Rowan Brothers:
Now, Then, Always Friends
An Exclusive Interview with Lorin and Chris Rowan

NOW - Click For Bigger...THEN - Click For Bigger

(click on all photos for bigger)

For the past 35 years Lorin and Chris Rowan, “The Rowan Brothers”, have been wowing audiences throughout the world with their tried and true Americana songs featuring their unique high-lonesome harmonies which they have been developing all their lives.  They moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970’s just in time for the brothers to hook up with mandolinist David Grisman who turned them on to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.  Since signing with Columbia Records in a high profiled bidding war, The Rowan Brothers have recorded several albums on different record labels, a couple of which have featured their better known sibling - brother Peter.  For the past two decades, Lorin Rowan has successfully performed with the very popular reggae tinged band The Edge as well as writing songs and recording solo records.  In 1974, I saw the Rowan Brothers at My Fathers Place in Old Roslyn, Long Island and the evening changed my life.  Their breathtaking harmonies have stayed with me since that magical evening.  In 2003, I had the fantastic opportunity to have The Rowan Brothers sing harmonies on 10 cuts on my J.C. Flyer - Movin’ On CD.  Getting together with these old friends was truly inspirational, and, if anything, they sound better today than when they first thrilled me nearly 30 years earlier.   This year BOS Music released a two CD set “Now and Then” that features The Rowan Brothers joined by many of their well-known friends.  The “Now” portion reunited The Rowan Brothers with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh who plays bass and adds vocals on two of the tracks.  The “Then” CD mines the early 70’s demos and outtakes that feature Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, and Bill Kreutzmann and Jim Keltner on drums.  “Now and Then” boasts several bonus cuts that were recorded with Garcia and Kreutzmann during the closing of Fillmore West that were recently unearthed.  Both disks feature the monster mandolin playing of David Grisman the man responsible for bringing the Rowan Brothers to the Bay Area and who produced their groundbreaking debut album.  “Now and Then” is truly a magical get together of a “Circle of Friends.”
Check out The Rowan Brothers Website for more information and to order the CD set.

J.C. Juanis

NOW with Phil Lesh - Click For Bigger...THEN with Clive Davis - Click For Bigger

PZ:  Could you describe your upbringing in Massachusetts and any musical remembrances?

Chris Rowan:  We grew up in a three story shingled house with a cellar hole [basement] where the oil tank was placed near the furnace for those cold Northeast winters. Our Grandfather Rowan was a homebuilder and built this home in 1908. We were 18 miles as the crow flies west of Boston in a small town called Wayland. In the fifties, this town was considered the "sticks" with woodlands and meadows. I was a Yankee country boy. As a child, we grew up in a house that had an upright piano and I can remember discovering with my two fingers that I could make a harmony sound with the c and e notes. So the piano became like a grownup toy with a pleasing sound that I'd bang away at.

Lorin Rowan: Our house was built by our paternal grandfather, farmland around us-country vibe now of course it's like Marin county with prices soaring, our old homestead sold for $60,000 in '75, now remodeled and worth over a million! My point being, growing up in simpler times, inspired by beautiful natural surroundings. We had a great-Uncle George - our Mom's mother's brother - who played guitar/organ and inspired us to perform at his yearly family clambake that he and his wife threw. He had a great sense of humor and loved the fact that we played guitars and sang together and always encouraged us. He nicknamed their house 'Screwball Terrace’. He had a fine sense of humor and everybody loved him. One time we didn't bring our instruments, and he was shocked and said, “next time, boys, don’t forget to bring your banjos!” He meant guitars, but that was his fun way of putting it. The family anthem was always "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's Flavor”, led by my eldest brother Peter, Chris on washtub bass and me on tenor guitar. It was a Hoot!

CR:  Mom and Dad would have cocktail parties with the neighbors and after awhile they'd all be singing around the piano with lots of spirit and me as a kid falling asleep upstairs. We would always go Christmas caroling with my Aunt Barbie who lived up the street and others from the neighborhood.

