On The Rize – Landmark Bluegrass Band Still Hot After All These Years

By John Lehndorff

Bryan Sutton, the guitarist many regard as the most gifted flatpicker in a generation, believes in practice, not destiny, but he also keeps a snapshot at home taken in 1989 that seemed to foretell his bluegrass future. “When I was fifteen, I went to my first festival in Denton, N.C. and I got to see Jim & Jesse in their cool suits,” Sutton said backstage at June’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival. “Hearing Hot Rize play live had a huge impact on me. All I wanted to do was sound like Hot Rize.”

The budding musician was already a fan, because his dad would put one tape in the cassette player of the family Fiat and leave it for months. “He had Traditional Ties in there awhile, and I really got to know those songs,” he said. He won a mandolin in a raffle his mom entered at the Denton festival. “I used it as an excuse to talk to Tim O’Brien about music. I have this photo with Tim holding my mandolin,” Sutton recalled.

Onstage at Telluride, 32 years after the band debuted there, Hot Rize bassist Nick Forster asked the audience, “How many of you have seen us play before?” Standing there in his dark suit next to Pete Wernick and Tim O’Brien, a grinning Bryan Sutton was the only person onstage who raised his hand.

Later, it was clear that Sutton bears a striking resemblance to Swaid (pronounced soo-wade), the new bass player for Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, Hot Rize’s badly dressed, alter-ego honky-tonk band.

Beyond an early stint in Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, Sutton has never chosen to be a member of any band except Hot Rize. An in-demand Nashville studio ace, he joined in 2002, a few years after the death of guitarist Charles Sawtelle. Until recently, it has only involved a handful of reunion gigs each year.

That’s why Sutton—and many fans—are excited that Hot Rize has booked its most extensive touring since Sutton came aboard. Summer stops at the Station Inn and Bonnaroo in Tennessee and a trip to the studio for the first time this century will be followed by an autumn cross-country tour. A new Hot Rize album is also a possibility.

Hot Rize had been one of the premier acts in bluegrass in the 1980s, recording nine albums and charting hits such as “Colleen Malone” and “Just Like You.” They performed on national TV and radio and at venues and festivals in 47 states and across ten countries.

After a Grammy nomination for 1990’s Take it Home, which also nabbed a four-star review in Rolling Stone, they were awarded the IBMA’s inaugural Entertainer Of The Year award. At its height, Hot Rize bowed off the bluegrass stage as a full-time act. “Tim had been talking about going out on his own for awhile,” Wernick said. “We’d been on the road for 12 years. My son was going into elementary school, and I wanted to be around.”

In the years to come, no matter the truly remarkable heights each achieved on their own, they also never stopped being Hot Rize. The fans maintained a strong affection for the band and the songs and wanted to see them perform.

The long road leading to the band’s current revival began in Denver in 1978. Pete Wernick, late of the New York progressive bluegrass band Country Cooking (with Tony Trischka), had recorded his first solo album: Dr. Banjo Steps Out. Tim O’Brien, alumnus of the Ophelia Swing band, also put out his debut, Guess Who’s in Town? They formed a band just to play that music and asked Charles Sawtelle veteran of the bands the Rambling Drifters (with Pete) and Monroe Doctrine, to play bass. Flashy guitarist Mike Scap completed the quartet.

Hot Rize was named, with permission, after the secret ingredient in Martha White’s self-rising flour, a long-time sponsor of Flatt & Scruggs. “The name came before the band,” Pete Wernick said. “I thought ‘Hot Rize’ would be a great band name.” It turned out to be better than some of the other names that popped up including “Dracula Spectacula” and “Velvet Elvis.”

Soon after they began, it became apparent that Scap didn’t like traveling in cars or planes. They looked to a musician friend at the Denver Folklore Center, Nick Forster, who worked there repairing guitars.

Forster and O’Brien had guested with the Rambling Drifters. “People would call and ask if we knew a bluegrass band for a wedding,” Forster said, “I was handy, because I could call square dancing and play different styles of music.”

