Almost half a century has passed since a young Peter Rowan began learning the fundamentals of traditional bluegrass as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and went on to carve out a resume as one of the music’s greatest practitioners and proponents, both as a progressive bluegrass innovator (with the legendary Muleskinner) and as a beacon of traditionalism. Recent years have seen him experiencing an artistic resurgence while signed to the Compass label, during which time his 2010 album Legacy and 2013’s The Old School ranked with each year’s most memorable long players. These were fully realized projects, perfect wholes of inspired writing, singing, playing, arranging and production.
In light of the startling change in direction Rowan takes on his new and challenging album Dharma Blues, some of what we heard on The Old School and even more so on Legacy were clearly precursors, musical signposts pointing the way to the intensely interior, deeply personal journey that would ultimately yield the scintillating new songs here. The Old School, for instance, contained an unusual departure from standard bluegrass fare in the imaginatively structured, dramatic reading of a Native American’s homecoming titled “A Mountain Man’s Dream” in which Rowan repeats a mantra—“earth, water, fire and air”—to emphasize his protagonist’s love of and spiritual connection to the land; and in the remorseful “True Love to Last,” he assures his former paramour, whose affection he threw away, that “love will find you and be kind to one who gives true love to last.” On Legacy the easygoing beauty “Don’t Ask Me Why” paints a lyrical portrait of a fellow out enjoying the wonders of the natural world as the sun makes its way to the horizon, an experience that reminds him not only of his beloved but also of a fundamental truth: “Oh the heart is a muscle, got to love to live/if you want to love, you got to forgive…” “Father, Mother,” a heart rending recollection of the day of their father’s burial co-written by Rowan brothers Peter and Christopher, features the image of a shooting star crossing the heavens and what the siblings recognize as the sound of “the angels singing/from Heaven on high.” In short, Legacy and The Old School, if you listened closely, suggested Rowan was seeking higher spiritual ground, moving towards some form of elevated consciousness with respect to his place in the earthly scheme of things.
Peter Rowan, Dharma Blues EPK
And so we get Dharma Blues. First off, you’d be hard pressed—and wrong—to call it a bluegrass album. You’ll hear some bluegrass flourishes here and there, especially on the driving “Raven,” with its banjo-driven charge (courtesy Rowan’s stalwart compadre Jody Stecher, who’s playing multiple instruments on this outing) and in the keening mountain harmonies of Gillian Welch. “Illusion’s Fool” breaks into a bit of bluegrass shuffle but would never be mistaken for a bluegrass cut with its oud, flute and marimba atmospherics supported by Jack Casady’s conversational bass. No, Dharma Blues is maybe a folk album, if it must be categorized at all, in the way it meshes folk, bluegrass, blues, country and stylistic quotations from Indian music. Dave Easley, playing pedal steel on almost every cut, lends the festivities not only its southwestern flavor but an otherworldly air too, much as Steve Wesson’s musical saw does on the Flatlanders’ first album. Instrumentation on other cuts includes tamboura, bass sarod, water drum, wooden drum, glockenspiel, mandola, and others mentioned above—no, this is not a bluegrass album. It is, however, an album in which each cut finds Rowan going a little deeper into himself, seeing things in a more clear-eyed way than he did on Legacy and understanding certain truths he had not examined fully four years ago, ultimately winding up in a place of inner peace and clarity.