PZ:  Who were you guys listening to growing up?

CR: I as far back as 7 had a radio next to my bed listening to “Love Me Tender, The Diamonds “Little Darling" Chuck Berry, Ricky Nelson and all that was being played on AM radio.

LR:  Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly & Crickets, The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary. Also, come early '60s transistor radios gave novelty and access to AM hit radio everywhere you went.

CR: Pete was the one who brought home 45's of Elvis, Fats Domino Chuck Berry, and many more. Pete is about 5 years older then me, so that helped me get exposed to his teenage group awareness.

PZ: Obviously your brother Peter was a big influence.  Did you get to see him play with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys?

Click For BiggerLR: When Bill Monroe with Peter on guitar played at Club 47, the 'in' Cambridge Folk scene club, we got to meet him. Peter asked our parents if he could throw a party for Bill at our house. It was a blast. Peter drove the 'Bill Monroe' bus a lot and left it in our back entrance to our property when the band went to England. You could see it from the street, big green bus with Bill Monroe in big letters above the front windshield. Bill was a true   respectable gentleman, very well mannered in the southern style. Of course he was close in age to our parents, which was interesting.

CR:  Bill looked like a Father figure, yeah he was old, and he must have been 53. It was exciting to see Peter singing harmony with Bill throwing in the G run on the guitar playing with the Master. When Bill Monroe played “Raw Hide” his mandolin instrumental with Pete on guitar and Richard Green on fiddle, the old man could really kick butt!

PZ: Peter also was a member of the seminal sixties band Earth Opera.

CR:  Earth Opera was where I first met David Grisman. Pete had done his stint with Monroe and David was the hottest mandolin player around. David was another disciple of Bill.  Both of them had a great sound of guitar and mando.  Peter's post Bill Monroe led to David and Peter forming Earth Opera that was a band which was an ambitious rock and roll band with some fairly intellectual lyrics and a electric mandolin! They were fun to watch while I had my band, The Brood and then the Zeit. We played around Boston with J.Geils and did some early battle of the bands with Aerosmith.

LR:  Earth Opera was very underground /art oriented, very different than the other pop bands like Ultimate Spinach. Peter used to get very dramatic and wrote some cutting edge political songs. One performance at the Arlington Street Church in Cambridge (very 60's political at the time), at the end of "American Eagle Tragedy”, Peter got on his knees and screamed 'stop the war, stop the war...why,why,why,why,why,die,die,die,die...' into the bass drum! Wheww, what a mindblower!!!!!!!

Click For BiggerPZ: Chris I understand that during the late sixties you traveled to England for a spell.

