Producing the best: Rowan's protege up for Grammy

Nichols' 'Man With a Memory' up for Country Album of the Year

— Sunday night, as the best of the music business take their bows on stage at the 45th annual Grammy Award ceremony, Steamboat Springs residents might recognize one of their own in the crowd.

Part-time Steamboat resident Brent Rowan, one of the best guitar players in country music, was nominated for a Grammy for his first-ever foray into record production, Joe Nichols' "Man With a Memory."

The album was nominated for Country Album of the Year. Other nominees are the Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.

As the day speeds toward him, Rowan said he is so stunned by the nomination, to have his name included with the likes of Willie Nelson, "it's like we've already won."

The award will be given out before the television broadcast and will be announced at the beginning of the show.

Rowan found Nichols three and a half years ago and introduced him to the label Universal South in December 2001.

"They liked his music so much that they made him a priority release," Rowan said.

Nichols' single "The Impossible" went to No. 1 on country charts immediately after its release, and his song "Broken Heartsville" went to No. 7.

It was Rowan's first time as a producer.

"Being a producer is a lot like being a movie director," he said. "You choose which songs get on the album, where it is recorded. You watch the budget and make sure everyone gets credit."

As a veteran musician of 20 years, most of Rowan's friends were producers, he said, and he had always wanted to try it.

But whom he chose to produce was important.

"It's like marrying someone," Rowan said. "You have to love their music and love who they are as a person, because you spend so much time with them."

Twenty-six-year-old Nichols was a perfect fit for Rowan.

"He's an honest and hardworking guy. I love the way he treats his family and other people," Rowan said. "And he's one of the most phenomenal singers I've heard."

When Rowan found Nichols, he was about to leave Nashville.

"He was weeks from giving up and going home," Rowan said. "He had been turned down 31 times. I said, 'You can't give up yet. Why don't you let me give it a try?'"

Nichols' album was nominated for three Grammys and has sold 200,000 copies, Rowan said. It's the first record produced by the new label, Universal South.

"It's not far from going gold," Rowan said.

Even as he helps a young talented musician take his first steps toward success, Rowan is experimenting with the boundaries of his own success as well.

For the past two decades, he made his living as a studio musician, playing backup for the likes of George Strait, Sting, Neil Diamond and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

But in 2000, he released an album of his own work called "Bare Essentials."

The music was of an improvisational style that he developed while his son, Marlin, was in the womb.

Marlin is 5 years old now and Rowan has two more sons, Cade, 2, and Granger, 7 months.

"I play these minuets to them," Rowan said. "It has an amazing soothing effect on them. The songs are all about places they have been together as a family. This album is who I am."

Rowan himself was introduced to a very limited amount of music as a child. He grew up in a strict religious family and was allowed to listen only to church music.

His parents bought him an acoustic guitar when he was 10 years old and found his life's calling.

When he moved to Nashville as a 20-year-old, Rowan still hadn't explored much music beyond the confines of his upbringing, but his newfound freedom catapulted him on a powerful journey of musical exploration.

His first albums were The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Olivia Newton-John.

"Then I tried to find who inspired them, and then found out who those people listened to, and traced it all back as far as I could go," Rowan said.

"People might say that I was ripped off as a kid not getting to listen to (a diverse range of music) but I think it made me dig deeper into my musical tastes."

For the past six months, however, Rowan's musical exploration has been limited to songs that might be good for Nichols' album.

"I've probably listened to 5,000 songs trying to find the right ones," he said. On "Man With a Memory," Nichols wrote three of the songs himself and sang nine songs chosen by Rowan.

When Rowan gets a break from the studio, as he did around Christmastime, he and his family come to Steamboat.

Rowan is a Colorado native and a graduate of Arvada High School. Eleven years ago, Rowan rented a car at the Denver airport and drove the entire state -- 2,200 miles in five days.

"I remember driving over Rabbit Ears Pass. The valley opened up and I thought, 'Wow. What is this?'" he said.

"I walked around town and Steamboat was the most normal of the mountain towns I visited. Nashville is a lot like Hollywood. There are a lot of people who act like they have a lot more than they have. In Steamboat, people have a lot more than they'll let you know."

Rowan bought property in Steamboat in the summer of 1993 and built a cabin for him and his wife on that land.

"If home is where your heart is, then my home is in Steamboat," he said.

Rowan wrote a song called "80477" about Steamboat.

"I'm so thankful to have found it," he said. "As a child, my family moved around so much that I never really had a hometown. Steamboat makes me feel like I have one."

At some point, Rowan hopes to move to Steamboat full time, he said, and commute to Nashville when necessary.

"Rowan is a really great guy and this town is dear to his heart," Randy Kelley said. "He's a Christian guy who just wants to raise his kids in a quieter community than Nashville."

Kelley plays with the band Sundog and has played with Rowan on several occasions.

"(Being nominated for a Grammy) couldn't happen to a nicer guy."

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