When Peter Rowan was a guitarist and singer with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, the legendary mandolinist gave his young protégé some invaluable advice. "He knew I wanted to play other stuff, and he told me, 'Pete, if you can play my kind of music, you can play any kind of music," Rowan says. "And he told me that when you sing, you've got to love it so that the people will love it too." And so Rowan did exactly as the master suggested.
Over the course of his career, Rowan has dabbled in psychedelic rock (Earth Opera, his late 1960s group with David Grisman) and reggae (see the 2001 solo album Reggaebilly) and set the tone for jam and prog-grass as a founding member of the bluegrass supergroup Old and in the Way. But when it came to his 2013 release, The Old School, Rowan penned a collection of songs that would have easily been at home on a Bill Monroe disc.
"I came up in the '60s on John Coltrane, and for a while me and David Grisman believed you didn't need any form at all, so we centered on the space," says Rowan, who was given the nickname Panama by Jerry Garcia. "For this record, I went back to three-chord songs and looked for the diversity of that structure. It's back to how bluegrass was — and still is. It's beautiful to go to that straight structure and then fill it with energy."
For the recording sessions around The Old School, Rowan called on friends like Del McCoury and Michael Cleveland to lend their iconic talents. But on tour this fall, he's partnering with a traditional musician from a vastly different background: Tibetan mantra singer Yungchen Lhamo.
A refugee of her native country, Lhamo fled to Australia in 1993 before moving to New York in 2000. Her record deal with Peter Gabriel's Real World label produced several albums of mostly chanting and singing, one of which made its way into Rowan's hands via Charles Sawtelle, the late guitarist of bluegrass group Hot Rize.
Rowan notes, "I had been saying, 'Man, bluegrass is so limiting,' and Charles said, 'Here, Panama, listen to this.' It was all mantras — so in the opposite direction, you know?"
Last May, a chance booking at the Lake Eden Arts Festival in Black Mountain, N.C. featured Lhamo and Rowan playing back-to-back sets. Lhamo stayed to hear Rowan perform, and the two met for the first time.
"I stepped outside from the stage, and there she was. I was thunderstruck," Rowan says. "I said, 'Wow, she's a real person.' And we were just in this great state of mind for the rest of the afternoon."
Rowan and Lhamo walked together to the festival's lakefront where they borrowed a rowboat and floated out into Lake Eden together. The friendship stuck, and one week later, the pair performed together at the City Winery in New York.
"The uniqueness of her wonderful voice singing these Buddhist prayers — it inspires me, and I thought, 'What a nice thing — mountain to mountain — from my mountains to your mountains,'" Rowan says. "We're exploring that relationship between the 'high lonesome sound' as it relates to altitude, and the mountain as a motif for the way our music is related to each other."
At this point, Rowan pauses to clarify that the project is not what he calls "academic." He says, "It's not to prove a point. It's to allow the joy inherent in this relationship to come forth in the music."
Rowan sees a deep spirituality inherent in each of their styles, with both bluegrass and Tibetan mantras finding their roots in praise and uplifting themes.
"The words that Yungchen sings in Tibetan are so magnificent," Rowan says. "They're an offering to all living things, from a viewpoint that the universe is not a static place."
Music can be viewed as a symbolic mandala, Rowan says, helping listeners to achieve inner sight where they can view the components of the world in their true purity and radiance. "When music is played, people get caught up in it, and they feel good," he says.
Although a studio collaboration between the pair may lie in their future, this tour relies on a mix of structured bluegrass and improvised chants.
"The question is how our spontaneity can evolve into having some kind of form," says Rowan. "It's kind of a dream come true, to be having the dharma out in the performance. But one thing I'll say about the structure of the show; the energy is incredible. This band has as much energy as any rock 'n' roll band has ever had."