While at Hickory Fest in Wellsboro, PA this past August, I had a chance to sit down with Chris & Lorin Rowan after their performance. They talked about their older brother Peter, their own careers and their connection with Sue Cunningham.
Tom Wickstrom (TW): I’m sitting here with the Rowan Brothers, Chris & Lorin. We’re going to have a little chat. First off, I wanted to ask you about growing up. How much older is Peter than the two of you?
Lorin Rowan (LR): Ten years for me. Chris is in the middle. I’m Lorin, the youngest.
TW: Did you all get along growing up?
LR: Yes. We were like a tribe, the brothers with the parents. Being the youngest, my older brothers were into music, so it was natural for me. I started off playing a tennis racquet, then a ukulele and then Chris showed me my first E chord.
Chris Rowan (CR): Peter showed me my first E chord. By having this almost 5 years age difference between Peter & me & another 5 years to Lorin, we kind of had our own generational age group. We find out with the relatives & friends of younger generations that as you get older, these different stages of different generations get closer together. When you get in your 40’s & 50’s, 5 years apart becomes much more current instead of he’s 20, he’s 15 & he’s 10. We got along as brothers, but kind of had our own individuality & there was always music in the house.
TW: So, your parents both played?
LR: They appreciated music. Mom could play the piano.
CR: She played “Moonlight Sonata”. She was really good in the first 50 seconds and then she would trail off. She also knew some of Cole Porter’s “Night & Day”. They loved music.
LR: Dad was a singer in glee clubs and he’d sing around the house. He’d look you in the eye and then would start singing “Camelot”. the whole show. There’s pictures of him in his twenties where he was in local theater. That generation had to deal with World War I & II as well as the Great Depression, so they toned down those bohemian inclinations for a more secure lifestyle. There’s a great picture of our dad in a play outside around a campfire, He’s dressed as a gypsy, which was reminiscent of when Peter dressed up in his Tex-Mex style. It was in our blood. We were the extra-versions of them. We blossomed totally from that side of the brain, the music side. None of us became businessmen.
CR: That’s for sure, I’ve learned to keep a checking account in order and that’s about it.
LR: We learned to make a business out of music as much as you’re supposed to. Music has been the inspiration for all of us and to this day we are all writing songs all of the time. Chris & I did a lot of duo stuff together and we also get with Pete on different occasions. We’re all lucky to be alive and healthy and still doing what we love to do. Getting together to play is really a treat.
CR: Peter is now 75 and I’ll be 70 in November and Lorin just turned 65. When we get together, we have great joy in reminiscing about our childhood & family & relatives. We enjoy our trips down memory lane.
LR: We have these records of our family memories that we talk about all the time when we get together. More than we play music. y the way, we’re working on a Christmas album with Peter too. In that time we’ll always go flashback on experiences growing up. It’s great because we know we were there. You know what I mean. The other people & the friendships you develop as you grow up. That thing you have with your family and because you all got along, helps us to relive those memories when we get together. We crack each other up. We laugh so hard at some of those things because there was some really crazy stuff that we did when we were young.
CR: You know, Pete competes sometimes pretty seriously & I get great enjoyment seeing him have a big belly laugh from some comment that I made.
TW: Do you both share the same spiritual outlook & experiences as Peter?
CR: Peter is a Buddhist type of guy. I’m more into a spirituality. I’ve had some experiences with the Medium world. I won’t go into a lot of detail, because most people might call me nutty. I’ve had some personal experiences that I hold dear to my life experience. I believe that there is a spirit world outside of this physical world.
LR: I love & I think Mother Nature is total God consciousness. Even right here. I think of right now being in the moment of now and that we are celebrating Sue. She was pure spirit with or without. Within you without you kind of thing. Living in the moment is the blessing.
TW: Do you guys get political and put that in your songwriting?
LR: Yes, we do. We could have done a song tonight that we did back in the 70’s called “All The Kings Men”, which I wrote around 1976. The Viet Nam war was ending & I felt moved to write something about it. All the Kings men they are falling, they are falling & it was just reflecting on what you were witnessing at the time. Recently we drove by somewhere and witnessed supporters of our current president. That was kind of weird.
CR: Dump the Trump. Hello.
LR: Yeah, Dump the Trump. We really don’t want to cross political lines though. We met a guy that was 92 years old on the same part of the cape that our family had a phouse through the years. He was a republican but not into politics. This was interesting. He said that he had been a very successful CEO for a company. He said: “I’m not into politics and I’m not into fighting about it”.