Forster remembers the day exactly. “It was May 1, 1978. There wasn’t a formal Hot Rize audition. They said, ‘Charles is switching to guitar. We need a bass player.’ I told them I didn’t play the bass. ‘That’s okay,’ they said. I told them I didn’t have a bass. ‘That’s okay, we have one.’”

The next day the band left to do a week at a lounge in a Ramada Inn. “On that trip, we began to create the camaraderie of the band,” Forster said. “The next week, we played on A Prairie Home Companion before it was a national show and at a bluegrass festival. In the first year, our goal was to make $100 a week each, and we did that. I never went back to my day job.”

There was only one conundrum, Wernick said. “There were never any plans to play beyond whatever the farthest-out gig we had booked. That’s the way it was for years. I was always adding more shows down the line to add momentum.” Forster and O’Brien say that Wernick deserves the credit for keeping Hot Rize together over the years.

Each bandmember had responsibilities. Wernick was in charge of booking and publicity. Sawtelle and Forster did the long-haul driving and worked on the vehicles. (O’Brien and Wernick were apparently not allowed behind the wheel.) O’Brien did press and wrote new songs, and Sawtelle focused on sound quality and equipment.

“We’d get to a place that was supposed to have its own sound system,” Forster said. “Usually, it was lousy and Charles would say, ‘We’re going to bring in the PA.’ I’m like 23 and a little bit lazy and I’m thinking, this is just a bar gig. Charles said we had to be a ‘professional unit’ for every show. He was right.”

Sawtelle’s strong beliefs about how a real band should operate have become a set of bluegrass band aphorisms. “Charles said we should travel together.” Forster said. “Until we got the bus, we drove a 1969 Cadillac Sedan de Ville from 70,000 to 120,000 miles. It was a large, handsome boat with big leather seats and a quiet, smooth ride—even with a trailer.”

On the long road trips, they listened to the masters—Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and Bill Monroe and critiqued the board mix Sawtelle recorded at the previous night’s gig.

“Charles would say, ‘You should always look good,’” Forster recalls. “We noticed that when we put on suits, it rang a Flatt & Scruggs chord with people and helped them accept us.” So the band scoured thrift stores for cheap suits and flashy silk ties from the ’50s, and the look became a trademark in a jeans and T-shirt era. Sawtelle would even touch up the black paint and stencil the band’s name on the equipment boxes.

Forster was “emcee by default,” he said, because he was the one guy who didn’t have to tune much. “He’s always been a great emcee,” O’Brien said. “He’s photogenic with a smile that hypnotizes people and brings them in.”

Although they are now honored as an iconic bluegrass band and are part of the music establishment, Hot Rize was met in the beginning with suspicion by some in the bluegrass world, even after they put on suits. For one thing, these boys were not from around “here,” except for the lead singer from West Virginia who grew up with as much Lennon and McCartney as Flatt & Scruggs. He also played very jazzy mandolin. The banjo player came from New York City, had a PhD., and used a phase shifter on his five-string. The guitar player had a degree in fine arts. The band had an electric bass, and even brought their own sound man. True, they lived in the mountains, but in the Rocky Mountains, not the Appalachians.

“However, the fact that we did this comedy thing in the middle of the set didn’t bother them at all,” Forster said. “It was sometimes the most traditional bluegrass players who wanted to be a goofy guest ‘relative’ in the Trailblazers.”

Hot Rize came of age in the 1970s, a part of bluegrass music’s very own baby boom that included Peter Rowan, the late John Hartford, David Grisman, and New Grass Revival. All of them revered bluegrass tradition, and all happily reinvented the rules.

They arrived at the same time when a lot of radio stations started devoting more air time to bluegrass and a bunch of fresh festivals popped up—some quite traditional and others more of an acoustic Woodstock attended by a wave of new and sometimes longhaired fans who liked the banjo because Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead played one.

