Hot Rize: So Long of a Journey
Hot Rize has continued to push bluegrass’ boundaries for 40 years, but after influencing generations of pickers, their latest celebratory journey may be their last.
They never even intended to become a working band. A few gigs, they thought, and they’d all go back to what they’d been doing. Now, Hot Rize is celebrating their 40th anniversary.
It had all come together casually and quickly, in Colorado at the dawn of 1978. Pete Wernick, already in his early thirties at the time, and a veteran recording artist with the bluegrass band Country Cooking, was looking to promote his new solo album, Dr. Banjo Steps Out. His collaborator, Tim O’Brien, a fiddler, mandolinist and singer several years his junior, was also gearing up to plug his first solo release, Guess Who’s in Town: Eclectic Fiddle. From the Denver Folklore Center, they recruited guitarist Mike Scap and bassist Charles Sawtelle and, from the start, they knew—this was too good to end.
Wernick borrowed the band’s name from a slogan for Martha White Flour, hawked by bluegrass elder statesmen Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on their radio program. “They mentioned [Hot Rize] in a song,” says Wernick. “I thought Hot Rize would be a cool name for a bluegrass band, so I wrote it down and stuck it in a file. A year or two later, the band started and I checked the file. I put it in front of the other guys, and they all said, ‘Oh, fine.’ Remember, this was going to be a band just to promote some records.”
Within a few months, Scap was out and, with Sawtelle switching to guitar, Nick Forster was brought in, providing the first real clue that Hot Rize was not going to be like other bluegrass bands: He’d exclusively play an electric bass guitar. This was nothing less than sacrilegious among bluegrass purists; sometimes, they’d get booed just for carrying the instrument onto the stage. But the quartet—another clue right there, as bluegrass bands are traditionally five members strong—were not intimidated. “The electric bass, and the way I play the electric bass, is part of the Hot Rize sound. It makes it identifiable,” Forster says.
Hot Rize hit the ground running. Word of mouth scored them gigs, but along with the highs, like any fledgling band, they hit some lows. They took the snags in stride. “When I think back to ‘78, it was only 13 years after the very first bluegrass festival,” says Wernick. “They were still on the new side. There was no IBMA [International Bluegrass Music Association] the way there was starting in ‘85. Gas was under a dollar and we were staying in Motel 6s for under $20 a night. But, of course, there was no email and no cell phones.
I booked us for the first four years and we would have to drive our bus off the interstate to look for a phone booth to make a call to try and get a gig, and often there wasn’t anybody there at the appointed time—all these things that you don’t have to hassle with now. But those were some romantic times, a bunch of young guys just saying, ‘What if we try to be bluegrass stars?’ With Tim singing lead, we could immediately get anybody’s attention, even when he was 24 years old. And we were a tight band because we played a lot.”
“Cut to 2018,” Wernick writes in the liner notes for Hot Rize’s 40th Anniversary Bash, the souvenir live album culled from the band’s three- nighter at Colorado’s Boulder Theater—the same venue where they recorded So Long of a Journey in 1996—last January. “Nick, Tim and I are still picking and singing together after 40 years. Bryan’s been with us for 16 and the Hot Rize songbook still gets a workout alongside new originals.”
Guitarist Bryan Sutton joined the group three years after original member Sawtelle succumbed to leukemia in 1999. A fan of Hot Rize from his youth, the 28-year-old Sutton came aboard at a particularly uncertain time in the band’s trajectory. Not only had a vital component of the outfit’s sound recently passed away, but Hot Rize was only tentatively emerging from an extended hiatus that had begun in 1990 and lasted through that decade. During that era, the four came together only a handful of times each year, to remind their fans—and themselves—why they were considered bluegrass royalty. As they eased back into a more active schedule, there was an understanding that things might be different than they’d once been. For the three remaining stalwarts, working with a new guitarist would fundamentally change the onstage vibe. For Sutton, there would be the question of fitting in.
“Bluegrass music has a tight community. We all speak the same language,” he says. “But Charles, the original guitar player in the band, had a very distinct style. My goal wasn’t to try to copy him, but to make the band sound like the band, drawing on my musical experiences and my love for that band and that sound. Finding myself in it is still a continual thing for me. But I feel like the fans are hearing Hot Rize—they’re not just hearing Nick and Tim and Pete with another guy in there. They are really hearing Hot Rize.”
