As he prepares for a no-holds-barred New Year's Eve concert with fellow revolutionaries Sam Bush, John Cowan, Leftover Salmon, and Tony Furtado -- a who's who of genre-bending innovators -- Peter Rowan took time to reflect on the State of the Grass with the Independent, speaking from his home in San Francisco.
Do you know much of what to expect at the New Year's Eve concert?
I know that we'll be collaborating on a bunch of tunes. I'm going to try and do as many new tunes as I can, depending on my time slot, 'cause I think from here on out we just got to say anything goes.
Are you coming out solo?
I'll probably play some with Leftover Salmon and maybe with John and Sam. We haven't really figured it out yet, we're going to rehearse the day before. I'll probably play a solo tune. I want to sing that tune, I have a new tune about Charles Sawtelle and his guitar; I want to sing that. Stuff that's up to date. Of course "Panama Red" is always part of the scene.
Are you playing Charles' guitar as your primary guitar these days?
Yeah, I am. When the situation is right for it. I mean, it's a totally cool guitar, you can play it anywhere, but for it to be showcased in the right way I like to have a particular...I like it to be an all-acoustic show for one thing. Which I'm not sure that show is...well, definitely that show on New Year's is not going to be all acoustic. I do a lot of work with Tony Rice, and in that situation, where you've got a couple of 1930s Martins and it's all acoustic and there's no other instruments, except maybe a mandolin and a bass, those guitars are featured and their crisp tone comes out.
What is Charles' guitar?
As near as we can figure it's a 1937 D-18, which Martin made. It's when the wood from the rain forest was plentiful. The good stuff was from these old trees and that's why a lot of those guitars sound great. The trees were 300-500 years old to begin with. There hasn't been any Adirondeck Spruce since the war because it was all cut down for parts for planes and for the war effort for World War II. It takes, what, 25-30 years for a tree to get big enough to make a board any way. So there's been a new crop of Adirondeck Spruce for the last 10 years or so. But it's interesting, some of those ecological and artistic combinations.
I know the quality of those guitars, but is there something about knowing the story behind the wood that makes a difference to you when you're playing it?
When you're playing it? No, not really. It's just that you know that this guitar is old, so it gives you enthusiasm to hear -- and it sounds good. There's an immediacy of the sound that's not quite there on some others. When I play that D-18, I pick it up and, it's the perfect bluegrass guitar, but when I pick it up and strike a chord on it, I feel like it's touching, in the size and the shape and the big, fat sound and everything, it's touching the roots of country music in a way. When you think about American music and how the period between the '20s and '40s, that twenty year period between the wars -- it's so rich in musical development. And then I guess Hank Williams came right after the war. And he played a big old Martin. But when I look at that guitar I think this is American, man, this is not a European guitar, this is not a parlor instrument. This is big and brashy, big, big, brash, you know, clear straightforward sound. It's very much the American spirit, I think. It happened to come out in the mid--, I guess by the '30s they had started making it, 1928, they had started making these big guitars to compete in the orchestras. That was an evolution; they went from having the banjo strumming along in the big swing jazz bands to having a guitar, Gibson L-5. Martin was trying to compete with a big sounding guitar, and it became the basis for a lot of Hawaiian music and country music, just that big ringing chord. The Gibsons didn't ring that much. They strummed good. Gibsons have a great strumming sound. But for crispness and clarity , the Martins have always had a kind of an edge, I think. But I look at thing and I go, man, this is like a vision of the American spirit in a way. It's huge. No matter how much you hunch over it, you don't have to be in the proper position to play it. It's just going to be loud.
It sounds like to a certain extent the evolution of that instrument helped to create a new kind of music.
Oh it did, yeah, because you can play it as a rhythm, just as a strumming thing, or you can play it with a choppy rhythm. With a bass and a pedal steel and a fiddle you had your basic country band. Of course in bluegrass it is the bass. It's the drum. Also the attack on the guitar itself comes across very percussively, which helps. Other guitars you wouldn't hear it that much, it would be just kind of a little muffled thing. But here when you strike those strings you hear the pick. It became very adaptable for bands that didn't have drums.
Do you know anything about the history of that guitar before Charles had it?
