Colorado-based quartet Hot Rize reflect on 40 years as a band and the tradition and future of bluegrass.
Acclaimed bluegrass band Hot Rize has been captivating crowds since their very first appearance onstage in 1978. After, the four officially played 12 years full-time until they disbanded in 1990. Now, Hot Rize continues to develop their reign in bluegrass music with fun banter, impressive musicianship, and contagious energy.
Founding member Charles Sawtelle passed away in 1999; the band today is composed of Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, and Bryan Sutton (who made his first recordings with the band on their 2014 album, When I’m Free, before officially becoming a member in 2002). They’ve released over 10 albums, received a Grammy nomination for their album Take It Home, and won Song of the Year for their hit track “Colleen Malone” from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Recently Hot Rize celebrated 40 years together and hosted the 29th annual IBMA Awards in Raleigh, North Carolina. We caught up with the group to talk about their major milestone and what the future holds.
Cowboys & Indians: You’re all incredibly talented players and you’ve merged to form a sound that is distinctly Hot Rize. What does each member uniquely bring to the band?
Pete Wernick: Tim is our musical front man [and] sings lead on almost all the songs, does most of the tenor parts, writes some great songs we’ve been doing for decades. He always has good arrangement ideas, though we collaborate on arrangements. Tim even makes an important ... difference ... in the Red Knuckles part of the show, though I can’t explain that. Tim’s very dependable, always striving for the best possible music. It’s hard to sing with that much soul when you hardly move your mouth, but he does.
Nick represents us on stage when he talks to the audience, which he’s very good at. Like all three of my bandmates, he’s amazingly versatile and writes some excellent songs. His duet singing with Tim is at the foundation of our vocal sound. He, Tim, and I have sung together for 40 years, and it’s a joy to hear the blend. Nick, besides being a really distinctive bass player, has also come up with a lot of important ideas regarding the band’s direction and is good at interesting conversations.
Bryan was an ideal choice to play guitar when we decided to continue the band after Charles Sawtelle died. Of course he’s an amazingly chopsy guitarist and can play anything, any style, but he focuses it with a maturity and understanding of bluegrass that gives it depth. You couldn’t ask for a better team player. I love that he grew up listening to Hot Rize in the car, at home, and at festivals. His parents were and are still Hot Rize fans. We met him when he was a teenager, and 10 or 15 years later, here he is in the band!
C&I: Tell us about your 40th year as a band. Looking back, what are you most proud of? Any moments or shows in particular stand out?
Wernick: I’m proud we’ve stuck it out and stayed mostly sane and not gone broke! I’m proud that we are among the torch bearers for the kind of music I believe in — roots-based, soulful, and well-crafted. I have fond memories of crossing the country in our good old 1958 bus that we used for about seven years. Unlike the current magnum coaches, our bus had windows throughout, and Tim and I would often just jam on banjo and mandolin sitting on facing bunks with a lot of daylight coming in. That’s a pretty nice way to pass the time driving through 500 or so miles of Kansas.
Playing in amazing places like Hawaii, London, Paris, Sydney, and Kyoto were always bright spots. We’d even get to play with local musicians and feel like we were seeing the world. I feel like I’ve had a lifetime of sharing and promoting bluegrass music, nationwide and worldwide, much of it thanks to Hot Rize.
Nick Forster: I’m proud of the fact that we’ve sounded like Hot Rize all of these years, and our sound was a healthy link between chapters in bluegrass music. We respected the tradition yet were committed to making something new, something that sounded like us with new songs, new sounds that still fit in. We often hear from people who point to the sound of Hot Rize in the early days as being influential, and I’m surprised by how often it cuts across musical borders, often outside of bluegrass.
C&I: How have your places of residence influenced you as musicians? As a band?
Wernick: It’s hard to imagine what the 40 years would have been like had we not been based in Colorado. Colorado music fans are generally wide-open to different kinds of roots-based music, and that musical community nourished us from the start. Bluegrass and mountains have a natural affinity for each other, and people who like both, well, they are our people!
Tim O’Brien: Our Colorado home base made it difficult to interact with the more mainstream scene in the Southeast. We wondered if we would ever fit in. We would do whatever we could to improve what would both work for our audiences as well as still being something we could stand behind
C&I: The new record is a collection of songs from three sold-out nights at the Boulder Theater. How did you decide on the 19 songs that made the cut?
Wernick: Besides sounding good, the criteria were a bit complex and we had a lot to choose from. We wanted to spotlight our guests sometimes and show them, as well as ourselves, at their best. Having some of our hits embellished by the best sidemen ever — that created a different dimension for some songs that we’ve always done as a four-piece. But we also wanted some surprises, such as a couple of songs from our early days that we never recorded: “Wichita Lineman” and “Huckling the Berries.” Each of the guests brought some cool material we had to learn, but that was part of the fun and challenge.
C&I: What song from the new record is most fun to play live?
Wernick: I have always loved the “Wichita Lineman,” and Tim delivers it so well. Adding Stuart Duncan improves any song, and he did a beautiful job on that one. Then there’s “Out on the Ocean” with the killer duet of Sam and Tim. Whew! But I can honestly say it’s always fun to play Hot Rize songs live.
Forster: I agree with Pete — every song has the potential to be an adventure, a musical collaboration and exploration. We’ve been leaning on “Your Light Leads Me On,” one of Pete’s, lately, and it’s always fun to play because it’s uptempo, bluesy, and meaningful.
C&I: You recently hosted the 29th annual IBMA Awards. The script was yours to write and play with — tell us about that process. Was it a collaborative effort by the band? Any memories from the night that you'll remember in your next 40 years?
