rowan’s guitar strumming more melodic, even when he’s picking the notes. He somehow can do both on the same song (check out Rowan’s playing on “The Red, The White and the Blue” for a great example). There may be nothing new here, but that’s kind of the point of bluegrass music. In the hands of a master like Rowan, it’s traditional and new at the same time.