By Jonathan Kirby
At the Asheville Flea Market in 1978, you might have spotted singer-songwriter, Carey Rowland, on the back of his Dodge pick-up truck, playing tunes and selling copies of his self-released album, Something For Everyone.
“I didn’t make any effort to circulate them,” Rowland recently told me at his home in Boone. “I’m not a businessman. I’m a poet and a folk singer. So, the fact that I had these albums was good enough for me.”
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Rowland forged an early fascination with the music of Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez. He began taking guitar lessons at age 12 and formed his first band, the Blazers (later, Unsoul Property) in high school. After graduating from Louisiana State University, Rowland drifted around a bit before migrating north to Asheville, where he would fall into formation with informal architects of the city’s burgeoning folk scene.
Rowland’s brief recording career straddles the years 1978 and 1979, wherein he released two LPs—the first, folk, the second, Christian. Something For Everyone is honest and intimate, sparsely arranged and quickly recorded during a weekend trip to Nashville. Tracked in February of the following year on the heels of a religious awakening, Revelation 5:9 is fantastic and collaborative, housed in a beautiful screen-printed jacket—a collage of locally-sourced design elements. Likewise, the spiritually astute compositions come to life at the capable hands of luminaries from the region’s folk and jazz communities—David Holt, Dan Lewis, and Howard Hanger, just to name a few.
A creative polymath, Rowland maintains a comprehensive website stocked with a rolling account of musings, music, and observations. He has written four novels, Glass Half Full (2007), Glass Chimera (2010), Smoke (2014) and King of Soul (2017). He lives in Boone with his wife Pat, where they maintain an AirBnB on the hilly outskirts of downtown.
So how did you wind up in the mountains of North Carolina?
I was selling advertising for the St. Petersburg Times and I had a bad habit—running stop signs and red lights. So I got a few tickets and one day I got this letter in the mail from the state of Florida that said something to the effect of—you’ve got 12 points against your license, you need to mail your license to Tallahassee, we’re gonna keep it for 30 days. Well, that was not hard to do. I took the license out of my wallet, I dropped it in an envelope, I sent it to Tallahassee. But you know, I had to get out and do my thing every day, so I kept driving. And one day I got stopped and I got a ticket and I had to go to court. I had my tie on, my wingtips, and I just knew he was gonna fine me $25 or something. Well, Judge Rasmussen looked at me and said, “Mr. Rowland—if you would continue to disregard the law in the manner that you have done and if everybody did that in this country, we would have anarchy! Therefore, I sentence you to five days in the county detention center.” So, two hours later I’m in a jail cell with all these hardened criminals in Zephyrhills, Florida or somewhere. And the night that I got out of jail, I went to a movie. The movie was called, Where The Lilies Bloom. And the scenery in that movie impressed me so deeply that I made a point of watching the credits, all the way to the end, to discover that it was filmed in North Carolina. The next day, I went to the public library and I was looking at their yellow pages for anything in Western North Carolina. They had an Asheville phonebook, and, in the middle, you could find information about the city—said that Asheville was an artsy kind of place. Of course, me being a poet-dreamer and wannabe musician, that sounded pretty inviting to me.
What about the landscape grabbed you? When you think of the movie, what appears in your head?
Well, the story was about three kids whose mother had died, and their father died, and they were living in a shack on a hillside somewhere. And if social services knew that their father had died, they would come in there and take the kids and make them go into a foster home. So, what they did was they took their father and buried him right there on the old home place. And the scene in which the three children buried their father, there was a panned shot of the Appalachian landscape. And I remember the line in the movie that [the character] Mary Call spoke: “It’s a fair place to spend eternity.”
So, I went to North Carolina and of course, there was a big music scene in Asheville. I played in Caesar’s Parlor out Merrimon Avenue, and of course the Asheville Junction where I met Dan Lewis and Ray Sisk. And Malcolm Holcombe was playing with Ray at that time, and Andy Cohen and his wife Iris were running the place. And the Allen Center—it was a folk club; it was a Peter Paul and Mary kind of place. The main thing I remember about Caesar’s Parlor was the night that I was in there and Marc Pruett—banjo player who also had a music shop, Pruett Brothers—was there playing bluegrass. And three or four guys crowd around a mic and they were singing “Tennessee,” with that harmony where they’re layering it. There was just something about that music.
When did you start writing originals?
It was during that time. I took a poetry class at LSU; I was a writer and a poet and all that. I think the emphasis in the back of my mind always was writing more so than performing. And so, I think the first song that I wrote was a song called “Gilgara Mountain,” which Dan Lewis turned into something that was three times as good as it was originally, without the harmonica in there. It was just amazing what he did with that song.
So, the first original song you ever wrote appears on your first album?
What was the impetus for recording this album?
Well, I had written a bunch of songs. I’m not an ambitious person. All I wanted to do was to just do it, get it done, get it recorded—whatever. So, I’d written these songs, and my friend Tom Behrens called me from Nashville and said he was working in a studio over there and would I like to come over and lay down some of my songs? And of course, I did. And so, I went over to Nashville one weekend and Dan Lewis was over there with me and Tom was working at this studio in a part of town I’d never heard of called Music Row. I was so happy. Then, once we had the tracks down, I was doing a little overdubbing with piano and whatnot. Then Waldo and Bill show up; one of them has got a saxophone, the other one’s got a trumpet. Next thing I know they’re laying down these dynamite tracks on “Underground Railroad.” Man, I was in Nashville heaven.