That becomes clear on 40th Anniversary Bash, released on Ten in Hand Records in August. The album follows 2014’s When I’m Free, Sutton’s first recording with the quartet. At the Boulder Theater, the musicians surveyed their entire history, launching the set with “Blue Night,” a standard of the genre written by Kirk McGee and made famous by Bill Monroe, the undisputed father of bluegrass. The tune led off Hot Rize’s debut album back in 1979 and sounds just as vital today. The Bash includes Hot Rize crowd-pleasers such as “Just Like You,” “Colleen Malone” and “Nellie Kane”—the latter covered dozens of times by Phish—and a couple of covers from well outside the usual bluegrass confines: the Jimmy Webb-penned/Glen Campbell-popularized ballad “Wichita Lineman” and Los Lobos’ “Burn It Down.”
It also features three high- profile guests, each a bona fide bluegrass star: mandolinist Sam Bush, dobro master Jerry Douglas and fiddler Stuart Duncan. “It’s not just that they’re the best that there are; it’s that they are in fact part of our story and have been for decades,” says Forster. “All three of them have been a part of our community for so long. These guys are longtime friends, longtime associates.”
Naturally, all three of the Boulder anniversary gigs sold out quickly. Hot Rize is used to that. Both during the group’s initial 12-year run and this marathon second leg, their esteem among the bluegrass cognoscenti, whether at festivals or their own gigs, has never been questioned— they even appeal to a good number of fans whose interest in this style of music begins and ends with Hot Rize. There’s a certain amount of luck to that, of course—plenty of stellar pickers never make it up from the county fair level. But Hot Rize’s ascent undoubtedly owes more to their tireless work ethic, and their unwavering devotion to the music, than anything else.
“When we met, back when we were all young,” says Wernick, “it was sort of like, ‘Well, it’s fun to play together.’ But by actually bonding together and becoming a team, sharing both information and criticism back and forth, we knew we could be better.”
Hot Rize: Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Bryan Sutton, Tim O’Brien (l-r)
“There’s a respect for tradition and a quest to make your own statement within the tradition,” O’Brien says. “I think a wonderful thing about folk, bluegrass, roots music is that we’re part of this continuum. It’s an honor, but it’s also a responsibility. You have to infuse it with some kind of energy that gets people’s attention.”
Hot Rize has unquestionably accomplished that. The energy is palpable, but just as important is the plethora of ideas and influences they incorporate into their music and their live performances, everything from blues to old-timey string band music to Western swing. Their love for the latter led to Hot Rize transitioning into an alter- ego band, Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers, that takes over portions of their show, playing ‘40s-‘50s-style country, decked out in exaggerated finery. They’ve been doing it for years—the Red Knuckles crew has even released four albums of its own. They’re a hoot.
“That adds to the fun factor in any festival because there’s no bluegrass band that’s going to make you laugh— there’s nothing funny about bluegrass,” says Wernick, with a slight deadpan in his voice. “The MC might tell a joke once in a while, but when you bring the Trailblazers on at a festival, people are geared for it because they don’t know what’s going to happen, partly because the Trailblazers don’t know what’s going to happen. It works a little bit like a palate cleanser.”
Their tireless efforts to challenge themselves and grow as artists have earned Hot Rize a shelfful of IBMA awards, including the organization’s first-ever Entertainer of the Year prize. O’Brien was nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year this year and Sutton was acknowledged in the Guitarist category—Hot Rize hosted the ceremony in September. There was a Grammy nomination back in 1991 (for the Take It Home album) and rave reviews since day one. “We haven’t changed as musicians really, except we’ve matured,” says Wernick. “The style of the band has maybe just widened a little bit. When we started, we had no idea we were going to become something called ‘legendary.’ Any time I see that word in print next to ours, I say, ‘What?’”
At least part of the reason that Hot Rize has been able to thrive and adapt is because the musicians each have outside interests that keep them occupied when the band is not touring or recording. Their individual indulgences give them time to recharge, so that they’re stoked when it’s time to be Hot Rize again. Some of these avocations predate the players’ involvement with Hot Rize; others have developed since.
For Bryan Sutton, session work and touring with other artists has been keeping him busy for more than two decades. The 10- time winner of the IBMA’s Guitar Player of the Year award has released his own albums and spent years as a member of Ricky Skaggs’ band Kentucky Thunder. He’s toured with the Dixie Chicks, Chris Thile and Béla Fleck, and recorded with decidedly non-country/bluegrass artists like Cyndi Lauper and Johnny Mathis. “I had a goal for myself, even back when I was a teenager, to play as many different kinds of music with as many different kinds of people as I could,” he says.
