Bluegrass legend Peter Rowan calls Virginia his “jumping-off point.” During college he went on a pilgrimage to Galax to check out old-school fiddlers.
“Living in the Boston, Cambridge area, you could hear people who loved the music,” he says. “But when you went South and could really hear what was going on with people like [fiddler] Larry Richardson. … They welcomed you into their circle.”
Rowan would sing for the legendary Bill Monroe and later join Jerry Garcia in the group Old and In the Way — but fondly recalls playing at Jeanette Carter's Carter Family Fold in Southwest Virginia, where he met guitar maker Wayne Henderson.
“There was an old-timer from Wild Cat Valley making knives and selling moonshine,” he says. “Wayne's wife was playing on a nice guitar, and I had just gotten mine stolen over in Ireland. Wayne made me a guitar and later said it was the biggest boost for his notoriety as a guitar maker at the time.”
Rowan is known as a phenomenal songwriter who's written the oft-covered tunes, “Midnight Moonlight” and “Mississippi Moon,” as well as counterculture classics “Panama Red” and “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy.”
“Those last two were about a time for sure,” he says. “But I still play them. ‘Panama Red' is my ‘Muleskinnner Blues.' Wish I had written love songs, but that's what I wrote.”
His latest record was meant to be a more traditional bluegrass album, but his producer talked him into injecting a more personal style, using new players with featured vocal harmonies. The album features old friends such as Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury.
“Music always grows and you can stretch out and jam it if you will, but the structure can expand from the inside … that's what we're into,” he says.
On Sunday he'll be joined by flat picking guitar god Tony Rice. “The stuff I like best with Tony is not necessarily the bluegrass but the modern work that lets Tony play with color and tonality,” he says. “We'll do something different.”