CR:  My trip to England in March of 1969 came about after seeing John Lennon and Paul McCartney on the Tonight Show saying they were starting a record company called Apple to record groups or singers that might have a harder time with the big record companies getting a deal.  I thought they were talking to me. So I packed a backpack, had an acoustic guitar, the Epiphone that I'm still playing today, and a black fretless wonderful Gibson, that my brother Peter let me borrow cause I had really gotten' into that sustaining sound of the lead guitar, like Mike Bloomfield, Harvey Mandel, and Eric Clapton. I took Icelandic Airways out of JFK on a prop plane with a one-way ticket, landed in Glasgow, thinking I was 5 miles out of London. Surprise! At first customs were not going to let me in cause I had a one-way ticket and nobody that I knew over there. But I said I had come to get a record deal with the Beatles new record company in London. I had convinced myself enough that they said ok but will give you only a three-week visa. So a one night stay in a youth hostel, a blanket and a sheet, six cents for the night, in a room with a bunch of strangers, pulling my blanket up to my chin thinking, can’t go home tonight. The next day I hitchhiked 500 miles to London by lorry drivers who were very friendly, encouraging, and seemed to get a kick out of this young American kid chasing his Beatle dream. Ended up meeting a friend of my brother Peter, his name was John, the two of them met in Nashville when Pete was playing with Bill Monroe. John with his sister, Mom and Dad, and granny {95] years old in a little town south of London, Lewisham. His Mom and Dad said, Chris you can stay here as long as you like. So over the next 2 months I met with people at Apple who liked my demo, but told me the company was starting to have financial problems and weren't sure really what was going on with Apple's future. So in the meantime, I’m walking around London with my two guitars, playing in Piccadilly Circus, meeting up with two singer songwriters at the Giaconda restaurant who had a local hit called" Rainbow Chaser", and the name of their group was called Nirvana, this is 1969!  They in turn, helped me meet Ron Richards, the Hollies producer, and I played for him. He was in a company called Air London with other record producers, Peter Sullivan {Tom Jones} and George Martin. Then they introduced me to a young record producer, Chris Thomas who was involved with Procol Harum who had just released “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and who later went on to produce Elton John, IXAS and many more. Chris was able to have my visa extended to three months! He was planning to take me in the studio with in 3 weeks of my visa extension. I also met up with an agent, looked like he was in his sixties, smoked a cigar. Tapped his pencil on his desk, Chris Rowan...Chris Rowan...Rowan St. Christopher! That's your name. I said far out. Got paraded around a bunch of pubs, hey so and so, meet Rowan St. Christopher! I can still see this look of curiosity they gave me and I'm not sure it had anything to do with music. Finally made my way out to St. John's Wood where Paul McCartney lived with his new bride Linda Eastman. I rang the doorbell outside the gated driveway and Linda came on the speaker. “Hi I'm Chris Rowan {still got my two guitars with me} and I've come all the way from America to play Paul some songs”. Linda said, “Sorry, Paul doesn't want to see anyone right now”. My heart sank, ah yes, rejection. I also had a music publishing company ready to sign me up. About this time I was missing my girlfriend back in Boston and things were going a little fast for me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to start my life over in England, so I decided to come back to Boston.

PZ: That’s interesting that you went to England to get signed by The Beatles and later your brother Pete’s band, Seatrain, had their album produced by George Martin.  I remembered George coming on the Dick Cavett show and introducing Seatrain as the best band he ever worked with since The Beatles.

CR:  Sea Train was a very good band that Peter had been asked to join after Earth Opera broke up. Richard Green was playing fiddle as he had been with Peter in their Bill Monroe days but the band was fronted by Andy Kolberg from the Blues Project.  They could sure play a mean Orange Blossom Special, with electric fiddle and Pete on bass.

LR: Seatrain was cool because it was not ordinary West Coast rock sound with Richard Greene on Fiddle. I always thought Peter played a back up role as one of two singers. I always liked his style the best; he developed more dramatics in his singing of "The Song of Job".

Click For BiggerPZ: You guys would hook up with David Grisman and come out to the San Francisco Bay Area.

CR:  I got involved with David when I returned from England. He was making a record of artists and instrumentals and heard a song of mine that I wrote in England called “Billy James and Mary Lee”, which ended up on his record.  It also led to me getting more involved with David as a singer songwriter and that led to the idea of Lorin and I singing together. At the time it was David's desire to have his music production company be based in Marin County.  It was a wonderful time.

LR:  David came to Chris and I with the idea that since he'd heard us solo, we could perhaps be more successful if we joined up as a duo. Grisman and Richard Loren, the manager, were the production team and plotted we either go to England and start there or come out to the West Coast where Grisman had recently come back from playing mandolin on his old pal Jerry Garcia's band, The Grateful Dead's “American Beauty” album.

PZ:  So it was through David Grisman that you met the Grateful Dead?

LR:  Jerry was playing steel guitar with New Riders of the Purple Sage at the time and Grisman arranged some sessions where Jerry Garcia, Billy Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh came down and played with us at Wally Heider's Studio in San Francisco, which is now called Hyde Street Studios.