Tim O’Brien, who got his start singing in church and playing rock-and-roll on the guitar in his home state of West Virginia, migrated to folk and bluegrass after he heard the acoustic guitar great Doc Watson. He’s recorded two dozen albums solo or in a duo, taking home Grammys for 2005’s Fiddler’s Green and his work with the Earls of Leicester—and has enjoyed success as a songwriter and performer outside of Hot Rize. His 1990 duet with Kathy Mattea, “The Battle Hymn of Love,” was a top-10 country hit. O’Brien credits his freelance success for his decision to break away from Hot Rize at the time. “I was ready to branch out and try some different things,” he says. “I was restless. I’m glad that I separated and pursued other things because it was better for me as a musician and as a writer to have a little more freedom.”
As the oldest member of Hot Rize, Wernick’s pedigree in the business stretches back years before the band’s formation. A Columbia Ph.D., he first came across bluegrass music in the late-‘50s when a friend played him an Earl Scruggs album. He not only became New York City’s first-ever bluegrass music disc jockey, but he also learned how to play banjo in the Scruggs style. During his travels, he met other players, including a young banjoist in the San Francisco Bay Area named Jerry Garcia. “He was definitely better than me, and he had just assimilated a brand-new style in bluegrass called melodic style banjo,” says Wernick. “He was also a good singer and a devoted bluegrass guy—sort of like the king bluegrass guy in this crowd of people.” They made some music together, along with guitarist/singer David Nelson—they called themselves the Godawful Palo Alto Bluegrass Ensemble—but, sadly, none of it appears to have been recorded.
Beside his involvement with the Country Cooking bluegrass band in the early- ‘70s, Wernick authored instructional books (as Dr. Banjo, hence his nickname) that reportedly sold hundreds of thousands of copies and created The Wernick Method, which teaches individual bluegrass pickers how to interact with other like- minded players. He also became involved in the promotion of the genre itself, serving as the first president of the IBMA. He’s still a cheerleader for the music.
“When you put the five bluegrass instruments together—fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass— you’ve got this amazing combination that can do everything from extreme traditional music to the Punch Brothers,” he says, adding, “I’m still just a guy from the Bronx that got into playing the banjo.”
Nick Forster, meanwhile, inspired by his concern for the state of the environment, took to the airwaves—his gift of gab has long served him well as Hot Rize’s MC—and the cyber equivalent. In 1991, he and his wife Helen created eTown, which is described on its website as “a nonprofit, nationally syndicated radio broadcast/podcast, multimedia and events production company.” eTown, the description continues, “has produced musical, social and environmental programming to uplift and inspire listeners around the world.” An astounding list of musical guests—ranging from Willie Nelson to Tedeschi Trucks Band and Bob Weir—have graced eTown’s programs through the years, and a number of important figures from the worlds of politics and the environmental movement, among them Michael Moore, Allen Ginsberg, Al Gore and Amy Goodman, have popped by as well. Several years ago, the Forsters christened a multi-purpose building in downtown Boulder, eTown Hall, that serves as a live music venue, recording studio, community center and the organization’s offices. Their daughter, Erika Spring, has also grown into a noted indie artist, thanks to her time with Au Revoir Simone and her own solo work.
“It’s really gratifying to see something that you made up have some longevity, get some traction and find an audience,” says Forster about eTown.
That sentiment easily applies to Hot Rize as well. But, what now? Will there be a 50th anniversary celebration in 2028? No one’s making any definitive predictions.
Says Sutton, “Even in 1978, they kind of put the sail in the water, unfocused, just to see what happens, and I think that still rings true.”
“We tried to break up, but it was like a divorce that wouldn’t work out,” adds O’Brien. “We did reunions every year. When we’re not Hot Rize, people are saying, ‘When are you going to get back together again?’ So we realized that it’s not only the love we have for one another but also there’s an audience still. It’s not like pulling teeth for us to get something going.”
Noting that half the band still lives in Colorado and the others in Nashville, Forster admits, “The Hot Rize band members are all busy. To that extent, we’re much more experienced and we’re better musicians than we have ever been, so we can bring a certain musicianship to the table now that may not have been there in the early days. But it feels like there’s some closure,” he adds, referring to the 40th anniversary events.
“There’s a tour through the end of this year but, reading between the lines, this feels like
a little bit of a bookend to an awesome career and an awesome run of incredible experiences, traveling around the world and recording and performing with the four of us together. It doesn’t mean that we won’t ever get together again to play music, but I think that there is something of a wrapping up. It’s a dignified and celebratory way to say, ‘Yeah, good job. Well done.’”
This article originally appears in the October/November 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.