Bluegrass Buddhist Peter Rowan’s Tibetan collaboration, new film

Bluegrass Buddhist Peter Rowan.

You know the Marin Independent writer is having fun when his story leads like this: “Peter Rowan is just a week or so away from his apotheosis as the world’s foremost bluegrass Buddhist.”

And it sounds as if Rowan, Grammy winner and follower of Tibetan Buddhism, is having fun himself, still expanding the boundaries of his art at age 71 with fresh musical encounters and a new documentary.

This Friday, October 4, he and his band will headline the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park with an unusual guest: world-renowned Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo. (They’ll reprise this collaboration Oct. 11 at the First Methodist Church in Point Richmond, CA.)

How does Rowan feel these two seemingly disparate musical styles might mesh? Pretty darn well:

“Tibetan music shares a similarity with bluegrass…They’re both from remote mountainous areas populated by hill country people. Like Tibetan music, bluegrass has a very rootsy sound, earthy, and yet with spiritual overtones, both in the straight and the sacred songs. They have a kind of longing, a yearning for transcendence.”

And it’s just this rootsy yearning for transcendence that serves as the subject for “The Tao of Bluegrass,” a film documentary about Rowan’s journey from rebellious upstart in bluegrass legend Bill Monroe’s mid-60’s band, to gigging with Jerry Garcia in Old & In The Way, his life-changing encounter with Tibetan Buddhist masters Kalu Rinpoche and the sixteenth Karmapa, and the ongoing evolution of his musical and spiritual lives.

“It’s taken me a long time to turn the energy of expectation, and fear of failure and all that, into a flow,” he says in the film’s trailer. “The Tao of Bluegrass” will premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival Oct. 7 and 9.

Read a short SunSpace item on Peter Rowan from 2010, which includes a link to Terry Gross’ one-hour, dharma-inflected Fresh Air interview with him. And see the trailer for “The Tao of Bluegrass,” which includes a brief glimpse of Rowan in Kathmandu, here:

UPDATE: Enjoy Peter Rowan’s performance of an original song that includes at the end the mantra of Padmasambhava, the Indian master who established Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th c. The video uploader created an inspired montage paying homage to the legendary lama:


Photograph by Tim Benko.