Peter Rowan & Tony Rice,
You Were There for Me
(Rounder, 2004)

A product of the 1960s Boston folk scene, Peter Rowan has taken his music in many directions -- including psychedelic and other rock with the latter-1960s/'70s bands Earth Opera and Sea Train -- without ever losing course. Today, Rowan is known as a skilled acoustic guitarist, a prolific songwriter and an explorer of rooted genres, mostly bluegrass, folk, country and variants thereof. One Rowan composition is a certifiable classic, the gothic "Walls of Time," which he wrote while serving a stint as one of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. Monroe's recording inspired numerous others since, and the song has long -- and deservedly -- been a genre standard.

Guitarist Tony Rice comes from a family of noteworthy pickers. Active since the 1960s, he has recorded with both major bluegrass bands and acclaimed experimental string-jazz outfits (among them his own Tony Rice Unit). He's cut solo albums, a handful of others with his brothers Larry, Ron and Wyatt, and some with longtime pal Norman Blake. Once he sang in a smooth, easy-on-the-ear tenor, influenced by Gordon Lightfoot whose songs Rice often covered, but his voice gave out years ago. These days Rice confines his music to what he can pull out of his guitar. Consequently, Rowan handles all of the lead vocals on You Were There for Me.

The title brings to mind -- surely not the artists' intention -- a Seinfeld episode whose story elaborately and hilariously pillories this hackneyed catchphrase. If you've seen it, you may wish Rowan and Rice had thought up something bespeaking less worn sentiment. It comes from the album's opening cut, a Rowan/Rice original (as are the other nine songs), that proves, to my relief, to be a decent piece, wrapped in the patented haunted-romantic sensibility Rowan brings to much of his singing and writing.

The two are joined by a small group of fellow pickers. Billy Bright (mandolin and mandola) and Bryn Bright (double bass) show up on seven cuts, and when they don't, Tony Garnier (bass) and Larry Atamanuik (drums) are there to fill space and sound. The songs amount to a more modern, musically sophisticated iteration of the kind of material that entered popular music in the later years of the '60s folk revival -- an update, one might say, of an update of earlier traditions. Some of the material looks back to rural ballads and Tex-Mex-flavored, Marty Robbins-lilted cowboy songs. Some is lyrically ambitious. "Miss Liberty (Lay My Lonesome Down)" laments the lost America of the 21st century, and "Ahmed the Beggar Boy," set in Iraq-war Baghdad, is aimed, with commendable rhetorical restraint, at a vicious, hopeless conflict and those who caused it.

Awash in moods and colors, mostly autumnal, You Were There is accomplished in the flawlessly proficient way one expects of these two veterans of modern acoustic music. Old fans will nod appreciatively, and first-timers will be pleased to make the acquaintance.

by Jerome Clark
24 February 2007

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