Wernick: Nick was our representative on the writing team, and especially considering all the constraints, he did well creating many short sound bites. We tried to stay loose and remind ourselves that “perfection” is far less of a goal than being likeable and spontaneous. The bluegrass community is comfortable with each other, so there’s not much need to put on airs. The awards show tends to be long, so we knew that rocking the boat a little might be welcome.
Forster: They asked me to write the script, and it was a really interesting challenge to try to write for other people’s voices. With eTown, I’m used to writing scripts, but always for my own delivery. With the IBMA script, there is a lot of business to take care of: people coming on and off the stage, awards to be presented, people to thank. Within that framework, there were chances to provide some levity, some playfulness, or even some heartfelt dialogue. And it’s really a family gathering, a fun reunion for our community, so I was familiar with almost everybody involved. I enjoyed the big finale number with everybody on stage. I also loved hearing Ricky Skaggs sing with Paul Williams.
C&I: It’s interesting that every band member has well-respected side projects. Do the ancillary projects influence the band in any way? Is there ever a cross over? Nick’s work with eTown, for instance …
Wernick: Going deep, it’s hard to pick out all the bits of influence from the rest of our lives. Our professions as teachers and radio hosts have deepened our understanding of how we present ourselves individually and collectively to our audiences. Our wives and family relationships have certainly broadened us as people and show up in our songwriting. The fact that our individual specialties are pretty different but all overlap somewhat creates part of what I like to call the elastic and the glue that keep us together, and it’s ever-changing. I have to say that everyone in the band is really funny sometimes and we like to make each other laugh. That counts a lot too when you have to travel as much as we do.
Forster: Since we’re all busy doing music-related things in our lives outside of Hot Rize, over time, we get to bring more to the band as musicians when we do come together. Tim is always working — touring, recording, touring more. Bryan has his busy life as a Nashville session guy and a guitar teacher online, but his life is always about looking for meaning in what he does — as a husband, dad, artist. Pete has continued with his lifelong commitment to spreading bluegrass music as a teacher, player, advocate, and leader. I combined my Hot Rize skills of talking to the audience with my musical skills and my values with the eTown show, and it is sometimes a balancing act to feed and nourish everything, but it’s been 27 years of eTown as a national broadcast. I’m sure I couldn’t have started that had I not been in Hot Rize first.
C&I: Hot Rize is praised for keeping with the bluegrass tradition yet expanding beyond it, too. Was that intentional?
Wernick: Definitely. We all love traditional bluegrass when it’s alive and done with soul. Our main fan base has always been the bluegrass community, which is not fickle or trendy. Being from later generations than the founders of bluegrass, I think we all took it as a responsibility to learn it as well as we could — and then, following the advice of those founders, we found ways to develop our own sound and material. We revere those guys, but we know it's not cool to just copy them. Well, maybe sometimes!
C&I: Did you start out as a traditional bluegrass band and then the lines organically blurred? The diverseness of your fanbase reflects this, it seems.
Wernick: The band grew out of my intention to create a unique sound with progressive touches — such as my phase-shifted banjo and electric bass and the sort of material that’s not limited to three chords. But those flavors were overlaid onto a very solid tradition-informed base. Tim’s singing manages to convey mountain soul as well as his own life. Anyone listening to us knows we’ve studied bluegrass deeply and want to show that whenever we play. But we all have so many musical influences that the recipes might incorporate some wild cards at times. Hopefully enough stay interesting, and they keep us and our audiences on their toes. I’m conscious of trying to appeal to women and kids as well as the solid bedrock of the older male audiences that are lifelong bluegrass devotees. That broadens the view a bit.
Forster: We’re a bluegrass band with four really distinct personalities. Unlike a lot of bands with “leaders,” we’ve always been four guys who bring different skills and sounds to the party. Tim is a remarkable singer and songwriter, and that gave us real legitimacy in all corners right from the start. Pete was both a Scruggs devotee and an innovator with his phase shifter and original tunes. Charles was a completely original guitar player who, remarkably, stayed inside the tradition while really pushing the boundaries. I played the electric bass, which was, itself, a breaking with tradition. But I found a way to play it — especially dancing around the low notes with Charles — that became a part of our sound [and] that was both inside the tradition and new.
C&I: What songwriters or artists in (in any genre) have influenced the band as a whole?
Wernick: Probably more Hot Rize listening hours have been logged for Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs music than anyone. But we do songs by Blind Willie Johnson and other blues greats, and I think some of John Hartford’s eclecticism and love of tradition must have rubbed off on all of us. Norman Blake, too.
C&I: What contemporary bluegrass bands are you excited about? Any up-and-comers we should know about?
Wernick: Michael Cleveland is someone I’ve known since he was 13 and he has always had a great band. The Punch Brothers both excite and mystify me. Those two bands are at opposite extremes on the trad/modern scale, but that's great and keeps it interesting. For traditional bluegrass, I’m way into the Del McCoury Band, Larry Sparks, and Junior Sisk. Some of the younger bands sound excellent, but I often find they're not attentive enough to conveying their lyrics and their meaning, which I consider fundamental. That will emerge in time, I believe. The best new band I’ve heard lately is five young women from the U.K., believe it or not — a really talented and kick-butt band called Midnight Skyracer. There’s a tremendous amount of young talent out there now, and I’m hoping it will become more infused by the wisdom and depth we get from people like Sparks and McCoury.
Forster: I think bands like the Lil Smokies or Billy Strings have a lot going for them right now, including a commitment to the tradition with a lot of firepower and original material. Michael Cleveland is amazing. It’s also great to see so many women having strong roles to play in bluegrass, with Sierra Hull, I’m With Her, the First Ladies of Bluegrass, and Della Mae all following in the footsteps of Lynn Morris, Claire Lynch, Laurie Lewis, Hazel and Alice and many more.
For more information on Hot Rize and their upcoming performances, visit their website.