Hot Rize History, 1978-present
From humble beginnings as a regional Boulder-based band in 1978 to worldwide acclaim in the 80s, and bowing out as a full-time band in 1990 while winning the first Entertainer of the Year award from the International Bluegrass Music Association, Hot Rize earned a place in the bluegrass history book.
In a unique continuing history, the band’s post-disbanding 24 years has seen a continuing growth of their legacy, with 2014 marking a re-blossoming of the fabled quartet, with the release of When I’m Free, a full album of new material, featuring new songs by all four members.
The Hot Rize story starts in 1977 when Pete Wernick, a.k.a. “Dr Banjo” joined forces with singer, mandolinist, and fiddler Tim O’Brien on their two solo albums, and formed a band with musician buddies from the Denver Folklore Center, with the initial intent to promote the two albums. The first gigs were in Boulder in January, 1978 with Charles Sawtelle on bass and guitarist Mike Scap.
The name Hot Rize was chosen as a nod to a long-time sponsor of bluegrass music, Martha White Flour, whose secret leavening ingredient, Hot Rize, came to symbolize a new force in the music. In short order, O’Brien’s clear, soulful tenor and Wernick’s creative banjo approach set a direction toward a unique and exciting identity.
With the departure of Scap early on, Sawtelle switched to guitar and multi-instrumentalist Nick Forster completed the band May 1, 1978 to usher in a 12-year period of full-time work as Hot Rize, that took them to virtually every state and four continents. The group jelled as a partnership, developing original material by O’Brien, Wernick and Forster, and a stage show that became known as “the greatest show in bluegrass."
The deep respect of the band for the roots of bluegrass, combined with an offbeat style featuring vintage suits and ties when “stage casual” was the rule with young bands, helped set the band apart. Sawtelle’s guitar eccentricities earned him the title of “the Bluegrass Mystery” while Forster’s electric bass underpinnings helped forge a modern-yet-traditional sound that earned fans from hard-core traditionalists to a younger progressive-minded audience.
Part of the band’s success was based on a remarkable complement of skills, both onstage and off. Among the four were a sound-system guru (Sawtelle), a booking/management whiz (Wernick, a Columbia Ph.D.), emcee, driving and merchandising expertise (Forster), and Eagle Scout, multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter (O’Brien). The onstage harmonies, banter, and instrumental interplay mirrored the functioning of a tight team who stuck together through 12 years of international touring and recording.
Hot Rize traveled the U.S. and Canada at first in a 1969 Cadillac Sedan deVille, and upgraded in 1980 to a converted 1957 Greyhound, visiting 47 states in style over the next decade. Plane travel entered the picture increasingly in later years as the band answered invitations to perform in places as far-reaching as Japan, Australia, Finland, Ireland, and throughout Europe.
By 1982, Hot Rize had released two acclaimed albums on Flying Fish, toured Europe twice, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, and became a leading client of influential agent Keith Case. The band took its place as a central fixture in the vibrant 1980s scene including important new talents such as the New Grass Revival, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, the Johnson Mt. Boys, the Tony Rice Unit, Peter Rowan, and John Hartford, who collectively sowed seeds for new trends in bluegrass that have extended well into the 21st century.
Not the least of Hot Rize’s attractions was the regular appearance on their shows of an unpredictable “Western music” band known as Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers. Always clearly pointing out that “this is a band of older fellas that travel with us”, Hot Rize would leave the stage and be replaced by the quartet of talented but daffy exponents of “old electric music”… the sounds of Hank Williams and Bob Wills brought to life on vintage instruments, led by the smooth baritone of Red Knuckles himself. Not just a spoof band, the Trailblazers would earn wild appreciation for both their music and their onstage antics, with an array of guest artists who often looked surprisingly like Western-outfitted familiar bluegrass personalities.
