The Jam Session: Peter Rowan & Jerry Douglas
In honor of summer, and driving, and all that, the official Jam Session beer this time around was Carling's Black Label. In cans. Attending: Bill Kuhn, Glenn Brooks, Jason Staczek, Mark Oppfelt and Scott Boggan.
Peter Rowan & Jerry Douglas Yonder
GB This is Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas, a duo album called "Yonder." Jerry Douglas on dobro and Peter Rowan on guitar and singing. First tune is "Tribulations," by Estil Ball.
MO What label?
GB This is Sugar Hill, which is a traditional bluegrass label, but they're branching out into some other interesting stuff. (laughter) Well, you know...
JS Okay, let's move to the next selection.
SB Wasn't Grandmaster Flash on Sugar Hill?
MO That's what I was thinking.
GB Different Sugar Hill.
MO What were you saying about these guys recording it in their living room?
GB They recorded it in a bunch of living rooms. They would wander over the country - I guess they were probably doing shows together - and they'd go off to a friend's house afterwards and record some of these real old tunes. So they recorded them in Bela Fleck's living room, and Cindy Wilson's - B-52's - living room, and a few other places. So it's a kind of an echoey quality to the sound.
MO Yeah, but you don't quite get the bathroom acoustics that you almost need for these songs.
JS So was it impromptu, I mean did they carry a little four-track around with them?
GB Everything was recorded by the same guy, who was probably their road engineer. And uh, since they recorded in like half a dozen living rooms, I can't believe it was entirely impromptu.
SB It sounds like it. It sounds like they put up a couple of mikes in a living room and just went to it.
GB Yeah, it's very relaxed.
JS If you listen, you can hear Bela Fleck in the background there, breathing.
GB He has a very distinctive breathing style.
JS He uses the clawhammer breathing technique, yeah.
BK It's just the two of them, the whole album?
GB Yeah. Except for one cut, "When You and I Were Young, Maggie," which is just Jerry Douglas on dobro alone, no vocals.
SB So this Peter Rowan, is he a man?
MO The beanbag chairs in the corner, they absorb a lot of those acoustics.
GB He does have what you'd call that high lonesome sound. And now we know why.
SB It's nice that people are keeping these songs alive. Seriously.
"Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues"
GB As you might guess, this is a Jimmie Rodgers tune, "Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues." Recorded back in '27 or something by Jimmie Rodgers.
BK I didn't realize he was recording back that far.
GB Must have been one of his early ones.
MO Rowan's kind of got a Hank Williams...
SB Well, Hank was severely influenced by Jimmie.
GB I love the way Jerry's dobro tracks Peter's voice on this one.
MO This is a good one. A great one.
SB This is a lot like that Merle Haggard album...
MO There you go!
SB ...of Jimmie Rodgers tunes. (Rowan yodels)
MO Whew! He's yodeling a little bit.
GB Other than the yodeling, though, if you listen to the tune, you can almost hear it as a blues tune. The way it's structured, it's a lot like the early blues tunes.
MO Would that be eight-bar or twelve-bar blues?
GB Well, it's not really either. It's like before things got that standardized.
BK Back in that era, just all kinds of things were happening.
MO It was freeball blues, I think is what is was.
MO Now excuse my ignorance, this is a dobro?
GB This is a dobro.
MO Not a steel guitar?
GB Dobro is a steel guitar.
MO They are interchangeable.
SB Same difference.
GB Dobro was basically a brand name for a line of guitars produced by the National Guitar Company.
SB The accompaniment is top-notch. Who is this Jerry Douglas?
GB Jerry Douglas is probably the best dobro player alive today. We reviewed one of his albums. An oddball one.
SB Oh, yeah, on Water Lily.
GB Yeah. With Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Great album.
"Lullaby of the Leaves"
GB This is "Lullaby of the Leaves."
JS Glenn, you said I'd recognize this, but I don't recognize this.
GB All sorts of, uh...
MO Give it a chance.
JS I've heard it already.
GB ...jazz folks have recorded this. Lee Morgan and others have recorded versions of this. But this is the first time I can remember hearing the lyrics - I recognized the tune right off. Bernice Petkere, the composer, also wrote, um, "Close Your Eyes." If you recognize that one: "Close your eyes. Put your head on my shoulder and sleep. Close your eyes, and I will close mine."
JS These are before my time, Glenn.
BK Sounds like "Wake Up Little Susie."
MO Kinda does.
SB The recording is a bit...
SB ... yeah, watery. A bit too far back.
GB It sounds really nice if you get just the right volume, you have to get it...
SB It's not headphone music.
GB I don't think so. You have to hear it live in your living room.
SB Get some room ambiance going.
