Nearly a year and a half ago, I was walking into the Little River Coffee Bar for an afternoon pick-me-up when I caught a cursory glimpse of a man standing a few feet away in front of the adjacent Hub City Bookshop.
I mostly just saw the back of his wavy hair, which was silvery and whitish, and I remember subtly thinking to myself, “that guy kind of looks like Peter Rowan.”
Given that Rowan, now 75, is a bluegrass icon who’s been making music professionally for more than a half-century, it seemed fairly safe to assume that there was no way the man who wrote “Panama Red” would happen to be in Spartanburg when he didn’t a have a gig here that day.
So, I went on my way and didn’t think any more about it until later that evening when a friend of mine who works at the bookshop told me that Rowan had stopped by earlier and bought some books.
I immediately realized that it actually had been him that I’d seen from behind and regretted not getting a better look at the man with the wavy hair. If only I had come face to face with him, I would have known for sure it was Rowan and would have made it a point to tell him how much I’ve appreciated his music for so many years. If only I’d seen the light in Peter Rowan’s eyes.
That last bit was a nod to the title of Rowan’s latest album, “Carter Stanley’s Eyes,” which will be released Friday on Rebel Records. As I was listening to it the other day, I was reminded of the anecdote above.
The centerpiece of the album is a song called “The Light in Carter Stanley’s Eyes,” in which Rowan shares an anecdote of his own, albeit a much cooler one than mine.
As a young man, Rowan joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and, in the song, he recalls the time the “Father of Bluegrass” introduced him to another legendary figure, Carter Stanley of the famous Stanley Brothers.
“And Carter looked at me and said, ‘are you going to stick with it, son?’” Rowan recounts in a vividly-detailed spoken word part of the song. “I said, ‘yes sir.’ And Carter looked at Bill Monroe and said, ‘well, all right.’”
Stanley died shortly thereafter, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1966 at age 41.
In the liner notes to the new album, Rowan writes that, as guitarist and lead singer in Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, he played the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and shared a vocal-duet workshop stage with Carter Stanley and his younger brother, Ralph Stanley, who died in 2016 at age 89.
“These men were my bluegrass heroes and I looked up to them; they inspired me,” Rowan writes. “And it was Carter who gave me a nod of approval on a mountainside in Virginia shortly before his untimely passing.”
Although “Carter Stanley’s Eyes” features two songs written by Carter and two written by Ralph, along with such Stanley Brothers staples as the traditional “Hills of Roane County” and the Carter Family’s “Will You Miss Me,” Rowan points out in a statement that the album “is not a tribute to the Stanley Brothers; it’s an honoring of them, and of my roots.”
In other words, it connects the tremendous influence of the Stanley Brothers with other traditional music that Rowan has absorbed over the years.
The album kicks off with Rowan’s own “Drumbeats on the Watchtower,” which Ralph Stanley once recorded under the title of “Wild Geese Cry Again,” and stays faithful to Stanley Brothers-style tradition throughout all 14 tracks without once straying toward the type of progressive bluegrass that Rowan is also capable of playing well.
Perhaps my favorite track is “Take My Ashes,” which Rowan co-wrote with Texas singer-songwriter Rex Foster. Filled with intelligent lyrics and gorgeous vocal harmonies, it paints an uplifting portrait of spiritual immortality and sounds almost like a lost tune from the catalogue of Spartanburg-born, pre-Americana outfit Uncle Walt’s Band. It’s that good.
I’m not sure what books Rowan, who is slated to perform during all four days of next weekend’s MerleFest in Wilkesboro, N.C., purchased at Hub City Bookshop that day in November 2016, but I like to think that maybe there was something he picked up that got him to reminiscing about the old days and fueled his desire to pay homage to that moment when he could see “the light that shone in Carter Stanley’s eyes.”
A closer look at some of this week’s area shows:
The Black River Rebels will perform, along with BSC, St. Pariah and Gutterhound, at 7 p.m. Friday at Ground Zero in Spartanburg. The Greenville-based outfit churns out ferocious, old-school hard rock that blends elements of such bands as Led Zeppelin, Social Distortion and The Cult.
Antler Hill will perform at 7 p.m. Friday at Stomping Grounds in Greer. The brainchild of Upstate singer-songwriters Neil Lee Griffin and Jessica Griffin, Antler Hill delivers hauntingly atmospheric music that has a colonial gothic feel.
Sherwood Drive will perform at 8 p.m. Sunday at Brickhouse Fresh Pizzeria and Grill in Spartanburg. Composed of Tyler Monroe and Tara Rogers, the Upstate duo offers an Americana-tinged brand of modern country music and folk.
Soulfly will perform, along with Nile, at 7 p.m. April 24 at The Firmament in Greenville. Led by former Sepultura frontman Max Cavalera, the band has been cranking out blistering heavy metal with elements of Brazilian tribal music for more than two decades.
Grammy-nominated outfit The Grascals will perform at 8 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Chapman Cultural Center in Spartanburg as part of the Bluegrass Spartanburg concert series. Tickets are $30 and on sale now. For more information, call 864-542-2787 or visit www.bluegrassspartanburg.com.