So you do expect to play it?
(pause) I gotta find out what kind of show we're doing. I may bring a couple instruments.
Have you got quite a lot of new material?
Yeah, I haven't made a record in three years, and I've got about, I guess upwards, towards a hundred songs. Sounds like a lot, but not really. I mean three years, that's a long time. And thirty songs in a year would mean you've got a couple every, what, three songs a month or something. But some of them are songs I was working on before. Part of it's old unrecorded stuff and about half of it is brand new stuff. I'm trying to figure a way, you know, what's the next step kind of thing.
Are you starting to put an album together in your mind?
I'm still enjoying the freedom I have of not doing that. It might not seem like a big thing, but I started making records when I was with Bill Monroe, and that was '64. After that, David Grisman and I made records, in '67, '68, '69 and then the Seatrain band and on through the '70s. That's a long time. Initially I always just let the pieces fall together and--through circumstances and enthusiasm and kind of encouragement from people involved--come up with something that seems right. But now everybody's pretty dispersed, they're all doing their own things. The most successful record I ever had was Dust Bowl Children, 1990, or 91. Jerry Douglas and I still work together quite often, but I'm wondering if it might not be time to go right back to that sparse kind of thing. So I've got some tunes in that direction that I'm working on. I probably won't start thinking of the studio until after February.
I think the last time I saw you was at Rocky Grass with the Czech band.
Oh, Druha Trava. Have you heard that record?
I haven't heard the record, but I've heard a lot of the music I guess.
Compass Records out of Nashville put it out. I don't know how it sounded there, but that was a good project. I really enjoyed that.
You're somebody who is pretty well-traveled in the far reaches of bluegrass music and I wondered if you had some perspective on some of those places you've seen it. Would you consider what they're doing a form of bluegrass?
The Czech band? Yeah, you know it's an extension of bluegrass. But bluegrass is, strictly speaking, a very, very particular thing. To other people in other countries like the Japanese and the Czech, they don't impute bluegrass with the sense of purity that we do. They didn't discover it that way. They probably heard Old and In the Way or Muleskinner or something like that that I did first and then found bluegrass after that, so they only look at bluegrass as an extension of, a development of styles. Whereas here there tends to be a thing of roots purity. I almost said racial purity. But it's a roots purity thing, and in the south it is still that way. Those people that like what they call traditional bluegrass, I mean, they're pretty diehard. Right now there is a whole, basically a competition to see who can be the most traditionally bluegrass, filling that gap that Bill Monroe left. That's what my record Bluegrass Boy was to me, an album of new material done in a style that was more true than other things I've done to what I think of as Bill's style. But that was only my interpretation. At the same time you've got these bands that are not traditionalists, but they use bluegrass ideas interwoven with other ideas. They've taken something like an uptempo fiddle tune--like String Cheese Incident 'cause they've got a hot fiddler--they take an uptempo fiddle tune and take it to "Space Jam." Then you've got Leftover Salmon, which is really more eclectic than just being a, what do they call them, slamgrass or something. Bluegrass is an element in their style I would say, but I couldn't define for sure what their thing is. Part of the bigger bands with the drums and stuff now is kind of get out there and just apply the whole, put the energy to it and make it fresh every time. Whereas bluegrass in the traditional sense is get out there and make it sound as old as you can. Those people that do that are very proud of what they do. But there are other elements that keep your mind fresh. Conway Twitty did a tune that Ronny Reno wrote called the "Boogie Grass Band." That's probably more commercial and more successful in some ways than a lot of what people do, but it was totally a formula, right? It had a little bluegrass in it, a little guitar here and there, and a banjo, stuff like that. Ricky Skaggs had a monster hit with "Uncle Pen." It surfaces in different areas in different ways. I just did a bluegrass show out here at a club the night before last, and it was really a gas. It was a bluegrass night that a friend of mine has started at a local club called the Sweetwater in Mill Valley. And I had some guys show up, I had a banjo and a fiddler and a bass, and my fans really loved it that it was bluegrass. They were absolutely dead quiet. So in a kind of microcosm of the big musical scene, there's great magic that is the result of the fact that I've done stuff way beyond that. They all know my other stuff, but they knew this was bluegrass. It was one of the best nights, it was just real nice. It's a challenge for me, I don't really know, at this point I just try to find a tune where my energy can go into it and I feel a growing sense of inspiration as I perform the material and whatever way that that material is best presented...it may be that the banjo picker I started picking with out here, Bill Evans, he's tremendously experienced. He can actually put a banjo to a tune and add something more than just a banjo part. Like Bela. Basically, I just let the bluegrass come through me. Even if I'm not playing bluegrass, I know that there's some bluegrass coming through. That's just the way it is; it's from exposure and playing it for a long time. But when you want to get down and really play the bluegrass, it's just great. I mean I did as many Bill Monroe tunes as I did my tunes.
