In 1966, a few months before Carter Stanley died, Bill Monroe asked Peter Rowan to drive him from Nashville to the Clinch Mountains of Virginia. They found the elder Stanley Brother in a field, with mortality weighing heavy on his mind. Monroe said, “Carter, this here’s Pete Rowans. He thinks he’s a Blue Grass Boy.” Stanley smiled, looked into Rowan’s eyes intently and said, “Are you going to stick with it son?” Peter assured him “Yes sir.” Then Monroe told Stanley, “You were one of the best Blue Grass Boys and my favorite singer.” At that moment, Rowan says, “A kind of portal opened up about the music, and I could see the light that shone in Carter Stanley’s eyes.”
This story comes to light in the title-cut of Rowan’s new album, Carter Stanley’s Eyes.More than a tribute to the Stanleys, Rowan says the collection of songs is “an honoring of them and of my roots.” The set list includes two originals from Ralph and Carter each (“Let Me Love You One More Time,” “Ridin’ On That Midnight Train,” “Too Late To Cry,” and “A Vision Of Mother”), along with two songs made famous by the Stanleys: “Hills Of Roane County” and the Carter Family’s “Will You Miss Me.” The first number, “Drumbeats On The Watchtower,” is a Rowan original that Ralph recorded in the ’80s.
Backed by current band members Chris Henry (mandolin/vocals), Blaine Sprouse (fiddle/bass vocal), and Paul Knight (bass), Rowan also invites heavy hitters Patrick Sauber (banjo), Tim O’Brien (guitar/vocals), Don Rigsby (mandolin/vocals), Jack Lawrence (lead guitar), Jamie Oldaker (snare drum/percussion), and Todd Pons (vocal).
From the first time he heard the Stanleys’ music, Rowan said he was moved by Carter’s “mysteriously, longing voice—tragic, yet yearning for spiritual transcendence.” As Peter contemplates the next leg of his journey on earth, he comes full circle to the music that first inspired his own musical path. He writes in the liner notes, “Thank you Ralph and older brother Carter for the backbone your music gives us. And to you, Carter, I am grateful. You inspire me to sing through the darkness of suffering to the everlasting light.”
Also included on the album is Ira & Charlie Louvin’s “A Tiny Broken Heart.” Huddie Ledbetter’s “Alabama Bound” is a welcome, light-hearted nod to the bluesy influence that Lead Belly had on Rowan. Several cuts are sung by narrators contemplating their own mortality: “Take My Ashes” (written by Rowan with Rex Foster), “Drumbeats On The Watchtower,” “Will You Miss Me,” and “Hills Of Roane County.” “A Crown He Wore” and “A Vision Of Mother” lean toward the spiritual side of the ancient tones.
Themes of remorse, regret, and hope echo in tightly intertwined two- and three-part harmonies from Rowan, Henry, Rigsby, O’Brien, Sauber, and Pons. Mandolins soar in the capable hands of Chris Henry and Don Rigsby. Patrick Sauber drives the banjo with tradition-based yet creative authority. Blaine Sprouse’s lonesome, wailing fiddle recalls Kenny Baker. Light percussion underlines but doesn’t obstruct the other instruments. Jack Lawrence, one of bluegrass music’s most underrated guitarists, plays in an unadorned yet effective style, combining influences from George Shuffler, Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis and his own mentor, Doc Watson. When Rowan chooses to sing in Ralph’s signature, moaning tenor style (“Will You Miss Me,” “A Vision Of Mother”), we’re glad to hear it. Listeners should enjoy tracing Rowan’s musical roots on this new album, as he rounds his fifty-year mark. Highly recommended. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.)NC