To say Dharma Blues is about the healing, sustaining power of love is an oversimplification. Better to assert it’s about love as the cornerstone of a fulfilling design for living, which may account for even the uptempo songs having a gentleness about them—the standard-issue hard charging bluegrass workout simply doesn’t fit the template Rowan has constructed for his 12-song narrative. In his notes Rowan says he wrote these songs in Japan and India, where this practicing bluegrass Buddhist seems to have been inspired to examine his religion’s animating ideas in a more pronounced way than he has ever done in song before. In “Arise,” keyed by his own fingerpicked acoustic guitar, what seems to be a reflection on mortality evolves into a meditation on eternal life, as Rowan references Saṃsāra (“Oh I want to take you with me/across Saṃsāra’s waters/like a child running to its mother’s arms”) and bodhicitta (“let wisdom mind/Bodhicitta mind/Arise”), the former loosely translating to “continuous flow” or what Buddhism sees as a repeating cycle of birth, life and death; the latter being defined by the Rigpa Wiki as “the compassionate wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.” In “Vulture Peak,” singing over the wounded moan of Easley’s pedal steel in a soundscape flecked with the bass sarod’s insistent drone and a thick atmosphere comprised of harmonium, drums, wooden drum, glockenspiel, flute and bass, Rowan brackets lyrics such as “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form/In truth there’s no deception/No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue/No taste, no conception” with the mantra “om gate, gate paragate, parasamgate bodhi svaha,” which has numerous translations including “Om transcending, ever transcending, transcending even transcending, transcending even transcending of transcending, suchness, so be it,” and also, according to Wildmind Buddhist Meditation, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond, Enlightenment hail!”
Other songs, such as the brisk, beautifully understated shuffle “Who Will Live,” juxtapose existential observations with existential questions, to wit: “Time, illusion/Time grows weary, growing old/Lost in confusion/Reaching out, someone to hold” and then the chorus, “What do you really want? What do you really want?” In the end he reaches a conclusion he hit on in Legacy: “Who will live, will love, will never die.”
Lest anyone be misled, Rowan’s new songs are not all riddles or philosophical tracts. In the tradition of his finest ballads, the beautiful, lilting “Snow Country Girl” is a poignant ballad reflecting on the memory of a lost love and her parting words echoing in the singer’s mind: “Forget me not, nor the lifetime of love we have given/I must fly where the wild crows cry/Somewhere between earth and heaven/It’s a long road between earth and heaven.” Backed only by his own acoustic guitar and Jack Casady’s bass, with harmony support from Gillian Welch, Rowan delivers his shattering tale with aplomb but not so cool as to mask the abiding inner quaking he harbors. On “Dharma Blues” Manose Singh’s flute adds an exotic element to what might otherwise be a moody fingerpicked blues about the singer’s enduring misfortunes in love and life, but Stecher’s tamboura and bass sarod and Bill Smith’s brush drums take it to ever eastward until Rowan, where he once might have yodeled, ululates instead, and you sit up and take notice of an entirely different flavored blues style.
The album’s closing number, “Grain of Sand,” summarizes what Rowan has been saying throughout Dharma Blues. The verses find Rowan singing to his own subdued acoustic guitar picking before being joined in the choruses by Casey Watts on water drum, Singh on flute and Stecher on bass saroud. Contemplating his intimate connection to the natural world, he concludes “I am just a tiny grain of sand,” then closes by repeating the mantra “Om mani padme hum hri,” the transliteration of which varies according to individual teachers and schools of Buddhism. In this instance the 14th Dalai Lama’s transliteration is the most instructive in the context of Rowan’s personal odyssey as limned in his new songs: “Thus the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha…”
This mantra has enjoyed considerable pop culture currency, being employed in song by the likes of Kate Bush (“Strange Phenomena”), Don Cherry (“Universal Mother”), Infected Mushroom (“Blink”), Popol Vuh (“OM Mani Padme Hum”—four versions), Gabrielle Roth & Boris Grebenshikov (“Refuge”), among others; in literature notably by Jack Kerouac (his novel Dharma Bums), Allen Ginsberg (“Thoughts Sitting Breathing”), Robert A. Heinlein (I Will Fear No Evil) and Nevil Chute (Round the Bend); and in cinema it showed up in 1983’s WarGames, in a reference by Capt. Jerry Lawson (as portrayed by John Spencer). For Peter Rowan the mantra is both benediction and aspiration, the perfect illustration of what he speaks of in the concluding paragraph of his liner notes and where we end up as listeners when “A Grain of Sound” concludes:
“These songs, Dharma Blues, are a place on the spiritual journey where the commitment has been made, the intent established, and the journey begun. The doubts and resolutions of the spiritual journey are what drive Dharma Blues. May this music bring joy to all.”