One of the most respected vocalists in bluegrass, Ronnie Bowman titled his new album Starting Over for good reason. In the last few years, he left the popular and influential Lonesome River Band to pursue a solo career. He endured a divorce and has since remarried. And now that he’s living in Nashville, people in the country music industry are rewarding his rich talent.
A song he co-wrote, “The Healing Kind,” opened Lee Ann Womack ’s smash album I Hope You Dance. He and Dan Tyminksi (a fellow Lonesome River Band alumnus) also harmonized with Womack on “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” on that same album.
Behind the scenes, star producer Don Cook (Brooks & Dunn ) offered to work with him after hearing the song “Midwestern Town” on a bluegrass radio show. Cook produced two tracks on Starting Over, including the first single and video, “Rise Above.” True to the album’s hopeful and encouraging tone, Bowman also signed a new publishing deal and anticipates a string of tour dates at clubs and festivals across the country.
“I’ve been living down here in Nashville maybe a year and a half, and I’m kind of naïve to a lot of people in this town,” Bowman admits. “Someone will introduce me and the other person will say, ’Oh, you’re that Ronnie Bowman? That guy that sings bluegrass?’ And it’s usually somebody that I’m like, ’Wow, you know my name?'”
Bowman was born in Mt. Airy, N.C., the town that inspired Andy Griffith’s fictional community of Mayberry. He grew up singing in churches with his family’s gospel band, taking turns at the microphone with his four sisters.
“My mom and dad would encourage us to sing if we wanted to,” he says. “They never forced us, but they’d give us the opportunity to stand up with them and sing a song here and there.”
After securing a job at a warehouse in the Sara Lee Corporation in Winston-Salem, N.C., at age 19, Bowman took stock of his surroundings.
“I got to looking around me and I saw guys who were about my age now, and we were doing the same job. I’d sometimes take my guitar out at lunch and I’d play it, and they’d ask me, ’Hey man, what are you doing?’ And I’m like, ’Well, I’m making a check, I’ve got great benefits. I’ve got to pay my house payment.’ … But I got to looking around and thinking, ’I’m really young and I really love music and I’m doing it anyway.’ So I decided I was going to pursue that as a career. I was still young enough if I happened to fall down, I’d just get back up and dust myself off and move on.”
After a stint with a group called Lost & Found, Bowman joined the Lonesome River Band. The first project he recorded with them, 1991’s Carrying the Tradition, won the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) award for album of the year. The harmony vocals between Bowman and Tyminski remain among the most beloved in bluegrass history.
Asked whether a future duet album could be a possibility, Bowman says, “We’ve always loved singing together and I’m sure we’ll do that for the rest of our lives on some level. Dan and I talked about it and I think if it’s the right time, and we could get together on it, I know we’d do it.”
Bowman’s first solo album, Cold Virginia Night, won the IBMA’s album of the year in 1995, and Bowman also accepted trophies for song of the year (“Cold Virginia Night”) and male vocalist that year. His signature song, “Three Rusty Nails,” won two IBMA awards in 1999 and earned Bowman his third male vocalist award.
Starting Over unites the lyrical elements of traditional country music — broken hearts, loneliness, drinking — with Bowman’s brand of contemporary bluegrass. Many of the best acoustic musicians in the world back him up, including Tyminski, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales (from Union Station), as well as Ronnie Stewart and Mountain Heart’s Steve Gulley.
“It’s roots music,” Bowman proudly says of bluegrass. “It’s undeniably realistic and raw. You can do it without electricity. The only things you have to have to recreate it are a few people that sing and that play acoustic instruments, and you’re set to go. Then if you give someone a microphone and more people can hear it, now we’ve got a show.”