Quick Q and A with Dave Rowe

Dave Rowe’s name is intrinsically tied to water. I’ve known Dave for a long time and am well aware of his family history chronicling the tales of sailors and boats of yore in song. His dad’s band, Schooner Fare, kept those songs alive and delighted audiences who adored hearing about dangerous voyages, hard-working sailors and those they left behind and oh-so-much more that are relayed in that particular niche in the world of folk music. Knowing that Dave continues his family legacy by not only singing those songs but the fact the he does it in his own unique and sometimes unexpected way makes me smile and feel grateful that Dave Rowe is in the world.

Dave just recently completed a year-long trip of a lifetime along the Great Loop. His stories and songs were streamed on Folk Music Notebook. (Note: check out Ron Olesko’s brainchild… 24/7 folk music with enough special features and surprises to keep your heart full of good things for hours on end.)

You can learn all kinds of fascinating information about Dave Rowe by visiting his website.

Here’s a full-length video of Dave celebrating the end of his great trip with an online show.

Just because I mentioned this bluegrass version of “Taking Care of Business” below, I thought I’d share it with you here.

You’ve just completed a big adventure!  You and your partner, Stacey, just returned from a long boat trip called the Great Loop.  For those of us who are not boaters, please describe the voyage.

The Great Loop is a 6000-mile circumnavigation of the eastern states as well as part of Canada involving 17 states, not including side trips, and the Province of Ontario. Not-so-simply put, it is the East Coast Intracoastal Waterway to New York City, up the Hudson River to Albany, across the Erie Canal until the Oswego River, up the Oswego to Lake Ontario, across Lake Ontario to the Kingston area of Ontario, through the Trent-Severn Waterway to the Georgian Bay/the North Channel in Lake Huron, down past Mackinac Island into Lake Michigan, and transit most of the length of Lake Michigan to Chicago. At that point it becomes all inland rivers and canals until the Gulf of Mexico via the Chicago River, Illinois River, Mississippi River, Ohio River, Tennessee River (TVA), Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to Mobile Bay, then back into the ICW back to Florida and back up the East Coast.

For us we also added a few interesting side trips, running to New Orleans where we spent a month, plus a couple of extra days boating on Lake Pontchartrain (which was very, very cool), making new friends in Pascagoula, Mississippi (Hi Rocky!), and when we were in South Carolina coming north, we spent several extra days exploring the wilds of the Waccamaw River, which was exceedingly beautiful.

This trip was not a vacation. It was a year out of our lives. It was life altering, at times frightening, and constantly amazing. I have never had such a continuous songwriting muse available to me at any other point in my life. We got to see America from the unique perspective of the water. It’s crazy, but there are places that you just can’t reach easily from the water and have to either chug on by or pull in several miles away and rent a car to see (we did both at times). Not every town and city thinks about people visiting by boat, but they’d do well to do so. It’s not hard to put out a dinghy dock. That’s all the welcome mat boaters need. It’s kind of ironic considering that America grew up around its waterways. It’s a minor gripe about an otherwise wonderful trip, but worth mentioning in case a few city planners are reading this and making mental notes.

Needless to say, tell us about your beloved boat, Stinkpot. Is that an affectionate name or does it mean something in mariner language that I’m not aware of? 

Stinkpot is a 34-year-old, 38-foot Bayliner built for near-coastal and river cruising. She’s a wonderful craft, and as you guessed, the name has significance in maritime lingo—or slander. She’s a powerboat. For some reason, many people assumed I was buying a sailboat, probably for the romance of it. A sailboat is not really the ideal boat for the Great Loop due to bridge heights—a mast would have to be carried, not used. A year on a boat is hard enough without the cramped spaces on a sailboat. And then there’s draft—the water just isn’t very deep for much of the loop, and sailboats tend to require a deeper draft. Anyhow, sailboaters call powerboats “stinkpots,” so when I got sick of telling people that I was buying a stinkpot, we decided to embrace it and name the boat for her description. If I ever buy a sailboat, I’ll probably call it “Raghanger.”

How much boating had you done prior to this trip?  Did you feel adequately prepared for not only the technical aspects of navigation but the emotional and physical toll that such a long trip can bring on?

I boated on smaller crafts (up to 28′) for most of my life, but always other people’s boats—they cost less to operate. 😉 That is until Stacey and I bought our first “big boat” together in 2016. She was a 32-foot Carver. We literally lived on that boat for three summers traveling some 4000 miles by water in three summers, May until October. We loved it, and I decided that the boating season was entirely too short, so I started looking for ways to lengthen it. My research introduced me to the Great Loop. I shared the idea with Stacey and we began searching for our next boat—a “loop boat.” We bought Stinkpot in North Carolina in November of 2018.