I want to ask a little about your writing process. Are you inspired initially with a musical idea or a lyrical idea?
Sometimes I'll write a poem, a verse, and I'll look at it and put music to it later. Sometimes I'll write the words and I'll hear the music right away. Then in some cases, and these tunes seem to take longer, I have a musical thing worked out on a guitar with a melody, but I won't have the lyric readily at hand. I kind of try and let things develop from those musical ideas. What I look for is breakthrough moments where it's just absolutely right, that is what the lyric should be for there. But as I say, not recording in three years, if I was in the studio, man, I'd be finishing a lot more songs because I'd be needing them to be done to record and define them. I guess what I'm trying to do is avoid defining anything at this point. (laughs) I'm in a definition avoidance mode.
I talked to Vince earlier today from Leftover Salmon and he said one of the things he loves about your songwriting is the way you combine the sense of mythology with these great characters.
Yeah, that's fun. That's just fun. I like the mythos or the mythology of the west, and for a time there I thought with "Panama Red" and "The Free Mexican Air Force" I was continuing a great tradition that nobody else was even thinking about which was to kind of populate the imagination with myths that we don't have. We don't really have these myths. We've got Wild Bill Hickock and a few folks. But only time will tell about those things. "Panama Red" may be seen as a genuine mythic figure after a while, but that'll be after I'm gone. That's what it means, right, it's got to survive the...The Iliad and The Odyssey survived Homer. It's interesting territory and it's fun to write that stuff. Basically it's like writing little movies. But there a lot of other people that do that. Tom Russell has really come out with some great stuff. And Jack Elliot is probably the one person in the country who can pick and choose from other folks's songs and portray that mythology better than anybody I know. So it's an ongoing thing, the kind of western troubadour kind of thing. At this point I'm kind of trying to step away from all of that...The nearest I'm getting to a project is, well I'm producing a couple of people, but the nearest I'm getting to my project is talking with some Chinese musicians who play Chinese instruments and see if--I've already gotten together and done some playing--and see if we can make a complete project of combining the ... The Chinese instruments sound wonderful. They're all stringed instruments just like ours, and there are some melodic ideas in Chinese music that are quite similar to Appalachian music. In terms of new songs there might be subject matter that might be really appropriate for that sound. So I'm kind of working in that direction. I've always wanted to do this project, and this may be the best way for it to happen. 'Cause these musicians are in this country and I wouldn't have to go to Okinawa or India or something to find them.
You've done a fair amount of entering musically into these other cultures, these other musical cultures. What's involved in that process for you to feel comfortable in another musical culture.
What exactly are you thinking of?
Something like what you're proposing with the Chinese musicians or the kind of thing with the Czechoslovakian musicians.
