Last week, veteran guitarist Peter Rowan was sitting on a bench outside a café in western Marin County, Calif., speaking by phone with me about his years playing with Bill Monroe in the '60s, the book he is writing about that time, and the inspiring view he was taking in. "I'm facing Tamalpais Bay and the Tamalpais Hills. It looks like it's almost high tide, and the moon will be full very shortly," he says. Rowan, 69, jumps from topic to topic these days, but he always brings it back around, with his slow and methodical tone frequently erupting with excitable, almost-spilling-over-his-words revelations.
That circuitous storytelling ability has been honed through his years, helping to create his high canon of bluegrass, including "Walls of Time," which he wrote with Monroe, and "Midnight Moonlight" and "Panama Red," which he sang with Jerry Garcia in the band Old and in the Way.
Now the storyteller is collaborating with the Atlanta-based Mosier brothers — banjoist Jeff and guitarist Johnny — for the Roots and Branches tour this summer. The set is a full retrospective of Rowan's musical career, similar to an episode of VH1's Storytellers.
"In music, I never looked at my trail and said, 'I've done this and this and this,'" Rowan says. "I would look at it and say, 'I've done this and this and this? What?' Jeff [Mosier] thinks that my story is interesting enough that when I tell stories about other people, it's still my story."
The shows on the Roots and Branches tour will emphasize Rowan's compositions and personal stories. Mosier says the goal is to leave people not just entertained but thinking about the importance of process and life.
Growing up as a string player, Mosier idealized Rowan, and he believes the collaboration will lead to something special. "We want to demonstrate the process of human creativity through this simple process of playing bluegrass music in the South with our hero," he says. "What distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to create and our ability to understand our own demise. And I believe the latter is why we've created culture, why we try to extend ourselves beyond this life, and music has been our most human way of documenting our time on earth."
For years, Rowan and Mosier have investigated and celebrated the stories, camaraderie, and creativity behind the musical process.
"The first internet in my mind was sitting around a fire," Mosier says. "Looking each other in the eyes, and talking and singing and not having to worry about getting eaten by animals because we had a fire. We want to say some things about culture that fly in the face of the bullshit most of the public is focused on right now."
And with Rowan's legendary soothing, philosophical, fast-and-slow storytelling style, the Roots and Branches tour will tell audiences the never-ending story of how music is created. "You know, I'm still inspired by the journey. It's a lot to put together, but I feel more empowered these days," Rowan says with a chuckle. "You know, to look at history and to still be living out what's going to be history. That's a funny dance."