CR: He did say Trump was an embarrassment and that he didn’t like everything he said but he did like his fire & fury talk about North Korea and hoped they would back down. Then I read the next day in the newspaper that the North Koreans dismissed what Trump said. I’m into creating music from the heart.
LR: We are trying to bring joy and to heal. Let music be healing & sharing & laughter because there’s too much frigging hate.
CR: There’s enough hatred out there.
LR: I mean with all the stuff going on in the world that you read about, we are so lucky. The American Dream is hopefully available for anybody who wants to be here. You can also find a place like this festival to enjoy because we continue to work hard to be able to do it. That’s what I think is fabulous.
TW: The first time you recorded, David Grisman was your producer & Jerry Garcia played on it. Will you share that story?
LR: Yes, David Grisman produced our record & introduced us to Jerry. He said we should come out to the west coast. We were living on the east coast. It was either England or the west coast.
CR: I had gone over to England in March 1969 to try to get involved with the Beatles. Prior to that, David Grisman had been working with Peter in this group called Earth Opera, which was like a modern day opera of mostly Peter’s songs.
LR: Art songs
CR: They had great mandolin & guitar playing and were a great band.
LR: Have you listened to it?
TW: No, I have not.
LR: It’s interesting. It’s very different. Very artful songs.
CR: so, I went to England and I’m writing some songs that helped me confirm my belief that maybe I was a songwriter. I was beginning to think that because I loved listening to the Everly Brothers.
LR: He used to be a waitress before that (big laugh).
CR: That was in a past life (chuckle). Peter was bringing rock & roll records home like “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “Boney Maroney” & “Keep A Knocking'”. When I was about 8 or 9 I kind of wrote my first song called “Moovy Groovy”. Moovy all over the floor, Rocking around all over the town, Moovy Groovy once more tonight. I had fun & wow I can write my own songs. Anyways, I went to England and wrote a couple of songs and then I met up with David Grisman. He was living in the Boston area, kind of in the fading out period of working with Peter in Earth Opera. He was making a record & liked one of my songs. He recorded it and was really excited about it and this fiddle player on it named Richard Green. David asked us if Lorin & I played together. I said we played around the house and the next thing you know, David is making demo tapes of us and he’s also playing on some Grateful Dead albums. Because of David & Jerry’s bluegrass connections, Jerry tells Grisman to bring his recording company to northern California. We left in October 1970 and began our journey as a duo. Within 3 or 4 months, we were playing for David Geffen, who our manager was friends with. David Geffen, who managed Crosby, Stills & Nash had heard our demos & wanted to check us out. We went down & played in front of Geffen and he wanted to sign us to his new label Asylum. He also played a cassette of a new artist and asked us what we thought. It was Jackson Browne. Now, Clive Davis is in town in LA and he hears that Geffen’s onto something new. Next thing you know we are playing for Clive at the Beverly Hills Hotel and he offers twice as much money as what Geffen was offering. So here we are, 2 innocent singer songwriters having big dreams and that’s how our first record with Grisman on Columbia came about.
LR: We auditioned for Clive at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We naïve east coast boys coming out to California, but now we were in LA & Hollywood, which was different. We walked in the door and there was Georgie Jessel walking through the lobby and an actual bellboy like you see in the old movies. It was like a cartoon becoming real. We played in the Polo Lounge, It was just us with a piano & guitar. Acoustic just like we did today. After we had played for Clive & Geffen, our manager brought in Ahmet Ertigan from Atlantic Records. Here we are, 2 young kids performing for Ahmet & he asks when we were going into the studio. We went from a wing & a prayer to an all thumbs up. That’s how we got started in a nutshell.
TW: How did you meet Sue Cunningham and come together to play music?
LR: Peter invited me to come down and play at Magnolia Festival at Suwannee about 8 years ago and he invited Sue up on stage with us to sing & play fiddle. I was playing electric guitar with Peter and he had a little more of the Reggae groove going on at the time. So I actually met Sue on stage. Afterward, I told her that I was glad to meet her. We started talking & I shared with her what I was doing with my brother Chris and that we had just made a record. She told us about Hickory Fest. This was probably 8 years ago. I told her that we were going to be touring that summer and asked if there was a chance we could play on her festival. She said that she had to think about it. Over the next few days we became good friends and she told us she’d love to have us at the festival. So it became a part of our tour. We had Sue come up for a few songs to sing & play fiddle. Things went so well that it eventually progressed to talking about doing a project together.