CR:  When we made the move from Boston to Marin it was Oct.1970.  Lorin and I first met Jerry, Bill, and Phil when David booked sometime at Wally Heider's studio in San Francisco. It was in Studio C upstairs. The Jefferson Airplane had a hold on Studio A downstairs. It was really cool how friendly and with great joy they played on Lorin's and my songs. Two of those songs from that recording, “Momma Don't You Cry”, and “Higher” are on our new C.D "Now and Then”, not to mention a few more that are on the CD. Those guys sure loved to play.

PZ: And that led to you guys playing with The Grateful Dead at the Closing of the Fillmore West.  That’s one of the bonuses of the new CD especially that classic introduction that Bill Graham gave you.

LR:  We got invite to be opening act for closing of the Fillmore West which was quite a leap into the big time arena 5000 people vs. 50 people in a small local club. It was a total adrenaline rush; we’d never played to that many people and with that kind of adoring deadhead crowd responding positively!

CR:  The great honor to be part of the closing of the Fillmore West was a
result of the early studio recordings that I just mentioned where we had got a chance to hang out and get to know the guys and I think David on our behalf and Garcia's genuine support for not only Lorin and I just starting out but Jerry liked the idea that we were an in house trip kind of unlike the Dead where you are self contained. So stepping out on the Fillmore West stage where in hindsight I was as green as an ear of corn, full of energy.  It was great to be accepted with the Dead backing us up to that great crowd and Bill Graham.

Click For BiggerPZ: You guys lived in Stinson Beach after you moved west.  Can you share your memories of those times?

LR: We had our own self-contained unit or should I say ‘commune’ we all lived there - our producer / manager / roadie / sound engineer. We had a rehearsal studio built into the garage of place we rented. The house was right on the beach which was an incredibly beautiful place, coming from growing up on the East Coast, which has it own beauty, but the geography of the coast line is dramatically different with the high ridges and cliffs of West coastline overlooking the big blue Pacific. We were all quite taken with the place. It was very inspiring. We were all dreaming and plotting our next move to get signed to a major label.

CR:  Stinson Beach was like a second childhood for me. On one hand you’re secluded by Mt. Tam then on another, it was a great place to woodshed write songs, go boogie boarding.  In those early days, Garcia lived up on the hill and would come down to where we lived on the beach, sometimes jam on pedal steel or just hang out talking about life. Later on we would play locally at the bars experiencing the California mystique.

PZ:  You were working on getting a major label record deal right?

CR:  With David Grisman, we had put together some demos and our manager Richard Loren who was in the mailroom at William Morris Agency at the same time as David Geffen, gave Geffen a call to see if he would be interested in our project. David Geffen had just started Asylum Records and was looking for acts for his label.  Geffen heard some of our demos and flew us down to L.A. Lorin and I played for him in his office and said he'd like us to record for his new label, Asylum.

LR:  We had assembled several demos that we'd been wood shedding for a year.  We auditioned acoustically in David Geffen’s office and were offered a record deal on the spot.

CR:  Clive Davis from Columbia Records just happened to be in town at the same time at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I guess word got out Geffen wanted to sign these two young kids from Stinson beach so Clive made an overture to our manager that he'd like to meet us also. So Lorin and I sang for Clive in the Polo Lounge and he wanted to sign us. We were young with a lot of enthusiasm and liked singing our songs.

LR:  So, next day at lunch with Geffen, where we're supposedly finalizing our deal with him, our manager throws out the counter offer from Clive Davis for more money. Geffen balked and said he wouldn’t change his deal so we ended up signing with Columbia Records for double the money. 

PZ:  Lorin, can you discuss what you have been up to musically lately?  I understand that Rickey Skaggs won a Grammy with a song that you wrote “Soldier of The Cross”.