Soulful original material helped establish the band in the hearts of the bluegrass community, with standards such as Nellie Kane, Hard Pressed, Walk the Way the Wind Blows, Just Like You, Shadows in My Room, and Midnight on the Highway popping up in jam sessions far and wide. Their Sugar Hill albums Traditional Ties (1985), Untold Stories (1987), and Take It Home (1990) contained numerous bluegrass radio hits and garnered accolades from album of the year selections to a 4-star review in Rolling Stone.
Hot Rize’s broad appeal made them the most media-exposed bluegrass band of the 1980s with the possible exception of the Father of Bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe. The Colorado foursome made regular visits to A Prairie Home Companion, The Nashville Network’s New Country and Nashville Now with Ralph Emery shows, and in 1987 scored a high-profile appearance on Austin City Limits.
With the unexpected success of two of O’Brien’s original songs landing high on the country charts in the late 80s, a career in country music called the lead singer, and led to a contract with RCA Records. A year later, the band amicably disbanded with a large farewell tour and a Grammy-nominated release, Take It Home, featuring perhaps their biggest hit ever, Colleen Malone, winner of Song of the Year from IBMA.
While receiving special plaudits for “signing off at the top”, Hot Rize would continue to do reunion shows in the years following their disbanding as a full-time unit. While the band members launched new interests and enterprises (Forster’s etown radio program, Wernick’s instructional bluegrass camps, Sawtelle’s Rancho deVille recording studio) they would carve out some Hot Rize time each year to visit favorite festivals and venues.
Tragedy struck the band in the mid-90s with the news that Sawtelle had contracted leukemia. The foursome pressed forward with a national tour in 1996 that yielded a pinnacle live recording So Long of a Journey. After a bone-marrow transplant operation in 1997, the guitarist was severely weakened and the final performance of the enduring quartet took place in Targhee, WY in August of 1998. Sawtelle passed away March 20, 1999, leading to a three-year period of grief and inactivity following the 20-year tenure of the classic band, O’Brien, Wernick, Sawtelle, and Forster.
To this day, no band in the history of bluegrass has maintained the same personnel for a period as long as 20 years. At the time, it seemed that that accomplishment might mark the end of the band.
The picture changed, however, when the release of the much-delayed live record So Long of a Journey gave a new spark to the band in 2002. The desire to tour behind the new record led the surviving band members to consider whom to bring in on guitar. First choice was North Carolinian Bryan Sutton, then 28, with a reputation as perhaps the top flatpicker in bluegrass. The multi-instrumentalist and first-call studio musician accepted the offer, and a new 21st century version of Hot Rize first took the stage in Oregon in June of 2002.
The next several years allowed Hot Rize to reestablish its team while continuing to revisit favorite festivals such as Telluride, Grey Fox, Strawberry, and Merlefest. In 2009, the IBMA invited the band to host its 30th annual award show, as winner of the first Entertainer of the Year honor at the original 1990 event. At that memorable 2009 show, Hot Rize performed with country star Kathy Mattea and backed up legendary Hall of Fame inductees the Dillards and the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, as well as performing its own material and having onstage confrontations over unscheduled visits from the irrepressible Trailblazers.
Following this bit of extra involvement and tribute, Hot Rize made the decision to step up its touring a notch, with two short national tours in 2010 and 2011, and inaugural appearances at the renowned Bonnaroo Festival (Tennessee) and Tønder Festival (Denmark).
Twenty years of post-breakup reunion shows had by now set the stage for a new development the band knew was overdue: A new album of new Hot Rize music. With two band members (O’Brien and Sutton) now based in Nashville, and the other two (Forster and Wernick) still in the Boulder area, a number of album-dedicated get-togethers started yielding new material, including co-written songs. The band pared down a large list of candidates and in June 2013, descended on the Studio at eTown Hall in Boulder to make the album.
In a spirit of new beginnings, the band opted to record in a small circle with no headphones, recalling the way all early bluegrass was recorded. Live vocals were used whenever possible, and the result was a new set of sounds bringing “21st Century Hot Rize” to their fans, old and new.