Peter Rowan Resurges With Help From Molly Tuttle & Billy Strings On ‘Calling You From My Mountain’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Photo By Amanda Rowan

When legendary singer-songwriter Peter Rowan was developing ideas for his next studio project in 2019, he turned to none other than country music legend Hank Williams, or rather his quixotic alter ego “Luke the Drifter” for inspiration. “When I left Nashville in 1990,” Rowan explains, “the only country music album I had, besides one Ernest Tubb record, was Hank Williams Sings Luke the Drifter. So, I listened to that all the time on my little turntable, and I just loved that Hank had an alternate ego who was himself but the sentimental-songs-with-a-message side.”

Before long, Rowan had fleshed out an entire album of songs composed in homage to Hank’s pseudonym but any plans to record the project came to a screeching halt, along with the rest of the world, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

As Rowan isolated for the next year at his picturesque residence along the California coastline, he began to compose a fresh batch of original material sparked by new sources of inspiration, including the charged political & social climates our country was facing at the time. “The year of isolation was fraught with emotions I had never experienced and our country became under siege from right-wing demagogues. I felt I must address the present moment as best I could with my own songs that were coming out of the introspective year of self-isolation. I needed to re-energize my creative powers and be open to a new, fresh vision.”, he explains.

The resulting LP, Calling You From My Mountain (out 6/24), his second studio effort for Charlottesville, Virginia-based label Rebel Records, is a diverse collection of bluegrass, folk & country that features some of Rowan’s finest work to date thanks to his creative California-soaked songwriting and brilliant guest appearances from the likes of Molly Tuttle, Lindsay Lou & Billy Strings

Tracks like the upbeat opener “New York Town”, a Woody Guthrie song that Peter learned from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, shine due to the strong musicianship of Rowan’s talented & youthful backing band, comprised of Chris Henry (mandolin), Julien Pinelli (fiddle), Max Wareham (banjo) & Eric Thoren (acoustic bass). In addition to their remarkable instrumental prowess, the group’s robust vocal harmonies perfectly mesh with Rowan’s considerably more tender delivery to create an authentic sound that harkens back to Peter’s days of performing with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.

That high-lonesome sound continues with Rowan’s own “Veil of Deja Blue”, a forlorn tale of lonely hearts co-written with Peter’s brother Lorin Rowan which is bolstered by some impressive vocal harmonies from Chris Henry. Henry also has a standout appearance on Bill Monroe’s lively instrumental, “Frog on the Lily Pad” thanks to a multitude of blistering mandolin runs. 

While a majority of the album’s thirteen tracks are Rowan originals, the cover material included does a fine job of showcasing the songwriter’s sponge-like ability to soak up a wide array of musical influences and, more importantly, reinterpret that material with a level of authenticity that is undeniable. From the aforementioned Guthrie & Monroe covers to Tex Logan (“Come Along Jody”), the Carter Family (“Little Joe”), and even blues icon Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Penitentiary Blues (Big Brazos)”), it’s clear that Rowan’s sixty-plus year career has afforded him the singular ability to masterfully reimagine some of the great Americana songbook’s most timeless material.

However, as has been the case throughout much of Rowan’s career, his unique approach to songwriting, which blends a healthy mix of traditional influences with the more progressive stylings of today’s generation, is what sets him apart from so many of his peers, and Calling You From My Mountain is no exception. Every original track on the album is absolutely worthy of inclusion thanks to the often-times simple yet infectious melodies and lyrical motifs that draw from myriad influences. “The Red, the White and the Blue” are transformed into a heartfelt anti-war message with its subtle refrain “I remember, I remember, I remember you / The red, the white and the blue”. “Dream of Heaven”, the only song from the scrapped “Luke the Drifter” project to make it onto the album is a fitting tribute to Hank Williams with its country-infused delivery.

Speaking of Hank Williams, one of the album’s highlights, “The Song That Made Hank Williams Dance”, is a boisterous tale written by Rowan after dreaming about the personification of the female protagonist that often left the narrator brokenhearted in so many of Williams’ own compositions. The track is further augmented by a guest appearance from Shawn Camp, whose impressive crooning breathes new life and adds an element of drama that is sometimes missing from Rowan’s comparatively more subtle approach to lead vocals. 

The outstanding collaborations continue on the album’s clear standout track, “From My Mountain (Calling You)” thanks to a pair of breathtaking guest vocal performances from Molly Tuttle & Lindsay Lou that will send chills down the listener’s spine. Inspired by renowned Tibetan singer, and Peter’s close friend, Yungchen Lhamo, particularly the harrowing month-long 1200-mile journey she and her son endured across the Himalayan Mountains to escape her Chinese-occupied homeland and pursue her artistic dreams, the album’s title track is an instant classic that sounds like it was written a hundred years ago in Appalachia. The other noteworthy collaboration comes courtesy of bluegrass phenom Billy Strings, whose chameleon-like guitar abilities allow him to insert some elegantly subtle guitar lines in “A Winning Hand” before helping bring the album to a triumphant conclusion with a slew of his trademark lightning-quick acoustic guitar runs in Rowan’s own “Freedom Trilogy.”

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