LR:  Ricky Skaggs heard the Rowan Bros play this 'live' in Virginia at a festival and flipped for the song and especially, of course, the harmonies, and he also heard our recording of our “Rowans” (Peter, Chris & Lorin) version on the album “Sibling Rivalry” and he declared he would record the song one day, and that day came. He did cop our basic three part vocals but played it pure bluegrass!  On our new CD “Now & Then", we recorded a new version and re-titled it "Soldier’s Cross" that features the magnificent Phil Lesh on bass.  We recorded here at my home studio, along with  "How I think of U".  I call that one the 'Phil McCartney' track- Phil Lesh playing monstrously melodic lines ala The Beatles.  In fact, we now call this style “Bluezgrass” fusing New Orleans funky groove with folk/rock.

Click For BiggerPZ: You both were a significant part of Phil Lesh & The Hep Kats that played at the Great American Music Hall in to help Allen Cohen.  Could you tell us a little bit how that came about?  It sure sounded like you guys were having fun.

LR:   Chris & I were recording harmonies on J.C. Flyer's new CD, and a few months later George Michalski and J.C. hooked us up with Phil Lesh at a fundraiser hosted by he and his wife at their residence where I was part of the house band which later included Phil Lesh jamming with us as well as my brother Chris. The band also included Michalski on keyboards, Martin Fierro on sax, and Ernest “Boom” Carter on drums.  A few months later J.C. called us to see if we would want to put the same band together as part of this upcoming benefit for Allen Cohen and we were down for that all the way.  The band was called Phil Lesh & The Hep Kats and this time we also had Barry Sless playing guitar and pedal steel, and since Ernest Carter was on the road with Howard Tate, we enlisted drummer Prairie Prince to do double duty.  (Prairie also played that evening with Don’t Push The Clown).  The Allen Cohen gig turned out to be big fun as Phil, J.C, and The Rowan Brothers put together a set list that included some great Grateful Dead tunes - especially ones that Phil sang like “Box of Rain,” and I suggested “Deal” which became a upbeat shuffle medley.  We also did the Rowan Bros cover of an old time Louvin Bros “Runnin' Wild.” So far, it's been a one-off gig, and we're looking forward to the next one.

Click For BiggerCR:  Playing with Phil was really cool because besides his great bass playing; he’s a great harmony singer!  I hope we get a chance to do it again.

PZ: “Now and Then” includes some wonderful musical moments.  It truly sounds like a circle of friends getting together and singing and playing. Can you tell us of the process of working on the ‘Now’ portion of the new CD?

LR:  This was an opportunity to involve a lot of the people we've been fortunate to work with along the way-over 25-year career. Originally, David Grisman was our producer and musical director with whom we signed with Clive Davis and Columbia records.  When Chris and I were approached by BOS Music to put out the “Now & Then” CD I asked David to be part of the 'now' since he was also a major part of the 'then' material. I picked my song "Circle of Friends" for him to play on because it coincidentally fit the vibe of this project so well, even though the song was written several years ago and was recorded on   my own version on my first solo CD "My Father's Son". For the Rowan Bros CD, we recorded the tune basically live with David on mandolin and Doug Harman on cello. Besides that tune, in the last couple of years, Chris and I had started gigging as well as recording a bunch of tunes with Barry Sless on pedal steel, Robin Sylvester on bass, Brent Rampone on drums, and Mookie Siegel on piano and accordion.  These tunes were to become the body of what are the 'Now' tracks of the CD.  So, the process involved not only our 'band' as mentioned but also our long term relationships with fellow musicians like Grisman, and cellist Doug Harman who’s been playing for over 15 years on various projects of mine. This project bridges the gap from 'then' to ‘now' and the Circle is completed.

CR: I think one of the nicest things said about “Now and Then” is it’s the kind of songs that people can sing along with, based on two part harmony hoping to strike that universal chord.

Listen To Circle of Friends (download) / Listen To The Rowan Live With Bill Graham (download)

Check out The Rowan Brothers Website for more information and to order the CD set.

© 2004 JBS Publishing Co. Posted by special arrangement. 
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