Stacey stayed with the boat while I returned to Maine to play out my remaining 2018 gigs in Maine. We then cruised the boat to Florida for winter 2018-19, and then back north as far as Baltimore where we left her until June so we could prepare and rent out the house in preparation for the loop, and sell the other boat. When we returned in June, we cleaned and outfitted the boat and headed out on the big adventure!

Interestingly, I felt we were well prepared for the loop, and we were. Especially when compared to some of the people we met along the way who bought their first, and likely only, boats to do the loop and jumped in with no preparation of any kind. That said, we are both so much better mariners now than we were a year ago. Nothing replaces experience, and there is really very little you can encounter in a near-coastal, river, lake or canal cruise that we haven’t encountered at this point. Personally, I can’t imagine doing the loop with so little preparation as some of our peers, but to each their own.

Your original idea was for you to play concerts along the way.  Were you able to have any memorable shows before COVID-19 put a dent in your plans? 

The best-laid plans…. That was indeed the original intention, and I did do a few shows along the way, but not as many as originally hoped for. I think I did as many as I possibly could have, however.

The summer before we started looping, Randall Williams joined us on our old boat—he actually flew to us in his float plane and we picked him up in the dinghy. While we were cruising, I told him that I was planning to play gigs while on the loop, and he told me that he thought I was crazy. “Boating with a schedule sucks,” was the quote, as I recall. And I knew he was right. So we changed things up a bit and booked a few select shows with enough stretch time that I could absolutely do it and let go of the rest of the misguided “dream.” Some were very memorable (I’m looking at you, Milwaukee and 30A), and some were forgettable (not naming names), but all are now part of the story of the trip and still fantastic memories.

Now having said all that, if I had it to do again—and we might—and knowing better what kind of schedule we can keep, I might add a couple more shows here and there.

While you were traveling, you regaled music and boating fans with regular segments on the streaming radio station, Folk Music Notebook.  Did that foray into the world of streaming “edutainment” give you the opportunity to make some new fans?

Lots of fans and a lot of friends! Not sure how many found us organically and how many came to us via FMN, but our boating page on Facebook, Our Adventures on Stinkpot, garnered over 3000 followers and fans during the course of the trip from all corners of the country—and surprisingly from around the world. We’re very thankful to all of them. Every time we found ourselves in a bind and needed local support, we had only to say it on our page, and there was always someone offering us a slip for the boat, transportation to a store, or whatever else we needed to get through a tough moment. Sometimes it wasn’t even a person who was following us but a “local” friend or relative of a follower. Not sure how this works, but largely being away from people for a year rekindled my idealistic faith in humanity, which the 24-hour news cycle and our toxic politics had largely destroyed. I’m desperately trying to hold onto it with both hands now that I’m back on land. It ain’t easy being human in our broken society.

You grew up in folk music since your dad was part of the legendary band, Schooner Fare.  You were immersed in maritime music and sea shanties from an extremely young age. Were you drawn to them and love every single one of them or were you drawn at any time to the dark side in which you forsook all things folk and went the route of rock and roll.

There’s a question I’ve never seen! I love it!

Nope. My dad was far more rock and roll than me. Before he was in Schooner Fare, he was playing bass in Top 40 cover bands seven nights a week in the 1970s. I was a born folky who learned to like rock as opposed to the other way around. My taste now is far more eclectic than it used to be, but I find myself drawn to great songwriting, often by classically-trained musicians (which I am one—so go figure). My dad wanted me to become an opera singer, and I wanted to play music with my dad. One of us got his wish, at least until he died in 2004. That’s not to say I haven’t been in bands that have rocked—I have—but that’s always felt like punching a clock to me. If I’m true to myself and the music that makes me happy, that’s not what I’m doing.

 When did you first start writing your own songs?  Did you start as a solo artist?

I wrote my first songs as a high school student. The first few were absolute trash and are deservedly lost to time. When I was 19 I wrote a song called “Country Fair” that I recorded alone in my dad’s recording studio. It was my first good song that I still perform to this day. He’d given me a reel of tape to play with, so I did. I didn’t know he was listening to what I recorded. After he heard that song, he asked me if I wanted to start performing with him. It was one of the first songs we recorded on our duo CD.

My start though came earlier. My first gigs were as bass player in a band called “Makems, Rowe, and Sullivan.” It wasn’t a law firm, but it was the band that morphed over time (without me) into the Makem Brothers and later Makem and Spain. I left the band to go to college, but somehow ended up on the road anyway. It’s a long story….

As far as my solo artist status, it’s been an on and off thing since the early 90s, but I never really embraced it as my musical identity until the last few years when the economics of touring and the tendency of bands to crash and burn over creative and business differences convinced me of the wisdom of playing alone. I miss bands. I miss the fun, camaraderie, jokes, late nights in the car, and enduring friendships, but I do not miss band politics. Give me ten years and I’ll probably start another band in a moment of weakness. Until then….

If you had to name a few things that you’re most proud of during your musical career, what would they be?