It's just meeting on a musical level where there's just smiles and nods of the heads all around going 'yeah'... Otherwise there's the other approach which is kind of like a scholastic approach where you write out everything for everybody. It's valid too. You write out everything , and you describe completely on paper and then verbally in conducting, exactly what you want from everybody. And then it's organized. My folkie approach, which is not always -- I'm thinking of a couple different things when I say this -- I don't know if it goes deep enough. That's why I'm taking my time. We would probably rehearse for a week at least with these players before we record and it would all be recorded live. Whereas when I did the album The Walls of Time, I'd come back from Ireland with these bluegrass ideas based on Irish tunes that I'd heard like "The Moonshiner" and "The Plains of Waterloo," which was a record I did for Sugar Hill. I wanted pipes and whistles on there, and the record company was insistent that this whole thing be a bluegrass project and that they were sort of putting up with my idea of having Celtic influence. And so what you get is just the tiniest bit of Celtic influence, at least to my ear, but maybe some. Maybe enough to make it interesting. We only had one player on there, Freena O'Donnel from the Boffy band and she played clavinet. It's the pressure to make a record for a small budget that doesn't allow you to go back for that second look. Call everybody back in, fly them back into town for another group of sessions. And that's the key, because the first group of sessions, well you may get a bunch of ideas that either you're going to have to can and just go with what you have or basically double the production budget for studio time because you need to go back in now and take some of those ideas and work them up. As if you were a painter, right? You go in there and you work hard for two weeks and then you step back and you come back a week later and you go "okay." You choose two of those painting and you start from there and really complete the series. I've always found the studio frustrating for -- I mean the bluegrass labels, Flying Fish and Sugar Hill, have afforded me the ability to have a recording career and be in the public eye, but maybe I haven't been temperamental enough. Maybe I haven't screamed and yelled and say 'I need more money! Goddammit, I can't finish it. And I won't give you the tapes. Fuck you!' Maybe that's the best way to be, just completely out there. I've always kind of gone 'oh well, no more money? Okay.' I'm like Eyeore, right? 'Okay, all right, okay well, it'll just be this then, okay.' The problem is that somebody's always satisfied with what it is just as it is, but you don't know what to do. So I'm kind of in a place now where I've started the projects in my mind but instead of having huge reels and reels of tapes and being confused about how to edit them because I'm trying to get them down into a 60 or 50-minute format, I just haven't done a lot of -- I'm in preproduction. But I'll tell you what I have. I have some great moments. I've taken a few people in the studio. I've had some serendipitous moments and I think I'm going to be able to use those. And then having those moments not be maybe what the final track should be, maybe they'll have to be... modern studio techniques, you know, bring things in. Overdubbing's no secret. Everybody does it. In fact, everybody does it except me. I always sing live. But I think to accomplish the melding of cultural sounds, either you go the hip-hop route where you sample everything, or you go the folklorist/scholastic route where you study and study and study the music and then you organize it. Like The Buena Vista Social Club. It wasn't like Ry went down there and found one person. He went down there and found 20. All these people in Cuba. I've been wanting to go to Cuba for years and years, and probably just too busy to go and touch base with that rich musical culture. I've listened to that music for years. Awake Me in the New World has some of that in it. But Ry went down there and he got the whole thing filmed and recorded so that it was presented, you know this is s cross-cultural thing, and he's trying to blend in with them, he's not trying to have them blend in with him. He's trying to blend in with them. But he had all the vehicles to present it in a way so that you got the whole picture. The problem with the cross-cultural thing is that if you don't have every element there to kind of spell it out to the people what it is, then they may not get the whole picture. They may just say, 'there's a little flavor of something in there, I don't know what it is but...' You know what I mean? It's kind of too subtle. And yet the hip-hop sampling route is not subtle and in a way you do get a picture, but it's not really a collaboration. So I feel like I'm about ready to try that again. It's one of my favorite things to do, but I'm also a little gun-shy. Flaco Jimenez and I, we went to England and we played a lot over there in the '80s and...it's a racial thing, it's racism in a way. It's like, how far could I possibly go into that music and just do that music or play on the same stage with Flaco Jimenez and be valid in his music? Or could he be valid in my music? I mean, I certainly could write the songs that would be real easy for him to be valid in, but to go deeply into his culture...I mean, people impute the Spanish culture with such an ancient mythology of its own. It's like, there's a certain level at which the fans and the critics, especially in England, places like that -- it's unbelievable. The culture is extremely eclectic, but when you see a kind of music, they want to see the real thing. And yet, for every Cajun band that goes to the U.K. there are 20 British Cajun bands that are playing pubs all the time. So it's weird. You can impersonate the music that you love, but you're really exposed when you come from another culture. But then it's like to be so musically prepared that the music is seamless and effortless. Then the cultural thing is just a celebration through the music. It's weird, I've played England so many times, sometimes the whole audience would be wearing sombrero's and singing the Free Mexican Air Force. Then there'd be a critic in the newspaper who'd say something like my bluegrass roots and the Tex-Mex roots are absolutely a different world. He just had a thing for Flaco. He wanted to see his "eyes of ancient sadness." Poor Flaco, eyes of ancient exhaustion. People get a thing for a certain aspect. Some British guy said, 'you know, quite frankly Pete, you don't have the spic appeal.' And it's like 'oheww.' In my country... So it's kind of endless. I could go to Louisiana and play with Cajun musicians and write music in the Cajun vein and this and that and stuff, but I think I want to do something essentially....I mean after doing another cross-cultural project--which is really to me a musical project, and what I like about Chinese music and Chinese poetry and painting, and adding to the aesthetic of that, adding to the enthusiasm--I think I'm going to do something that's American. I mean really American. Something that's just totally natural, whatever that is.
