Nashville, TN -- “The Old School is a big school. It is where the tributaries of the river came from,” says bluegrass legend and GRAMMY-winner Peter Rowan of his new album The Old School. Influenced by his experience with the dynamic and enigmatic father of bluegrass Bill Monroe and written with the “bluegrass code” in mind, the now 70-year-old Rowan recorded the album with an intergenerational cast of players. Old masters such as Bobby Osborne and Del McCoury sat shoulder to shoulder with younger players including The Traveling McCourys, Michael Cleveland, Bryan Sutton and more, everyone playing and singing in a circle and recording old school style. It was an apt way to capture the raw spirit of bluegrass music and, for Rowan, the album became the perfect vehicle through which to explore the complex musical strands of the bluegrass tapestry.
Rowan's ambition going into the project was to assemble an elite cast of players and singers to represent the music's core as well as its broader range of influences. The all-star roster that came together included musicians who were members of the Bluegrass Boys, some of whom were Bill Monroe's contemporaries, as well as subsequent generations of torchbearers and groundbreakers whose talents continue to shape and define bluegrass music. The complete Old School class includes Del McCoury, Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, JD Crowe, Buddy Spicher, Jason Carter, Bryan Sutton, Michael Cleveland, the Traveling McCourys, Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch, Jeremy Garrett, Don Rigsby, Chris Henry and the members of the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band.
The album's opening title track “Keepin' it Between the Lines," played in fine, hard driving style by The Traveling McCourys and Michael Cleveland, frames the concept for the album with a motto from life on the road with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. “Vassar Clements was telling me about all these historical moments he was witness to when he was with Bill Monroe and I asked him what it was like being on the road with Bill. He said ‘you’d drive all night, shave in cold water, raise your hand up high and smile.’ It was the old Opry ethic – you want to make the people feel really good.” That feel good style of bluegrass is well represented on two other Rowan originals: “That’s All She Wrote,” featuring Del McCoury's inimitable tenor vocals and the clever, mid tempo “Drop the Bone" featuring harmony from Ronnie McCoury.
Honest family harmony is another thread of 'The Old School', rooted in the gospel quartets the Monroe Brothers learned growing up and the brother harmony tradition furthered by duos like the Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse and the Stanley Brothers. Rowan himself grew up in Boston in a very musical family singing many of those classic songs in a trio with his brothers. That tradition is well represented on "My Savior is Calling Me," with Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds and Jason Carter. It's a gospel quartet with a lyric twist: Rowan explains, “Most of the time the idea is that you’re calling on your savior so He grants you salvation, but I think you reach that point when the object of your faith is manifesting to you, actually calling you.”
“The Old School is in the songwriting too. Bluegrass music is about some pretty powerful songs. Bill threw the glove down for writing songs - always a sense for ‘top this!’” laughs Rowan, himself praised for his tongue-in-cheek lyricism and vivid imagery. Indeed the song “Letter From Beyond” was charmed by the spirit of Monroe. The song, featuring Rowan and McCoury - two of Monroe's best lead singers - is a message from beyond the grave to a still-living lover and meant to be a companion to the Monroe-Rowan classic “Walls of Time.” “It was almost like I was getting a message from beyond. It was the spirit of the song and of Bill; it was just the kind of song he would’ve written. Both Del and I come from that place where the song comes from – it’s the bluegrass.”
Bluegrass music was also shaped by the folk and “homespun” influences and perhaps no one did more to bring that culture to the national stage than the late guitarist Doc Watson. Rowan wrote “Doc Watson Morning” the night after Doc passed away in May 2012. “We all felt the loss and we all did pick up our guitars and try to invoke the spirit of Doc. You’re playing your guitar and thinking of the man.” The song features Watson-style flat-picking from Bryan Sutton interspersed between Rowan's touching telling of Doc Watson's story.
Years spent playing with The Bluegrass Boys and driving Monroe's bus allowed Rowan a first hand view into the origins and elements of bluegrass as they stood in the mind of its creator. Monroe taught Rowan about rhythmic styles that needed to be “brought along,” styles that Monroe picked up from his Uncle Pen, from Uncle Pen’s African-American fiddler friend Arnold Schultz and on Monroe’s own trips to New Orleans, styles like stop time, the stomp and the slow drag. ““Ragged Old Dream” is a little bit of a slow drag. It has a little bump, stomp feel to it, but its really what they were calling ‘ragging’ the time,” explains Rowan ever the pedagogue about the bluesy track, “They’re intentionally playing way back on the beat. Bluegrass is tricky because the beat is found by speeding everything up. So I thought it would be nice to play the time in more of its original form."
In many ways The Old School was a vehicle for Rowan to bring his musical history and experiences full circle. In the mid 1960s, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. At the time when folk singer Odetta sang “O Freedom” at the famous march on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, Rowan was moving from town to town with Bill Monroe, through the heart of southern communities in the throes of desegregation, including Birmingham, Knoxville and Nashville. It was fitting then that Rowan would choose to sing his version of “O Freedom” a cappella in Wightman Chappell at the Scarritt-Bennett Center, Nashville, Tennessee – the same location where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke during the Civil Rights movement. “History was moving fast and I was with Bill Monroe back then. Because of the segregation, I didn’t know if I could stay in Nashville. This is a way to bring it full circle. I wanted to do “O Freedom” because that was the rallying cry of the Freedom Singers. The Freedom Singers originated in Nashville and Martin Luther King spoke at that Chapel. It seemed to be optimistic; it was bringing it back around, like The Old School. Civil rights, integration, it’s all part of it.”
As his finale, Rowan channels an old WSM radio broadcast with a closing tag from legendary Opry broadcaster Eddie Stubbs to end the show. In the middle of the reprise of “Keepin It Between The Lines,” Stubbs signs off, reminding listeners: “Remember to love your neighbor. Be patient. Be kind. And keep it between the lines." Cameo vocal lines from a few surprise guests reiterate the bluegrass motto – pick it clean and play it true. It's the bluegrass code, handed down through the years from Bill Monroe to his disciples and interpreters, in turn to their followers and emulators and captured here for future generations of bluegrass musicians that will surely find grounding and inspiration in Peter Rowan's Old School.