That I’m still doing this. I have been a professional musician since I was 15 years old. I have never made a living any other way. It’s meant taking some gigs I’d rather forget—and due to the fog of time, I mostly have—but I’ve never had to flip burgers or toss newspapers. Well, there have been times when I probably should have taken a job doing something else. There have been lean times in my past, but I have been lucky and survived them.

It’s funny to even think about this question because I never got into music for the accolades. All I ever wanted was to make a living making folk music. I watched my dad do it, and he appeared to have a lot of fun. Of course, over time, I’ve learned “how the sausage is made,” but I still think it’s fun and a worthy pursuit. My dad used to say, “If I stopped making money making music, I’d pay to do it,” and I think I would too, but I’d much prefer to make a living at my first greatest love. Anyhow, here are a few favorite moments over a 32-year career.

After Oscar Brand passed a few years ago, I was asked by the World Folk Music Association to appear at his memorial concert in the DC area at the specific request of the Brand family.

A recent point of pride that I didn’t see coming. I have been interviewed monthly for a radio show in Downeast Maine on WERU (a station started by Noel Stookey) called BoatTalk. You can probably tell from the name of the show that we weren’t talking folk music. I dropped my new unreleased song, “A Toast to John Prine,” on the hosts and they shared it with the station. I had no idea that it was put into play rotation. I was just told that last week it was in the station’s top 10.

The absolute biggest honor I can say I have ever had is people coming out to hear my shows. In this day and age, having people go out of their way to do anything is amazing. We’re all fighting for the same scraps in the entertainment world, so when someone carves out time in their calendar, pays a babysitter, buys a ticket and dinner, just to hear my songs—well how cool is that?! Of course, at this point with COVID-19 it’s all happening online, but it still pleases me to know that my music is meaningful to that many people. My online show in May never had fewer than 225 connections at any one time. That’s not individuals, that computers connected to the stream! I assume there are probably at least two people watching on most of those “connections.” It’s gratifying and humbling to know that many people enjoy my music. I’m the furthest thing from an “overnight success,” and in some ways I’ve always felt that I would have had a much easier time if I wasn’t a folk musician “following in the footsteps” of his folk musician father. I had a bandmate once tell me, “Dave, you have Livingston Taylor syndrome.” I’ll let you puzzle out what that might mean, but suffice it to say, I think it’s easier to come from absolute obscurity where there are no expectations than it is to come from relative obscurity where everybody thinks they know what you should be doing, and (surprise) it’s exactly not what you’re doing.

How do you view the songwriter’s job?  How do you make what’s important to you just as important to those who will hear the song?

The songwriter’s job is to write the song and get out of the way. I think too many songwriters try to overwrite songs or turn them into trophies. John Prine got it, which is why he was a songwriter’s songwriter. I truly believe that songwriters are a conduit for ideas and music and nothing more. In my song about John Prine, my last verse says:

I’m a fool with a guitar, I write songs of my own

Every word, every nuance is from angels on loan

John found them from Paradise to West Bethlehem

He shared them so we all might just sing them again

Everything I feel about being a songwriter is in that quatrain. It’s an honor just to be selected.

Oh, and as an aside, one of the exceptions that proves the rule to everything I just said was Freddie Mercury (and I’m sure I could come up with others). His songs were absolutely a testament to his ego, and they were still crazy good.

As far as the second part of the question, if the song is honest, well written, and properly arranged, the “importance” of the subject matter will come through. Writing can’t be forced and audiences can’t be coerced. 

I remember seeing you as part of the Dave Rowe Trio and besides your original music, you did an awesome version of the Bachman Turner Overdrive song “Taking Care of Business” in which you magically transformed that classic song into a bluegrassy song for the ages!  

Thanks for remembering that! I still perform that same arrangement solo, though I miss the full instrumentation. Over 20 years ago I was in a duo with another gent, and our on-going competition as musical collaborators was to out-do the other with doing bluegrass arrangements of rock and roll songs. That was always one of my favorite “conversions.” 

I’m lucky enough to play Riversong Guitars out of Kamloops, BC in Canada, and my friend and luthier extraordinaire, Mike Miltimore, shared my arrangement of that song with Tal Bachman. I’m told it got his stamp of approval. 

I understand that you’re working on a new collection of songs that you wrote during your Great Loop voyage.  When do you suspect your fans will start hearing them? 

Many of the songs have already debuted on Folk Music Notebook and my online concerts, but I’m hoping to have a new CD out in the fall. Now that I’m back and have access to my studio, I’ll be spending some time getting the recordings finished off. My 20-year-old son has pledged to help me do so (perhaps another future collaboration?).

I also have a new, exciting show project in the works with Folk Music Notebook now that “Folk on the Water” is officially over (at least for now). It will involve other artists, so any of my folk music colleagues who would like to be involved in a new project that might put the focus on their music and don’t mind a sojourn to Maine should feel free to contact me via email on my website.

Photo by Thomas-john Veilleux