Do you have a sense for what it is for you that's the most natural, that comes out of you, or what's in your blood musically.
Bluegrass is pretty effortless really. Bluegrass has a lot of elements that because it's bluegrass you want to keep in there, four-part gospel singing, fast tunes, fiddle tunes, and that's fun, it takes the heat of one person. You turn to somebody in the band and say 'lets do this' and somebody else sings. I really like old-time country music. I like nice pedal-steel or just a steel guitar. I just like the sound, it's a haunting sound. And the acoustic bass. And fiddle. That to me would be totally comfortable. I don't know if I'll ever make that record. Because anything I do people always say 'oh, well now Peter's doing this. This is just one of his latest things.' They never say 'ah, at last, Peter Rowan is playing the music that is really his music.' Unless I play bluegrass. When I play bluegrass, people say 'Peter Rowan returns to his deep roots in bluegrass music.' And in fact, as much as I don't want to play bluegrass all the time, probably I accomplish more musically in that genre. Or at least, I'm thinking a few years ago when people responded really favorably to some projects I did, they said there's a sense of naturalness to what I was doing. Whereas other studio projects with drums and bass and overdubbing and this and that, sometimes you know, you're just a voice, you know what I mean? Some people say, and I think it's true, that maybe playing solo is the best thing for people to get what I'm doing. But I still have hopes that I can add elements to this that will be raise a few hairs in the back of your neck and make you go 'yeah! That's great.' I'm into slack-key guitar tunings now, too, not playing Hawaiian tunes, not learning them necessarily, but using them as a basis for my songs. I like that pretty good. I like that nice huge guitar sound. And Charles' guitar has helped take me there too. His guitar, put it in open tuning and do a lot of work, preparation. I'm in preproduction for the next greatest record I'll ever do.
Were you doing bluegrass before you got in with Bill Monroe?
Yeah, I had a bluegrass band.
How old were you when you joined Bill Monroe?
Let's see, I was 22.
Can you talk a little about that time period?
I had dropped out of school. I was living around Massachusetts where my parents were living and I had been raised there. I had gone to school for a couple years at Colgate University, and I was really trying to make good. My grandparents had helped put up some money for me to go to school and I was trying to do it, but I had a real good high school education where I got to study the Romantic poets when I was 16 and 17 years old. That kind of infused my mind with a sense of, well, I guess Romanticism. The idea that you're response, and the encouragement of having an individual response to the world as opposed to having a response that was prescribed by society. Which is really the whole '60s revolution idea, it was Romanticism run amok. It was 'What are you seeing?" But in a way it is Romanticism. There are people who say the whole ecology movement is Romanticism. It's the fact of being moved by a natural environment, being moved by a sense of history to have, to create even, your own mythology in response to it. But it's not a pursuit that everybody can follow. I'm thinking of John Keats and some of those guys. They reached me because their language was so rich and they had broken free of Elizabethan convention to a degree. When you read Keats today, even if you never get to the end of Lamia or any of these other epics that he wrote. There's one I never get to finish, Epiphalaneoans. It's just like my childhood when he's talking about you're walking down by the sea and you find a cave and you go in the cave. He describes everything in its crystal clarity and natural