The story behind Brent Rowan
After 20 years in Nashville, Brent Rowan is perhaps the most prolific and sought-after studio guitar player on Music Row. Since breaking into the industry as lead guitarist on John Conlee's "Friday Night Blues," Rowan has worked over 10,000 recording sessions representing well over 100,000,000 records sold. His credits include cuts by leading country and pop artists of the last two decades, among them George Strait, Shania Twain, Sting, Brian Wilson, Randy Travis, Neil Diamond, Olivia Newton-John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Alabama. A five-time nominee for CMA's Instrumentalist of the Year Award and an Academy of Country Music Guitarist of the Year, Rowan has already put together the kind of track record left by only a handful of legendary Nashville session players.
Now, after two decades of supporting other artists, Rowan has embarked on a new chapter in his guitar career, assuming the role of soloist and composer with a collection of meditations on acoustic guitar. Inspired by the improvisational tone poems he plays at home for his young son, Rowan's new CD Bare Essentials showcases the emotional and musical side of his love for the guitar and the outdoors. "In a world of music that's about playing fast and loud, I wanted to appeal to the emotional part of people," he says. "Nobody ever hears this part of my music. Playing in the studio is what I do. This album is who I am."
The songs on Bare Essentials were composed in the months leading up to the recording and in some cases they jelled in the studio. Played on solo fingerstyle guitar, the CD's 14 cuts are reminiscent of the work William Ackerman and George Winston did for Windham Hill Records in the 1980s, but they have a distinctive timbre and a keen melodic sense that gives them a strong measure of motion. Through frequent use of open tunings, Rowan achieves a spacious landscape of sound and an atmosphere of peace and serenity.
Composing solo acoustic works quickly led to his first opportunities to play as a featured artist before live audiences, and Rowan confesses that has been quite seductive. In an arena full of 5,000 people at the National Western Stock Show in January and a more intimate opening date for singer/songwriter Jonathan Brooke in the summer of 1999, Rowan experienced a kind of immediate feedback to his music he'd never known in the studio, and that energy is bound to spark more creativity in the years to come. Indeed, additional recording projects are in the planning stages.
It is hard to believe today, but Rowan grew up hearing almost nothing but church music. His dad, a building temperature control specialist, and his mom, a homemaker, were members of the Assembly of God Church. In his Texas boyhood home, gospel and country music were allowed, but "I didn't know about rock and roll at all," recalls Rowan.
Those limits weren't as absolute as they might sound, because Texas and Louisiana soul seeped through the church walls. "We had rockin' church bands," Rowan says, remembering set-ups with electric guitars, organ, drums, and powerful singers. It was as close as a white kid could get to the kind of black Baptist church music that formed the musical education of countless soul and R&B stars, Rowan realizes now. "That's why the emotional part of music has always meant a lot more that the technical part. I saw the connection between heart and feeling and music at an early age."
As a child, Rowan picked out tunes on whatever instruments crossed his path - the family piano or a harmonica - and when he was 10, his parents bought him an inexpensive acoustic guitar. An electric followed a year later. Before Rowan entered the eighth grade, the family moved to Colorado. Here, the young musician was captivated by the natural splendor of his surroundings, particularly the mountains, and formed the passion for the outdoors that continues to inspire his music today. In high school, he got so serious about the trumpet that he considered going to Annapolis to pursue a career in the U. S. Navy Band. It was then that he taught himself how to read music on guitar by picking through his trumpet books.
Eventually, he followed his instincts to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he'd been offered a spot in a traveling gospel band. Those were lean times, he recalls. "There were more than a few nights that I'd go to Long John Silver's and ask if they had any fish they were going to throw out. I was starving, but I was playing music."
It was while playing with that band, the Kenny Parker Trio, that Rowan first saw the inner workings of a recording studio and when he first met the players who made the studio their office. It proved a revelation. Compared to life on the road, session work looked like a way to do what he loved most for a living and sleep in the same bed every night. "I had no idea if they made more or less money," Rowan says. "It didn't matter."
So Rowan moved to Nashville in the late 70s, and when he turned in his U-Haul, he knew two people in town and had about $450. "I didn't know that the last thing this town needed was another guitar player. I knew what I wanted to do and didn't think about it," Rowan says today. Perhaps even more remarkably, Rowan had still not explored music outside of the confines in which he'd been raised. He was a 20-year-old guitarist who'd never heard Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix; he'd never even been to a movie. But that only spurred the people he encountered to expose him to new sounds more enthusiastically. "People are pretty cool. They realize people are raised differently." So needless to say, it was a time of discovery, but not one that ever tilted Rowan off the straight line toward a professional career.
Rowan pieced together a living for a couple of years as so many new Nashvillians do, by playing on custom records, writing songs, and briefly gigging with Country Music Hall of Famer Grandpa Jones. He worked his own demo tape up and down Music Row for the few appointments he could wrangle, and he offered to fill in for guitar players who couldn't make a session, promising to play for free if his tracks weren't on the money. Finally producer Bud Logan put him on Conlee's "Friday Night Blues," and after hearing the tape, Conlee never hired any other lead guitar player for session work again.
By the time he was 30, Rowan was one of Nashville's studio veterans. He built his style as an admirer of legends Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Pete Wade, and Reggie Young. "Those guys were just great at creating hooks that would help people remember the song. I loved that. By playing as few notes as possible, people know what that song is," says Rowan.
Many guitarist hinge their success on developing a signature sound, but Rowan went the opposite direction, trying to make each session as unique as possible, tailoring the sound of the electric guitar, the playing style, and the part of the lyrical content of the song at hand. "I try to play differently on each record if I can, so a listener won't know who's playing. That makes your career longer, in my opinion," Rowan says. "And besides," he adds, "it's not as fair to the artist if you're playing the same way on everybody's record."
Rowan and his wife and son live in Nashville with frequent respites in Steamboat Springs, Co. He enjoys fly fishing, backpacking, horseback riding, golf, and improving his flying skills. But music is never far away, and he regards it as a blessing to be making his living in a field so saturated by people's dreams. "In some cases, depending on the song, you can change people's lives. It's a high calling," he says. "I started out when there wasn't any money. I'll end up on the front porch of an old folk's home when there's no money, and I'm still going to be playing guitar. This is just the part in between."