MO Well, it ain't bachelor pad music, that's for sure.
BK You would know, Ope.
JS Sounds like Beatles to me. Did the Beatles cover this tune?
MO Actually, what's that song, nope, it's gone now. I'll wait until the next verse.
JS This is still Peter Rowan singing?
GB Oh yeah. All the way through. But that little "la de dah de dah dede dah"...
GB ...that's Beatlesque.
SB English music hall.
MO "Lazing on a Sunday afternoon" - was that Mamas and the Papas?
MO Yeah, it is Kinks, that's it.
BK Real old-timey feel to it though.
GB The whole album is just full of - well there are about four songs by Peter Rowan that fit in perfectly. There's one coming up. And then the rest are just these old old songs you haven't heard for years. Or in Jason's case, you've never heard.
JS So everyone else has heard them?
SB This is "Michelle, ma belle" right here.
JS Yeah! On the nose.
"Where Angels Weeps"
GB Next up, "Where Angels Weep," a Peter Rowan song. Of course, any song with a reference to angels in it has got to be a...
BK A baseball song.
MO I was going to say Anaheim, that's where Angels weep.
JS These guys are Nashville guys?
GB That area. I'm not sure if live they in Nashville or not, but yeah, most of their life around there. Pete Rowan was with Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys for quite a while. And also with Old and in the Way - Jerry Garcia, David Grisman.
BK Yeah. Some great stuff on their album.
SB So he's pretty old, then, Glenn?
GB He's, uh, been around a while, not all that long.
BK Glenn's a little sensitive to the old-and-in-the-way remarks.
GB He's the author of - Scooter, you'll probably recognize this - "Panama Red."
BK Oh, really, he is?!
BK "Panama Red" was on the Old and in the Way album, wasn't it?
BK I've got to say, the vocals don't do it for me.
MO Well, they're too subdued.
JS What do want from this, though?
SB They're traditional, though, right?
MO It's the production. I think if they were a little more in the forefront, you might have a different take on it.
BK To me, it just seems the voice doesn't have that much character. I mean I really like the musical accompaniment.
SB That's great. And that's what I think suffers more in the production. I think the vocals have a pretty natural ambiance.
GB I think Peter Rowan's got one of those voices you either enjoy, or just can't stand. You don't learn to like Peter Rowan. I guess that's the way to say it.
MO I can see Springsteen doing a couple of these tunes.
BK I could see Springsteen stealing from a couple of these tunes.
MO Yeah, I wanted to get a reaction from Bill on that to see his take.
BK Well, that's the amazing thing about the Springsteen albums. Once you know all these obscure old songs...
MO Yeah, you know his source.
BK ...they're all there.
GB That's just the way things have gone all the time. Igor Stravinsky said, um, "good composers plagiarize, great composers steal."
MO Oh, I like that. Well as far as dobro playing goes, this is top of the pops.
SB You bet.
GB If you like that sounds, it's...
MO I love the sound.
BK It's an amazing sound.
JS Hard not to like.
MO But I've got to agree with Bill. The vocals leave you a little flat.
GB The one solo by Jerry Douglas on "When You and I Were Young, Maggie" suggests that a whole solo album by Douglas would be great.
MO Oh, here's our cannonball song.
GB This is called "Cannonball Blues," it's also called "Cannonball," it's also called "Solid Gone."
MO How many blues tracks are on this album?
GB Ummm, I think this is the only blues. And I'm not sure you'd call this a real blues.
MO But it's definitely got the bluesiest feel yet.
BK Most traditional.
GB Yeah. This was recorded by the Carter family, but they undoubtedly got it from someone else.
JS They're really letting their hair down on this one.
MO Good finger pickin' here.
BK And whose living room was this in?
GB I think this was Cindy Wilson's bedroom.
(Rowan sings "yonder comes that train....")
BK Oh, "yonder comes that train." I guess you're right.
JS Oh that's it! I'm outta here!
GB That reminds me though, I love the title of the album, "Yonder." It's just such a great word that you don't hear very often nowadays.
JS Well, certainly not in Seattle! "Over yonder by the Space Needle."
SB "Where can I get a latte?" "Well, there one down yonder."
MO "Down by First a piece, then it's over yonder, I reckon."
GB I have to give this a good compliment, though - I've heard Doc Watson sing this song...
SB Oh, yeah?
GB ...and this is every bit as good. And for me, that's a high compliment.
BK It sure is.
SB Vocals don't have quite as much character as Doc though, do they?
GB I don't know. I think Peter Rowan is a very evocative singer. Real good on this sort of material.
SB Well, these guys don't look that old, Glenn.
GB Glad to hear you say that, Scott.