object of grasses and shells and sand and sky and earth and water and it's all described clearly and then the suggestion that the whole thing is jewel like. I can identify with that. I understand that perception. In fact, one of Lord Byron's lyrics shows up in a tune by the Country Gentleman. It turned out that I guess somebody just took those lyrics and put them into a tune, but they made a great bluegrass tune. "How should I meet you, in silence or tears? If I should greet thee after long years how should I meet your, in silence or tears?' I had this encouragement to have this romantic view of life, or -- I never understood the word romantic, but it is I guess Romanticism, everything has a larger than life element to it, yet it's crystal clear in its own thing. Even in Buddhism there's something called pure perception where if the world is seen exactly as it is then there's no impurities everything is just jewel like, crystal, absolutely self-fulfilling as it is in itself. Each separate thing, and they're connected in many ways too. So when I heard bluegrass and I heard Carter Stanley, this whole romantic stuff made all the sense in the world because that's what they were writing too. 'The dark river at midnight.' 'Wandering in the mountain looking for my darling.' 'Footprints in the snow.' That's all romantic poetry. Done in a way that is very different than romanticism of the 1800s, but it still had its roots there. That stuff then became parlor compositions. Parlor songs in the 1890s. Then it kind of got dormant. But it all revived with bluegrass in a way that was so full of life and vitality. Because of the power of the music, all those lyrics that seemed so corny could be sung again in a way that was hard-driving. It was new. Everything old is new. So I had had a bluegrass band and I had been experimenting and listening to that stuff and listening to Bill Monroe. I found that Monroe's music had something odd about it that reached me in a different way than anybody else's. But I personally liked the sound of the Stanley Brothers. I liked that harmony singing. When they added George Shuffler on guitar it got real definitive, it got more organized and the harmony singing got...they reached a peak. They reached a peak of perfection. Then I was playing music with Bill Keith and Jim Rooney up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, playing mandolin. Bill Keith had already been with Bill Monroe. So Bill was coming up to do some dates and Bill Keith called me up and asked me if I wanted to play guitar on those dates. I said 'are you kidding? Yeah!' And he said, 'but you can't call me Bill, you have to call me Brad, cause Bill only allows one Bill in the band.' So he was Brad Keith. Those dates were with Tex Logan and Doc Watson, Gene Lowenger, Edward Allen Lilly of the Lilly Brothers, and Bill Keith. We did a series of concerts in New England. Some of that came out on the records from the Smithsonian Institute called Off the Record Bill Monroe and then Bill Monroe and Doc Watson. Those were all recorded during those shows. Pretty vibrant stuff. Even today there are some folks out here in California going back and playing in a style like the Lilly Brothers, completely relaxed. Almost like folk music with bluegrass instruments. But they never let up the bluegrass articulation. It never degenerates into plucking and strumming and stuff, which is charming, too, hey. And you do that, you go back and play these older styles as they are, just 'cause they're so great. Just 'cause they're so great. That's a whole different thing than trying to move forward creatively and write new material. If you're going to write bluegrass songs, they're going to have to sound like bluegrass songs. But I don't know, there's room in bluegrass to do anything these days.
Where would you say that widening out of the bluegrass spectrum began?
