Peter Rowan was just a young bluegrass boy when he caught the attention of Bill Monroe, who made him an actual Blue Grass Boy in 1963, or maybe ’64. Rowan isn’t certain exactly when he became the band’s guitarist and lead singer, but the moment Monroe introduced him to fellow icon Carter Stanley is etched in his memory just as indelibly as the inked entry in his 1966 diary. Within a few months, Stanley would be gone, but the impact he and his brother, Ralph, had on Rowan – and the world – would grow even stronger. He acknowledges their influence, and finally gives the story of that meeting a definitive telling, with his new Rebel Records album, Carter Stanley’s Eyes.
The album pays respects to bluegrass’s most famous brothers with two songs penned by each; others, such as the traditional Hills of Roane County and the Carter Family’s Will You Miss Me, were Stanley Brothers staples. Even the album’s opener, Rowan’s own Drumbeats on the Watchtower nods to Ralph, who retitled it from Wild Geese Cry Again when he recorded it. Rowan didn’t mind. In fact, he was ecstatic when Stanley told him he’d cut it. “To me, that was real fulfilment, to be covered by one of the masters,” Rowan says.
Already, the album has garnered some of the highest accolades of Rowan’s career:
Peter Rowan’s dedication to preserving the authenticity of archival bluegrass has been a lifelong pursuit. And while he’s managed to break down boundaries and take it into other realms, his essential interest in staying true to the American music legacy has always been the critical arc in his explorations. That said, none of his albums can match the pure, unfettered devotion that’s so evident in the absorbing and evocative Carter Stanley’s Eyes – Relix.
Rowan does this in an unassuming manner that is uncommon these days when so many folks think they have to ‘jazz’ things up. The centrepiece is his original, the title tune that recounts his first meeting with Carter Stanley. It is stunning in its simplicity, a matter-of-factness that belies what we now know was Rowan’s future. This is the bluegrass album for people who think they don’t like bluegrass – No Depression.
The guy who gave us Panama Red, Midnight, Moonlight and many others still knows how to write a great song, work up a storm and deliver music that must surely earn continued appreciation. Carter Stanley’s Eyes is one of those releases that just could end up on the receiving end of a Grammy nomination. A true delight in every way – Elmore Magazine.
To me, the importance of the music is in the songs. It’s about the poetic material. Bluegrass is part of a literary tradition, a poetic tradition. …this album is not a tribute to the Stanley Brothers; it’s an honouring of them, and of my roots – Peter Rowan
This album maps the path Rowan followed from the Stanley’s musical roads to his own. Along the way, he visits Monroe Can’t You Hear Me Calling, the Louvin Brothers A Tiny Broken Heart and Lead Belly Alabama Bound, whose presence reinforces both his and Monroe’s blues influences.
Rowan produced the album and gathered several luminaries to join him on the journey. These include lead guitarist Jack Lawrence, of Doc Watson’s band; mandolinist/vocalist Don Rigsby, whose 2010 album, Doctor’s Orders: A Tribute to Ralph Stanley, features Stanley and alums of his Clinch Mountain Boys; guitarist/vocalist Tim O’Brien (Bluegrass Dukes, Hot Rize); percussionist Jamie Oldaker (Eric Clapton); and banjoist/guitarist/vocalist Patrick Sauber (seen in the film A Mighty Wind). They’re joined by Rowan’s Bluegrass Band mates: Blaine Sprouse on fiddle and vocals, Chris Henry on mandolin and vocals and Paul Knight on acoustic bass.
Together, they do indeed honour their forbears, staying faithful to tradition instead of going for what Rowan calls the “razzle-dazzle” of progressive bluegrass or jamgrass.