Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce give traditional music new life

Daily News correspondentApril 5, 2012 

Peter Rowan


Peter Rowan is no stranger to Alaskans. The bluegrass legend has visited Alaska's stages several times over his five-decade career, bringing audiences into the fold with his haunting lyrics and storytelling.

Rowan, who performs the second and third shows this weekend of a three-night stand at the Sitzmark Bar & Grill in Girdwood with backing band The Free Mexican Airforce, has gained an international fan base with adventurous collaborations while rooted in traditional folk music. He has been awarded one Grammy and nominated of six times. His latest album, "Legacy," was nominated for Best Bluegrass Album last year, while his constant stream of appearances has endeared the 69-year-old to audiences across the country.

Though originally from Wayland, Mass., Rowan was drawn to the sorrowful resonance of traditional, heartland bluegrass. In 1964, he joined forces with mentor Bill Monroe as a singer and rhythm guitarist for The Bluegrass Boys. Rowan appreciated that the Monroe school of bluegrass had a stronger vein of blues in it -- darker, sadder and with more soul -- imbued with what Rowan describes in the biography on his website as "that high and lonesome calling sound" that makes a song more about feeling and less about technique.

"(Bluegrass) is a good vehicle for words to be featured," Rowan said in an interview last Sunday.

"You can tell a story and it's old fashioned in a way, but what I'm finding in those restrictions of the old-time bluegrass thing, there is a way to be creative --because you know people think it's kind of hidebound, and it kind of is, but the challenge is to find new ways to bring out things that are possible in that music."

Rowan might have gained fame from Monroe's high-and-lonesome style, but it's not the only trick up his sleeve. Riffing on rock, folk and reggae traditions, Rowan approaches each with curiosity and care, like on his albums "Reggaebilly" and "Quartet." The former combines bluegrass with the appealing tempo of reggae, while the latter is an acoustic record with renowned guitarist Tony Rice, hailed as a "musical match made in heaven" by music magazine Relix. Many of his songs also include cross-cultural elements like chanting and yodeling, using those elements, as well as history and mythology, to tell stories with his music.

"In Australia, the Aborigine call (performing) 'dream time,' " Rowan said. "When people come to hear me, I dream for them, and my dreams are what give them the chance to exercise their spirit in that dream. And we put harmonies and things in there to invite them even more ... it's about inviting the audience into the dream. So I'm the dreamer, and I'm inviting them into my dream, so we can then communicate about something I feel is important or interesting or striking or inspiring."

Rowan's attempts to forge an emotional connection between the musician and the audience have yielded familiar songs like "Midnite Moonlite" and "In the Land of the Navajo," which have become sing-along bluegrass anthems. His classic composition "Dust Bowl Children" was performed by Alison Krauss and Union Station at the 54th Grammy Awards this year and was featured on their latest release, "Paper Airplane." The record took home the award for best album in the bluegrass category.

Rowan is also set to be the focus of an independent documentary called "The Tao of Bluegrass," scheduled to premiere later this year. Directed by filmmaker Christine Funk, the film explores Rowan's broad appeal, his career and his appreciation of musical diversity, with bluegrass icons like Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss and Vassar Clements speaking about Rowan's songwriting, guitar playing and his dogged pursuit of new sounds.

That pursuit means that even Alaskans familiar with Rowan's work can expect to find something new in his performances -- Rowan may be a mainstay in roots music, but he is by no means a static figure.

"Today, music is looked at as such an experience," Rowan said. "It's one thing if you're playing in a concert hall, but if you're playing in a big room where there's a bunch of people... I just want to give them the 'dream time.' You know, that's my job."

Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce

When: 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: Sitzmark Bar & Grill, Girdwood

Tickets: $20 advance, $25 door,

Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce give traditional music new life

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