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In 1964, a 22-year-old college dropout named Peter Rowan joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys for what would turn out to be a three-year stint playing guitar and singing lead vocals. Thirty-five years later, it's clear that the father of bluegrass left an indelible impression on Rowan, even if his own music has at times wandered far from Monroe's pure-as-mountain-water bluegrass style.
"I got inside his head, and he definitely got inside mine," says Rowan, who is writing a book about his days with Monroe.
Born (on the Fourth of July, 1942) to a musical family in Wayland, Massachusetts, outside Boston, Rowan first hooked up with the mercurial Monroe when the bluegrass legend needed a guitarist for a tour of New England. Bill Keith, Monroe's banjo player at the time, recommended his friend Rowan for the job -- they had played together in the folk-music clubs around Harvard Square.
"So I hired on as his guitar player," Rowan says from his Sausalito, California, home. "And we played a bunch of dates in New England. And during that time, Bill offered me a [full-time] job. I mean, I think he was offering me a job. He said I should come to Nashville and that he could help me."
After the tour ended, Rowan headed south to Music City and gave Monroe a call. But Monroe had already hired someone else for the job. "He said it was going to take a little time," Rowan recalls. "He said, 'I've got a boy working for me now, and I'm going to have to let him go.'" He did just that, and soon Rowan was a full-fledged Blue Grass Boy, playing behind Monroe every Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry. "I had never had anything happen to me in that way," Rowan says. "Music was the only thing that I felt confident about, so when I got the job with Monroe, I didn't really take it for granted -- I was excited beyond limit -- but I had no idea where to put this experience, except that it seemed like a natural thing."
Rowan ended up doing more than just performing with his idol: He also drove the tour bus, affectionately known as the "Blue Grass Breakdown," and he served as Monroe's road manager, booking gigs all over the country. It was, to say the least, an education.
"It got real interesting," Rowan says. "I was one of the few people that would ask Bill questions and get him to talk about stuff. And once you started talking to him, he was really open. But he was also someone who could maintain silence for weeks on end. I mean silence; there were some long, quiet bus rides!"
Once, when the Blue Grass Boys were on tour in England, Monroe heard folksinger Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind" and decided he wanted to record the song. But fiddler Richard Greene, a young, classically trained violinist from Los Angeles who joined the band in 1966, didn't think the Father of Bluegrass should record such pop material. He expressed his doubts to Rowan, who in turn raised the matter with Monroe. "I wasn't that concerned about it," Rowan says, "but I was the messenger, and Bill took it like I had really crossed him." Indeed, he was furious. Notoriously headstrong, Monroe didn't take kindly to folks who questioned his decisions, musical or otherwise. Rowan tried to make amends with his boss, telling him that recording the song wasn't such a bad idea after all. But according Richard D. Smith's recent biography of Monroe, Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass, Monroe told Rowan, "You have put me off it, Pete. You have ruined it for me. You have ruined it."
"He didn't speak to me for about three months," Rowan says, laughing. Not only that, but Monroe punished Rowan for his impudence by freezing him out of the studio. The result is that there are few recordings of Monroe and Rowan singing together, which is unfortunate, because when they harmonized, their voices reached heavenly heights. (The best example may be "Wayfaring Stranger;" it can be found on the Smithsonian Folkways album Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys: Live Recordings, 1956-1959.) They even co-wrote a song: "The Walls of Time," a haunting ode to eternal love. They sang it together in concert, but Monroe didn't record the tune until after Rowan had left the band. (And even then, Rowan had to remind Monroe that he deserved a writing credit.)
Rowan and Monroe's relationship was complicated by the fact that the student sounded quite a bit like the teacher. "He thought I was trying to copy him," Rowan says. "In fact, he told me," and here Rowan switches to a perfect imitation of Monroe's clipped Kentucky accent, "'A lot of people have been listening to the Opry and writing letters, and they say they like you a lot, and that you're a great singer. And I believe they're right. But a lot of folks say that you sound a lot like me, and that's not good; that's not good.'"