Well, definitely the Country Gentlemen. But everybody in the '60s was doing something different. The Osborne Brothers were taking the idea of vocal trios and extending that whole idea within its own boundaries, stretching it and adding more and more musical ideas to those vocals, different kinds of moving parts. Bill Monroe himself, he followed his own lines of progression. They don't really have that much of a relationship to trends of the moment. I see it as music development, I don't see people trying to be different to be different for different's sake. Bill sort of new his strengths and during that period folk music was popular, so we did cut "Pretty Fair Miss in the Garden." We cut "Midnight on the Stormy Deep," which for me was a crowning moment. There was a sense of myth and a sense of mystery about those songs. There's always somebody coming back from the war and they never say what war it was, they just come back and go through this routine in the garden where they don't recognize each other and then they recognize each other. That stuff goes back to Elizabethan times, and before. So there was some of that, but Bill would always fall back on his real strength, which was just hard-driving bluegrass. In the process of recording there's always something unique about a tune that will be that tune's benchmark, and sometimes it's more prominent than others. "Uncle Pen" was a stroke of true genius, because the G run, and who knows, it may have been Jimmy Martin that just said 'B-B-B-ill, Bill, let's put that in, look, make it stop right there and I'll put the run in right there and it'll be great.' It probably could have been Jimmy Martin, cause he's that kind of guy. But suddenly bluegrass had a definition at that point with "Uncle Pen" that was, it was a story about the music itself in the song, Uncle Pen played the fiddle, and then the music itself had all these things in it; it had a fiddle tune in it, it had a great chorus, and it had a break with that guitar sticking that G run in there. So all of a sudden there was a definitive moment. In musical history you got to look for those. Like "Blue Suede Shoes," by Carl Perkins, it's not, in tempo it's not, 'Well it's one for the money, doom, two for the show, ba doom,' it's not like that at all. It's "well it's one for the money, boom, doom, two for the show, ba doom poom, three to get ready," you know what I mean? That...had never been done, by a white man any way. It suddenly became definitive. At least for that tune for that moment, you'll always remember that. Like the moment that the microphone distorts when Little Richard sings "Ready Teddy." At a certain point the microphone just kind of distorts on his vocal. That's the sound. It's like so much intensity that things are like blurring. But it's okay! That moment was all about that. I guess what I would be looking for is a way to let the music be self-defining and find those moments that you'll always come back to. I listened to one of my albums the other day because of a possible collaboration with somebody. The things I remember after I listened to it again just as a listener, and I'd go "oh." So I'd go back to hear those things. They're different than the things I would have thought I'd go back to listen to. It's very hard for me to be objective. It's very hard. But anyway, during the '60s you had the Country Gentlemen doing Bob Dylan tunes and the Osborne Brothers doing bluegrass but carrying vocals out to a deeper level, and then you had Bill Monroe with, that was us. We were the guys. You had me and Richard Green, and we were, "The Walls of Time," that was written with Bill. Bluegrass was bursting at the seams at that point and, although we didn't do bluegrass as the next project, a couple of projects down the line we did Old and in the Way and Muleskinner at the beginning of the '70s, which was only like three years later. It seemed like 10 years later at the time. We had a lot to do with stretching bluegrass out there, because we didn't feel any sense of boundaries. But it also had to do with the time and the place, the youthfulness and enthusiasm of the players, and the sense of unbounded optimism about what you're doing. Now I guess I feel a little bit like an old warrior. Yeah, I will go into battle but I got to make sure that everyone who's going in with me knows the terrain and is experienced. But at the same time I have to say that my band out of Austin, Texas, they're all in their 20's. They're part of a group called The Too High String Band. They, the bass player and a mandolin player, are just as enthusiastic as I was to do it and they want to stretch out. They're trying in a way approach bluegrass and redefine it. They're searching for something within the structure of bluegrass, but when they play with me we just do all kinds of stuff. So it's still going on. But I would say, let's see, by the time Earl Scruggs had the Earl Scruggs review they were doing a progressive show, but it was fairly straightforward. There wasn't any sense of danger at all about what they were doing. But he had his kids playing in the band, so they were doing progressive things. I always like the sense of careening near the edge. But we're talking about catching a musical moment on a little piece of recording equipment. Probably more great moments have happened that have never been recorded than will ever be recorded. And I think that's why tapers are so important. Who knows where this stuff will end up, and maybe none of it's great. But they're there because they have a sense that if the spirit is there and the music's going to happen, they want to have that on tape for a reference point. We used to tape all those old shows in the '60s and '70s. I remember before I played with Bill Monroe I was listening to tapes of the Stanley Brothers that were made and collected by friends of mine. In fact I bought a tape recorder a Tandeberg, and I hauled that sucker around with me and copied reel-to-reel from other people's machines and would listen to these mysterious sounding performances. Everybody wants to make the kind of bluegrass that's very familiar so they can go 'ho, bluegrass!' But when you first hear bluegrass, nobody tells you what you're listening to, and if your first introduction is something that has that mystery in it, you don't know what you're listening to. It's archaic sounding, but it kind of has a freshness to it.
Part of what seems like such a great line-up for the New Year's Eve show is that it seems like a progression of three or four generations...
It's neat that those guys [Leftover Salmon] have that overview of things. That they actually see themselves as part of a historical process.
