PETER ROWAN'S new album, "Dust Bowl Children," doesn't contain any Woody Guthrie compositions, but it is nonetheless one of the most successful tributes to Guthrie's legacy ever recorded. Rowan, a veteran of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys and David Grisman's Earth Opera, has whittled his sound down to nothing more than his own voice and his own guitar or mandola on the new album, and his dozen original songs evoke the rural, pre-Elvis America that was Guthrie's great subject.
Struck by the power of Guthrie's songs, many singer-songwriters make the mistake of trying to match that power with overwritten lyrics and overstated vocals. By contrast, Rowan seeks the single clear image -- a lover's lusty promise that he'll be your "Electric Blanket" or a son's memory of the "Seeds My Daddy Sowed" -- and patiently coaxes the image to fruition in a relaxed, friendly tenor.
Typical of Rowan's album is "Before the Streets Were Paved," which bounces along to the kind of western square dance tune that Guthrie might have recycled. Rowan creates a dialogue between a young man and his grandfather about the old days, but instead of the pandering sentimentality of the Judds' "Grandpa (Tell Me About the Good Old Days)," Rowan offers a Guthrie-esque populist message to explain why times have changed. Some songs ("Little Mother" and "Tumbleweed") etch sharp portraits of the rootless poor searching for work, while others ("Rainmaker" and "Forest for the Trees") celebrate the natural beauty of the untamed portions of the American West.
PETER ROWAN -- "Dust Bowl Children" (Sugar Hill). Appearing Saturday at the Birchmere.