Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Explore a Subtle Sound

Acoustic Music Legends Team Up for First Album Together

“If we structured it, we’d be so bored with ourselves in no time, we wouldn’t know what to do,” guitarist Tony Rice says. “The older I get, the less I like structure.”

The guitarist is talking about his live shows with Peter Rowan, but his description also applies to You Were There for Me, their first full album together. And if Rowan and Rice dislike strict structure, the subtle power of their music proves that you have to know the rules if you truly want to break them. Their new Rounder CD is very much a collaboration, yet it continues the individual creative journeys that have established their reputations as two of the most adventurous players in acoustic music.

The current album and tour mark the first time Rowan has played in a band that included another guitar player. Oh, he was once in a bluegrass band with Jerry Garcia, but the Grateful Dead founder opted to play banjo. He’s clearly happy to be working with Rice, who is widely regarded as the most innovative and influential flat-pick guitarist since Doc Watson.

Born in Massachusetts, Rowan moved to Nashville in 1963 to begin his professional career as guitarist and vocalist in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. In 1967, he returned to Massachusetts to form Earth Opera, a folk-rock band, with mandolinist David Grisman before heading to San Francisco in 1971 to join fiddler Richard Greene in SeaTrain, a jazz-rock group that scored a pop hit with the single, “13 Questions.” And in the Bay Area during the early ’70s, he and Garcia formed Old and In the Way, a band that led younger listeners to bluegrass music. Rowan also wrote the New Riders of the Purple Sage anthem, “Panama Red,” and released a series of critically acclaimed solo albums. Rowan’s experimental streak includes a recent tour with his reggae band that features members of the Burning Spear and Peter Tosh bands.

Born in Virginia and raised in California, Rice began his career in the Bluegrass Alliance and worked in J.D. Crowe’s New South before leaving to explore a hybrid of bluegrass, jazz and classical music as a member of the David Grisman Quintet. He continues to blur musical boundaries through a series of solo albums and the jazz-inflected “space-grass” of his band, the Tony Rice Unit. Earlier this year, he backed Alison Krauss during a musical segment of the CMT Flame Worthy Video Music Awards.

Rowan and Rice first met in New York during the mid-’70s, although their paths frequently crossed along the bluegrass festival circuit, both onstage and during instructional sessions for other musicians.

“Festival promoters have often put us together, unbeknownst to us, never asking us,” Rowan said. “I’d realize, ‘I’ve got a workshop with Tony today.’ And then I’d think, ‘God, how will I get out of his way?’”

With minimal instrumentation, including work from tourmates Billy Bright on mandolin and Bryn Bright on acoustic bass and harmony vocals, the music on You Were There for Me sounds simple on the surface. But woven into simplicity are some unexpected and complex turns.

Rice’s playing, in particular, is more sublime than many of his die-hard fans will be expecting. Younger musicians who spend hours trying to imitate his rapidly flowing guitar style will instead be paying attention to Rice’s chord work.

“There was no room on this album for any flashy flat-picking, which I kind of disdain anymore, anyway,” he tells CMT.com. “We just try to create something in the moment. There’s a whole range and spectrum of color that’s in Peter’s music. I’m trying to be the canvas that he paints. And vice versus.”

“I wish I was more articulate about what Tony does in terms of guitar on my songs,” Rowan said. “The thing is, though, that music can become rote. You can just kind of flog through a tune and make it enough to sell the tune to the audience. Nobody is requiring you to do what we want to do, which is to reach a little bit further and keep a little bit of the unknown coming into the music.

“The way he opens chords and resolves chords … that’s one of my favorite things. A very broad stroke of that on the new album is ‘You Were There for Me.’ It allows me to do vocal things I’d been wanting to do for years. But for some reason, there was just too much going on to find the space to do that. We’ve now been led to other areas of the atmosphere in songs by people like Alison Krauss. When Alison started doing slower and slower songs, people said she was going to ruin her career. But guess what? When you play slower and softer, everything gets louder and bigger and more emotional.”

In his choice of chords to create a mood, Rice says, “Most of it is trial and error. If you know a little bit of theory, you start knowing what chords will work. With Peter, I’m constantly experimenting. Even the most heavyweight concert you can think of is still a process of experimentation. I know how far I can go. I know where that framework is where I work within a box. I know when I’m at the edge of the box not to step too far outside of it because I could melodically create something that is wrong. And I don’t want to do that. But as long as I can stay within the box, I know a hundred different ways to make a C chord. So I’ll see what will work.”

Rowan wrote or co-wrote all 10 songs on the new album. Among them, “Angel Island” is an atmospheric piece inspired by the land in the San Francisco Bay that served as a detention center to control the immigration of the Chinese during the late 1800s. Another, “Ahmed the Beggar Boy” was written more than a decade ago during the first Gulf War. The song, which sounds like it was written last week, deals with the effects of war on innocent civilians.

Recalling the U.S. invasion, Rowan says, “I was watching it on TV with a Tibetan friend of mine who’s a teacher. We’re really deeply into this whole idea of the interrelatedness of people and their energy and compassions. In the middle of this weekend of high, lofty teaching, we invaded Iraq. I watched the first bombing of Baghdad on TV and went over to Texas A&M to play a coffeehouse and sang the song complete.”

Rowan and Rice continue their national tour with a Nov. 3 date at B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York City, followed by stops in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. A recent show in Nashville found them in top form, with Rice and Bryn Bright forming an instrumental duo for the George Gershwin classic, “Summertime.” And although the tour emphasizes material from the new CD, Rowan is happy to oblige audiences who still yell for “Panama Red,” a song he recorded with Garcia in Old and In the Way.

“We still like going to ‘Panama,’” Rowan smiles, confessing that the songs he writes often surprise him.

“For me, one of the great joys is to be writing this material,” he said. “I just love it. Some of the songs are just totally weird and don’t have any business being songs. But I’ll finish them. And they sing back to you. When you write something down on paper, if you’re a writer, it comes back to you. It has something to say to you. You think you’re trying to say something with it, but if you actually look at it, it’s telling you something.”

Do the songs ever tell him things he wishes he didn’t know?

“All the time,” Rowan laughed.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.