Do you have much of a sense for where you see the future of the genre?
Oh, I don't think anything's going to change. I ask myself sometimes, why don't I just go back into bluegrass and do the most progressive bluegrass I can do? But in a sense, Bela's covering the instrumental side of that. I think my record with Druha Trava is exactly what I would do if I was going to do that. So I kind of did it. The other thing is to play more with Sam and...But in a sense it would be just doing stuff that's already been done.
I guess to do bluegrass and for bluegrass to survive into the next century it's really a matter of preserving something that's already fully formed.
Yeah, it's preservation. And people are trying to be more "high lonesome" than someone else. It's like, ungh, God. Or more "ancient tone" than someone else. It's like, well, how committed are you to be that? I mean after a while, why have a banjo? If you want to really sound ancient tone and high lonesome, banjo's not necessarily what's going to put you there. Maybe something else will be good for that. I think just because it's the turning of the millennium it's exciting for us as individuals for us to kind of go, let's go for it, let's do something. So we'll see. Can't say. Maybe...Did you ever hear the cut I did for the compilation World Wide Reggae on Puttami records? I did "No Woman, No Cry" with a live show with Jerry Douglas and Mark O'Connor, Roy Huskey. So I think in a way, not that it would be so new, but incorporating more of the innovations from roots reggae into bluegrass. But then it's not bluegrass.
I think maybe the first time I saw you was at Telluride one year, maybe mid-'80s, and you talked about having been at Bob Marley's birthday celebration. It was the first time I'd heard anybody do something called 'reggae-billy.' Ever since then I've thought that's a genre waiting to be recorded.
That's got to happen. That's one of the things I'm hoping that we can pull together. There's a cut out there, "No Woman, No Cry" on this reggae compilation. But my idea would be to go a little further into the reggae. Go to Jamaica maybe, you know? It's a big subject actually, maybe not for this interview, but the people like Ernest Ranglin have been playing jazz using reggae tunes as the heads, and they're all tunes that were popular recordings, but approaching them as jazz tunes. Some of the players, acoustic bass players and stuff, are just really, really interesting. And I think musically that is a place to go. Yes I do.
I did some interviews a couple years ago for the 25th anniversary of Telluride and I think Sam picked out doing "No Woman, No Cry" with you and Jerry Douglas as one of the highlights of 25 years. Some of that Crucial Country stuff.
Yeah. There's something there. I'd like to go a little deeper into that. But there you go, you come up against this whole weird racism. But if it's done right, I think...you know what I think? Maybe, just maybe in the new millennium some of the political correctness that's been prevalent for the last ten years won't matter. Maybe that's what will disappear. I hope. On a certain level, if you've got enough money it doesn't matter. But if you're trying to do a creative project where there is sensitivity with people and you're not just sampling people and stuff, there is a sense of collaboration and not appropriating someone's culture.
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...Not to keep it bluegrass but to take the bluegrass ides that are vibrant enough to survive the transformation of the sound. It ain't gonna win no bluegrass award, but you gonna take the kinds of players like Sam and Jerry and myself and people that can feel the connection and the musical ideas that are in common with the two sounds are extraordinarily connected.
Somebody was talking recently about the common sound or spirit that you find in various different roots musics. You go to different cultures around the world, and when you get down to the roots music there's something...
Yeah, well a lot of it's the explorers themselves. The Spanish coming to Mexico created all this Latin music. And then the Africans coming as slaves combining with the Spanish and the Caribbean thing. It all wiped out the native cultures, and now you hear that stuff and you think 'oh, roots!' It ain't roots. It's conqueror music. Slave and conqueror combining. And so there's a joy in that. I really still think that music is the most amazing, one of the truly amazing phenomena of the universe, because what else is there that has no shape, no form, yet can be heard and felt and be transmitted through the air between people. Thoughts. Mental energy. Spiritual energy. Music. It's almost like every generation of musicians has sought to make a definitive moment with music that either points to the nature of music as this magical thing or used that magical thing to create a subject matter for kind of propaganda or whatever. That's the challenge. How to let music say what it has to say. Can it say it without us? I don't know. Seems like we're needed there. ...Waiting for the light to change.
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