PETER ROWAN

AND TONY RICE

"You Were There for Me"

Rounder

What do you get when you pair up one of the finest singers in bluegrass -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- with the most celebrated flat-picking guitarist of his generation? A first, for starters, and a collaboration that somehow manages to exceed expectations.

The surprises that surface on "You Were There for Me" have nothing to do with Peter Rowan's tenor, which is as reliably soulful as ever, or with Tony Rice's acoustic guitar virtuosity, which creates an almost seamless thread running throughout this 10-song collection. These vets quickly demonstrate their individual strengths, albeit with great subtlety at times, and anyone who's heard them performing together in other settings with other musicians won't find their natural chemistry lacking.

What is surprising is the number of terrific songs gathered here. Had Rowan unearthed the best tunes he's composed for the past several years just for this occasion, the results wouldn't have been more impressive. There's not a mediocre lyric in the bunch, let alone a dud, and some of the songs rank with Rowan's finest work, including the bittersweet blues "Ain't That Just Like You," the wartime vignette "Ahmed the Beggar Boy" and the poignant narrative "Angel Island." The group settings range from trios to quintets, but the performances, thanks largely to Rowan's stellar songcraft, are consistently top-notch.

-- Mike Joyce

Appearing Friday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8105. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)

Peter Rowan and Tony Rice: Great parts and an even better sum.