If you are a glass-is-half-empty kind of person, then this new documentary of Peter Rowan, titled The Tao of Bluegrass: A Portrait of Peter Rowan, will look like a a half-empty glass. The photography and sound are at times a bit south of polished, the lighting of some of the shots—such as the interview segments with Ricky Skaggs—could and should be considerably better. The edits are sometimes awkward, incongruous, or jarring. In terms of content, you’ll probably long for a bit more substance, too. The interview clips from Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis, Jerry Douglas don’t really engage with the music, rather they come off like book jacket blurbs: “he’s really interesting, he’s really great.” As a film, I’m fairly certain that this one isn’t going to be winning any Oscars.
But there is a place for this film nevertheless. Say what you will about Peter Rowan (certainly many have, and not all of it or even the majority of it flattering) he’s had a long and fascinating career in music. He’s been a bluegrass boy, and he also toured as the opening act for the Doors. Those are probably the extremes, with most of the things he’s done falling somewhere between them. Throughout, if not at the top of the charts, he’s remained a prominent and important musical figure since he joined the Bluegrass Boys in 1963.
What he has to say about his time with Bill Monroe is fascinating, given that we’ve only ever heard snippets of it before. Rowan only toured with him a short time, and it seems that most of it was acrimonious. Here, however, we get a sense of why that may have been: Monroe didn’t pay him. “You know Pete, your money is as good with me as it is in a bank,” says Rowan quoting Monroe, then acknowledging that that kind of paternalism can understandably cause friction, and indeed it did. Rowan stayed on as an apprentice, and once he got what he wanted out of the relationship, he went elsewhere in order to apply it to another important concept: earning a living.
At that point, he was off: prog rock, jam bands, newgrass, “hillbilly jazz,” bluegrass, folk, reggae, raga. Perhaps we know parts of this story, but it’s interesting to see it all at once. The archival clips are as fascinating as they are hilarious, such as the clips of Seatrain. All of it underscores the fact, were we to doubt it, that Rowan is utterly unique—aside from his time with Monroe, he’s been produced by George Martin, toured with Jerry Douglas, and Tony Rice, and Vassar Clements. Old and In the Way was my first introduction to bluegrass music, as it probably was for lots of people who didn’t grow up on the blue ridge. The first time I heard it was during a party when I was a university student. It riveted me and, if it didn’t change my life, it was a moment when I found something that I didn’t even know that I was looking for. I believe that I was likely one of many. (Their first album is one of the few bluegrass albums ever to make it onto the pop charts, and for that reason provided the kind of lift that the O Brother soundtrack did many years later.)
It’s hard to imagine how so many different projects can draw the attention of one man, or that so many projects can appeal to the same audience. Of course, in terms of the audience, they don’t, and in that way it’s a bit hard to be a true Peter Rowan fan. His world music projects, such as the recent Dharma Blues album, can be hard nuts for a bluegrass audience to crack. But by the same token, there are some projects that are fabulously enjoyable, especially for a bluegrass fan, such as Peter Rowan and Tony Rice (2007) its follow up You Were There for Me (2009), and the recent The Old School (2013). There are other standouts as well, such as Tree on a Hill with the Rowan Brothers, and the positively delightful High Lonesome Cowboy (2004) with Don Edwards, Tony Rice, and Norman Blake.
Ultimately, the film is a unique chance to get your head around the kind of career that Rowan has had, and the changing musical landscape that he has moved though over the course of his career. We see him as the entertainer, though it’s clear that the filmmaker interviewed him at length and over a long period of time, and was able to get past the set pieces—how he wrote “Walls of Time” or talk of the “Buddhaverse”—to allow us to see him just talking in a less rehearsed way.
It’s fascinating, just as his music is. He’s at Merlefest most years, and I always make a point of seeing what he is up to. Many years, as the one he was touring Crucial Country, I don’t stay for more than a song. Other years, as those when he was touring with Tony Rice, I’d follow him around to every set of his during the festival. He’s just that kind of musician, frustratingly peripatetic. At one point in the movie he is seen during a break from recording and the producer notes that that one song presents a nice compact image while “the others tend to ramble on.” Rowan chuckles, saying almost apologetically, “but that’s my specialty, rambling on is my thing.” We may not like all the directions he goes off in, but of course it’s not necessary that we do. Throughout, he’s consistently fascinating, and for the most part this film is as well.