It didn’t take long after Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, and Charles Sawtelle first appeared onstage together in 1978 for the bluegrass music world to realize that the Colorado band, Hot Rize, was something special. And by the time they bowed off the stage as a full-time act in 1990, they’d not only climbed to the top of that world as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s very first Entertainers of the Year, but their stature was recognized across the board, with a nomination for a then-new bluegrass Grammy, a four-star album review in Rolling Stone, tours across four continents, and a legion of up-and-coming, broad-minded young musicians ranging from String Cheese Incident to mando monster Chris Thile learning their songs and singing their praises.
The reasons for the acclaim were, and remain, obvious. Steeped in bluegrass tradition through long hours on the road spent listening to the genre’s giants—their very name was a knowing nod to Flatt & Scruggs’ long-time flour mill sponsor—Hot Rize’s music was and is equally informed by a taste for the music of Leadbelly and Freddie King, swing, old-time Appalachia and more in ways that mirror the broad sweep of Bill Monroe’s influences. And while their respect for tradition was easy to hear (and, thanks to their suits and vintage neckties, easy to see), the fresh elements they brought, whether in Sawtelle’s guitar eccentricities or Wernick’s deployment of an effects pedal on his banjo, were enough to earn them the suspicion of some audience members—and the devotion of many more.
So when Hot Rize retired, it was natural for members to go on to distinguished careers of their own. For bassist and multi-instrumentalist Forster, that meant building a blend of environmental concern and musical curation into the popular and influential show, eTown; for lead singer, mandolinist and fiddler O’Brien, recognition as an award-winning Americana and bluegrass master of singing and songwriting; for Sawtelle, a thriving career as guitarist, engineer and producer for a host of artists; and for Wernick, acclaim as a presenter of bluegrass and banjo camps, genre-bending bandleader, and 15-year president of the IBMA.
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Even so, Hot Rize turned out to be the band that refused to disappear. Rare reunion shows, like the 1996 one captured for the acclaimed So Long Of A Journey CD (2002), kept the flame burning, and when Sawtelle passed away in 1999, the surviving members brought brilliant guitarist Bryan Sutton on board—himself an already-acknowledged master—and carried on with occasional appearances, bringing their classic songs and captivating stage show to new generations.
In 2014, “21st century Hot Rize” released its first album with Bryan Sutton on guitar, When I’m Free (Ten In Hand/Thirty Tigers). As it was in the beginning, the quartet felt compelled to bring something new to the table.
“We’ve watched bluegrass evolve and while we’ve all been a part of that evolution as individuals, it was time to bring a new Hot Rize statement to the world,” explains O’Brien. “We wanted to dig into new material.”
Pete Wernick adds: “To be true to ourselves, we try to focus on being a living, evolving band, which means developing new material and going out and playing it.”
Though half the group lives in Colorado and half in Nashville, they made collaboration a priority, working on new songs, helping one another flesh out lyrics and shape the material into songs that are representative of Hot Rize’s identity. Once they began co-writing, everything else fell into place. “That work was, in many ways, the glue we needed to cement us back together,” says O’Brien.
“Western Skies,” a song written by Forster and O’Brien, epitomizes the band’s Boulder origins and Colorado’s rich history of progressive bluegrass; fittingly, it’s the song that gives the album its title. “There’s something about a wide-open Western landscape – the light, the quiet, the majesty of distant mountains – allows us to leave our troubles behind and be our truest selves, unencumbered by the pressures of life,” says Forster.
Pete Wernick’s barn-burner “Sky Rider” proves why bluegrass music’s preeminent instructor is called “Dr. Banjo,” as he trades lightning-quick solos with O’Brien and Sutton.
The track listing is punctuated by a sharp pair of covers: “I Never Met a One Like You,” a Mark Knopfler original that he suggested Hot Rize record, and Los Lobos’ “Burn It Down,” a stripped-down rock song featuring Forster’s lead vocal. Two cuts reflecting the group’s love for traditional American music round out the album, the haunting “A Cowboy’s Life” and “Glory in the Meeting House,” an old-time tune with switched instruments – O’Brien on fiddle, Sutton on clawhammer banjo, and Forster on mandolin.
With writing and rehearsals placing Hot Rize firmly back in their groove, recording When I’m Free took just five days at the solar-powered Studio at eTown Hall in Boulder. The musicians eschewed booths and headphones in favor of sitting in a circle and recording live off the floor – “the first time I’ve recorded like that since 1971,” muses Wernick. This organic approach resulted in an album that crackles with the energy of a Hot Rize live show, even if the band’s Western Swing alter-ego sidekicks, Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers, aren’t present.
Hot Rize will celebrate its 40th anniversary in January 2018 with a three-night stand at the Boulder Theater featuring visits from some of their favorite cohorts and collaborators. The concerts, as well as rehearsals and interviews, will be well-documented with video and audio releases slated to start in spring 2018.