Who were Waldo and Bill?
I never saw them again and I had never seen them before that day. Tom was running the tracks, the raw “Underground Railroad” that I had done. I didn’t play it with them; they were working strictly from the tape. And they worked on it a little bit, and then they cut it, and then they were gone, and I never saw them again.
Why do you think Tom called you, of all the people he was associated with in Asheville, to cut a record?
Probably because he knew that I was a songwriter. And what else do you do, if you’ve just landed in a place like Nashville? You’re looking back to where you came from and you’re thinking about the panorama of musicians that crossed your path. If you thought that any one of them had some potential, you’d call them up. Maybe Tom had a career in record production in the back of his mind? And you got to start somewhere.
So, you did this recording over a weekend?
Probably. He sent me a tape, and I listened to it, and, I was pleased. Now if I was a real musician, if I was a professional musician, I would of found 1001 places where I could say “He misses a beat there or the drummer misses there,” or something like that. I was just very pleased with it and I said, “What would it take for me to get this tape on vinyl?” I ordered 500 records. I had an idea for the cover. I went to Sharon Vincent—she was living in Weaverville. I took a little nylon string guitar out there [because] I liked the artwork around the sound hole. And I said, “I want you to take this guitar and I want you to draw the face of it there and that’s gonna be my album cover.” And I don’t know how the bee thing showed up—I think I said, “Oh and by the way, Sharon—put a bee in there.” I guess it’s because I had a certain kind of style with my fingers that I had gotten from Carlos Montoya. He came to LSU and it was just amazing what he did. So, I had developed this kind of scrambly kind of credenza thing with the strings. So, I think when I asked Sharon to put the bee on there, I had that flamenco movement in my mind—because it was sort of like a bee buzzing. Although that bee was a lot fatter than I had imagined.
What was the inspiration behind the title?
Well, of course it’s not something for everyone. It’s a very narrow poetry collection with a little music behind it. That was an example of positive thinking. If I thought there was something on there for everybody, then I was dreaming.
Your next album was released just one year later. What motivated you to get back in the studio so soon?
I was having a rough time and I was making some poor decisions. And at the V.A. hospital in Oteen, I was helping somebody do a slate roof. And on one Friday, I had a check from that roofing company—I think it was $175. And I cashed the check and filled up my gas tank and drove to Texas. I was gonna go to Austin and be a folk singer. I got to Waco and spent the night at my grandmother’s house—little old Baptist lady, she’d been praying for me all these years. The next day or so, I went to a Pentecostal church there in Waco and I walked in and these women were in there singing in tongues and I thought I was hearing angels in heaven. And so, I’m listening to this sermon. This blind man was preaching. After the service, I went up and I said, “Well, what do I need to do here?” And he said, “You come to my office in the morning.” So, I came to his office the next morning and he led me to the Lord, to Jesus. I eventually made my way back to Asheville and started living life as a Christian. And I wrote some Christian songs and at some point, I felt I had it together enough to do an album. I really liked doing an album. So, I asked a bunch of my friends that I’d picked with a little bit. Dan was, of course, one of them. Dan did a stellar job. I mean, he’s an incredible musician. But that harmonica that he put in on “Life’s Railway to Heaven” with Dave Holt playing the banjo? David Holt used to live right across the street from me when I was on Garren Creek Road, out between Asheville and Bat Cave. So, it was another one of those things that just happened. It was a lot more of a live thing. We had a lot of fun. And then I did another session, a jazz session, with Howard Hangar and his band.
Was it intentional to include the little informal prayer at the beginning of “Amazing Grace?” Is that something that you wanted on the album? Or was it an afterthought?
It wasn’t a recording as far as I was concerned: It was an event. And not only am I prevailing upon these friends of mine—some of whom were not believers—to come in and help me do this project, but I’m also, in a sense, preaching to them. I’m hoping that the experience that they have playing music with me will make a little dent in their own belief. And I’m not a real vocal Christian, but I did take the liberty of saying a prayer before [“Amazing Grace”] — so I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be left in there.”
About the Author
Jonathan Kirby is a record collector, author, and producer with the esteemed reissue label, the Numero Group. A native of Winston-Salem, he is an authority on music recorded in the Carolinas and has amassed thousands of independently produced records from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, spanning all genres from doo-wop to hip-hop, folk to funk to rock. From 2007 to 2010, he served as the Associate Editor for the Brooklyn-based music Journal, Wax Poetics, before joining the Numero Group in 2011. He has been nominated for two Grammys in relation to his archival work—in 2014 for his expansive liner notes for Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound and again in 2017 for producing Bobo Yeye: Belle Epoque in Upper Volta. He returned to Winston-Salem in May of 2018 to intensify his research and preservation of the underrated, unknown, and marginalized musicians of North Carolina. He has just completed the cover story for the Oxford American South Carolina Music Issue, where he goes deep on the musical accomplishments of Lake City native and astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair, whose untimely death aboard the Challenger in 1986 put a tragic end to saxophone solos performed in orbit.