The 2022 IBMA Hall of Fame inductees this year include three well-deserved champions of the music format. The awards will be presented to radio broadcast pioneer Paul “Moon” Mullins, multi-instrumentalist Norman Blake, and vocalist/guitarist Peter Rowan. Allow me to speak a bit on Blake and Rowan.
For Norman Blake, this award should have been presented long ago. His history with Americana music is legendary. After service in the US Army, he moved to Nashville to become a sought-after studio musician. His early career in Music City included a long-time stint with Johnny Cash, appearing on a number of his albums and the much-heralded television show. His friendship with Johnny and June Carter lasted long after that tenure, as he appeared on June’s final album, released just after her death in 2003. He also appeared on Bob Dylan’s classic Nashville Skyline album.
What he is probably best known for is his guitar work on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? film. His style fit perfectly with the time period of the film, and I do believe that no other guitarist could have captured those period sounds. He also toured with many of the other artists for the Down From the Mountain world tour. He and his wife Nancy have always been an institution in acoustic music performance, switching between guitars, violins, mandolins, and cellos to create one of the most beautiful acoustic musical atmospheres. I still remember an incident years ago at the Wheatland Music Festival near Mount Pleasant, Michigan. At a smaller stage, a local artist failed to show up, and the two of them took it upon themselves to get up on stage and entertain the crowd. It was a beautiful moment in musical time.
Musically, what I value most about him is the work that he did with Tony Rice. The two Blake & Rice albums are amazing to listen to. Both men are geniuses on the six-strings, and complement each other with their unique styles. Both of these albums continue to remain on my “often played” list, and I implore anyone out there reading this to buy one or both of these classic acoustic guitar albums. In many articles that I have read regarding Blake, either as a direct interview or a third-party observance, he has never really considered himself a bluegrass guitarist. However, just one listen to any of his classic songs, such as “Whiskey for Breakfast,” “Ginseng Sullivan,” or “Church Street Blues,” there is no denying that his style of guitar playing has influenced a number of today’s bluegrass pickers. Search him out on YouTube, or check out some of his performance and instructional videos on www.homespun.com .
Peter Rowan came to recognition as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys back in the mid-1960s. While his time in the band was not long, it was enough for bluegrass fans and critics to see how powerful of a singer this kid from Massachusetts really was. During his time there, he co-wrote with Monroe one of bluegrass’ most popular standard songs, “Walls of Time.” As the 60s progressed, Rowan left the Blue Grass Boys and looked for alternative means to express himself. He worked with David Grisman in Earth Opera, then formed Seatrain with fellow ex-Blue Grass Boy Richard Greene along with former members of The Blues Project.
By the early 1970s, his bluegrass roots came calling back, first in the progressive bluegrass project Muleskinner with Greene, Grisman and guitarist Clarence White, then with the jam-session-turned-legend Old & In The Way with Grisman, Vassar Clemens and Jerry Garcia.. Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Rowan would perform in various folk, bluegrass, and reggae projects, including working with his brothers in The Rowans, as well as his daughter Amanda. His most popular project during this time was the country/Western swing band The Mexican Air Force.
During the early 2000s, he recorded two phenomenal albums with guitarist Tony Rice as the Rowan & Rice Quartet. During a tour to support the second album Quartet is when I got to see what a charming and personable man Rowan is. I was finishing writing an article on the band’s mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist, and was backstage at the show in Ann Arbor talking to Gilchrist, Rice and Rowan, who had a dozen people around him like he was some sort of prophet or preacher. He looked a bit tired, but you could see that he truly enjoyed talking about his personal history as well as anything musically related. He never took advantage of his status in the bluegrass music field, instead enjoying listening to others who had stories as well.
Rowan’s catalogue is massive. However, I do recommend checking out the Old & In The Way albums as well as the Muleskinner CD/DVD recording of a television show that the band did, replacing Bill Monroe due to the bus breaking down on the way to the studio. Songs like “Midmight Moonlight,” Panama Red,” and “Knocking On Your Door” showcase a beautiful voice that will stand the test of time in bluegrass.
Chew on it and comment.