It may come as no surprise that my phone chat with Grammy award-winning (and six-time Grammy nominee) bluegrass singer-songwriter Peter Rowan was a rambling road of subjects and observations as he drove across the foggy Richmond Bridge on a rainy California day en route to meet his manager in Oakland, California.
Rowan, who will be bringing his toe-tapping music to the next installment of the Santa Paula Concert Series on Saturday, March 4, at the Universalist Unitarian Church, has a lot rattling around in that active Buddhist brain of his. I was left to sort it out and make some sense of it all. Or not.
He’s almost three-quarters of a century old. (His 75th birthday is the Fourth of July.) I mentioned that my great-aunt has the same birthday and thought the fireworks were always for her. I asked if he thought the same thing. He sweetly responded, “Aren’t they?” Then the conversation jumped from Jerry Garcia to his upcoming CD to finding his exit while driving.
He spoke of his roots in Massachusetts and mentioned the “New England Puritan-derived self-punishment” in the movie Manchester by the Sea, noted that he was currently re-reading Moby Dick, and made other references to ships, including the metaphorical one that Jerry Garcia caught when he left the bluegrass band they were in together when “the big ship came in” (i.e., The Grateful Dead, if you are asleep at the wheel).
This will be Peter Rowan’s first concert in the series, reuniting him with the Rev. Maddie Sifantus, whom he and his also-musical brothers have known their entire lives. They grew up next door to one another in Massachusetts. His siblings, Chris and Lorin, have performed in the series, and Peter joked, “They put in a good word for me.”
The Rev. Maddie attended grammar school with Lorin and was in his first band. The Universalist Unitarian Church minister sang and played percussion, but don’t expect to see her onstage for Rowan’s solo performance.
“I always wanted to catch up with her and maybe do a church service,” said Rowan, who is Buddhist, but when she told him about the concert series he realized he could get paid and “pray in the morning.”
Church may be the perfect place for his bluegrass gospel.
“It’s always my motivation that the music will be healing to some degree,” Rowan said. “That’s how I validate what I present. These songs came to me in a way that seemed to be true — there’s some truth to them. It’s about humanity.”
Speaking on inspiration for songwriting, he noted, “I do believe there is a divine influence that is available for everyone. Through meditation and prayer, we can be open to this divine prodding — or pitchfork!” Rowan laughed, “You gotta know the devil too! The devil makes you dare, the divine brings it clear.”
Some of his songs, he notes, are explicitly about difficult situations people find themselves in, like “Ruby Ridge” and the survivalist Randy Weaver whose family was shot dead in the 1980s after he was set up by undercover deputies. He promises to tell the stories behind many of his songs.
“I’m a songwriter with bluegrass roots — and I constantly go back to those roots,” he said. But he’s also just recorded “My Aloha” in Hawaii, which has some 1920s “pre-Prohibition flair to it,” he said. The CD releases in May on Omnivore Recordings.
I asked what he liked best, being on the road, performing, songwriting or being in the studio. He said he likes it all.
“I like traveling around. I am kind of an elder statesman now. Writing is the moment I cherish — it’s what I do when I’m not busy. The rest of the stuff is busy. I like the studio producing my own records.”
He admitted that music can be healing and unifying, especially in these divisive times. I asked if he might be inspired by the current political climate.
“I didn’t learn to play for folkies. I learned to play for bluegrass people,” he said, noting that’s often a conservative audience. But perhaps with his bluegrass roots, he can build some bridges.
Rowan said that he tends to write more at home (Marin County and Texas), where he finds more free time, away from the pressure of performing.
“I like songwriting as much as anything and I look for that magic moment. If you can capture it, that’s all the better.”
Ideas come into his head in the wee hours when he’s burning the midnight oil.
“Part of the process is to train yourself to be aware, when you got a little thing going on — an image or a sentence — away from the mind detritus. It’s in that state of openness, when things are moving around, you can kind of catch a bird by the tail and learn.”
I couldn’t help asking about his take on legal pot, since he wrote and performed the hit song “Panama Red” with Riders of the Purple Sage.
“Fine,” he said, having to end our conversation as he arrived at his destination, “And way overdue.”
But not before adding that he likes palindromes.
“I woke up the other night and thought, ‘The question isn’t what’s the answer? The answer is what’s the question?’ ”
To find out the answer — or the question — make your way to Santa Paula and check out Peter Rowan. You won’t be bored and you may even discover some answers.
The Santa Paula Concert Series presents Peter Rowan on Saturday, March 4, at 7 p.m. at the Universalist Unitarian Church, 740 E. Main St., Santa Paula. For tickets and more information, call 525-4647 or visit www.uucsp.org.