CR: Sue’s business, outside of being an A+ violinist/fiddle player was that she worked for a company out of Jupiter (FL) that worked on turbo engines for rockets.
LR: She was a brilliant engineer.
CR: She had a business degree from MIT. Just a brilliant, loving, beautiful person but she also had many bluegrass experiences up here in Wellsboro. During the winter the season begins because it’s not sweltering hot at that time of year. We put some gigs together and came down and we all started playing together. The next thing you know, we started talking about making a CD together. We had so much fun that I asked Sue if she wanted to continue doing it and she said yes. So we started making plans to play throughout the years.
LR: The Rowan Cunningham Band made 2 records and played a lot of gigs. They were great. Too bad it got interrupted.
CR: Frank (Sue’s partner), the photographer would show up with pictures he had taken. We were touring on the “Now & Then” tour & Frank would show up with pictures. That’s how we got to know Frank. Then Lorin linked up with Peter, Sue & Frank at Mag Fest. Everything sort of just came together.
LR: We asked Frank if he would be interested in booking us and he said he’d give it a try. He became good at it. We got around and played throughout the southwest.
TW: Are you still touring regularly?
LR: Not as much. We’re mostly out of the northern California area. We do get to Hawaii and we work on our own individual projects together. So, we keep going.
CR: As much as we can find a way to tour. Basically as a duo, our act is very accessible. We can make some money and people love hearing our songs & harmonies.
LR: We can do things on an acoustic level but today we played with the Big Sky guys. There’s another new connection we’ve made. They said they would love to be our backup band when we come down to Florida. So now because of this festival & Sue, as well as Frank & Peter, things keep evolving. Another blossom has started growing.
TW: This is my first time coming to Hickory Fest. When I discover a festival such as this, I also find that I’ve made a new family .
CR: It is personable here.
LR: We’ve met some great people here. It’s got the nicest vibe. Musicians and other people have been very friendly and we’ve enjoyed talking to everyone.
CR: Did you ever hear Sue play?
TW: No. I did just grab the CD she did with Verlon Thompson and I’ve been able to listen to her live concert CD that they have been playing between sets.
LR: You need to get the Rowan Cunningham Band’s “New Horizons” CD. That’s the latest one we did together. It was beautiful and it was the 3 of us. We split the lead vocal chores and there are beautiful 3-part harmonies.
CR: That was like the accumulation of almost 2 years of making time to go to Florida and for her to come out to the west coast.
TW: I don’t want to take up much more of your time but it’s time for the bombshell question.
CR: Uh oh. Bombshell:
TW: What has music taught you about yourselves?
LR: To be true to yourself and look in the mirror of your muse and know that you are really in control of what you are doing, if you want to be. Where it goes you never know but for sure follow your heart. If you’re going to fuck up, then that’s going to cost you. If you’re going to succeed, it’s going to be a good thing. You always try to stay on that. You’re never always perfect. I’m not perfect going this way or that. I know if I want to do music, I have to let it breathe & be a part of it. I never want to hinder that. I don’t ever want to lose touch, so I watch my P’s & Q’s. When I realize that I’m getting a little on the outside, I have to rein things in.
CR: Hmm. The bombshell. I feel fortunate that I’m going to be 70. Music was so much a part of my life outside of hearing my parents & their cocktail parties. I always had a radio next to my bed. I remember hearing “Love Me Tender” and they would play it 4 times an hour. Someone would call in & they would play it again. I loved the melody. Then I heard “Dreams” by the Everly Brothers and it was so beautiful. Then I heard the Diamonds. Those beautiful chords, keeping a life of being grateful for, being appreciative of melody and channeling one’s life experiences to express yourself through lyrics & melody. Stay humble & grateful.
TW: awesome. That’s a great answer. Is there anything else I didn’t cover or ask?
CR: I really feel the music keeps me moving forward & keeps me in touch in the moment. It’s a wonderful thing to share with people and there’s an interaction with the music and those performing it especially when it’s live. Performing live really keeps you on this high. After I play, I feel like I’ve done yoga or something. It’s very evolving & meditative.
CR: It’s an endorphin. Today we used a drummer that we had never paled with before & the tempo was right in the pocket.
TW: It was magical watching you practice with Megan McGarry in here earlier.
LR: Did you get any of that by any chance?
TW: Just some pictures of you practicing. Thanks for taking the time to chat.