One critical factor led to Hot Rize’s success and distinguished it from the bands it emulated: Not a star with hired sidemen, it was a democracy with five voting members including the late Frank Edmonson, bluegrass sound expert, road manager, and bus driver.

“In typical bands, one person runs it, but not in Hot Rize,” remembers Wernick. “We voted on everything. We’d have meetings on the bus, in airports, and leaning over seats in planes. You have five people with disparate personalities in an organization and at work every week for 12 years.”

O’Brien is convinced that the band’s operating model was one reason why the band stayed together. “We all owned it,” he said. “When you have a democracy, the dynamics are different. We saw eye-to-eye on a lot of stuff.”

Many of Hot Rize’s “difference in style” actually came about by circumstance and serendipity. “We liked the electric bass because of the tones you can get and the sustain. It gave me more choices as a musician,” Forster said. Much more importantly, it fit in the trunk of the Cadillac.

The phase shifter was an accident, Wernick recalled. “I was actually looking for a reverb when I heard the phase shifter. It made this delicious sound, this sweet warble. It provided a certain spaciousness that the banjo doesn’t normally have. I knew I had to use it sparingly.”

At the Telluride festival this past June, Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O’Brien, and Bryan Sutton were given a special welcome by an old friend, Denver Mayor (and gubernatorial candidate) John Hickenlooper. In their taking-care-of-business suits and spiffed cowboy boots, they walked onstage briskly and within seconds launched into “Untold Stories.”

O’Brien and Forster locked into their uncanny brother harmonies, choreographed around that single vocal mic. Those patented five-string rolls, that muscular rhythm guitar, and the mandolin and bass locked in under the vocals. Everything that defined Hot Rize was there in spades, especially a set full of exceptional originals, from “Shadows In My Room” to “Nellie Kane,” that have become festival parking-lot standards.

“To have our own sound, we knew we’d have to create original material for ourselves,” Forster said. “Pete was coming up with instrumentals, and he encouraged Tim to write some bluegrass songs. He came back with ‘Nellie Kane’ which turned out to be one of our biggest hits.”

O’Brien said the hardest part was getting the lyrics started. “I wanted it to sound traditional. What are you gonna write about? There’s a lot you can say about love, death, coal mines, farms, and trains.”

Halfway through their show, when most bands are just hitting their picking stride, Hot Rize leaves the stage to lead singer Red Knuckles, the showboating electric guitarist Wendell Mercantile, bass man Swaid, and steel guitarist Waldo Otto who gets onstage just as they break into “Always Late.”

Newcomers in the crowd appear confused, wondering who are these other silly but talented musicians playing classics like “Oh Mona.” Then Waldo’s fiddling brother, Elmo Otto, appears wearing a beret and a garish orange jacket. (Some say he resembles Sam Bush.)

You know you’re not in Kansas anymore when Wendell Mercantile launches into a spiel about the new record Red Remembers The ’60s with its identical corny, twang-ridden versions of “Light My Fire,” “McArthur Park,” “Purple Haze,” and “White Rabbit.” You realize the humor owes equal thanks to Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, as well as the traditional country music clowns.

Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers grew out of Hot Rize occasionally playing Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams material. “The Trailblazers enabled us to put other kinds of music that we liked into the show, and have some comedy,” explained Forster.

“Early on, we did a live show on the radio, and we realized it was clear to listeners that there were two different bands. We let the Trailblazers always have a part of the show and they got more into working the crowds and dressing up.”

As Waldo Otto is led offstage while hawking Red Knuckles flyswatters to the band’s loyal followers (Knuckleheads), Forster and Sutton play a mandolin and guitar duet. Hot Rize finishes the set to sustained applause.

The reception from their music peers was equally enthusiastic when the quartet co-hosted the 20th Annual IBMA Awards Show in Nashville in October with Kathy Mattea, who had turned two O’Brien gems, “Walk The Way The Wind Blows” and “Untold Stories,” into country music hits.

According to O’Brien, it was the right time to do more with Hot Rize. Besides, he said, Pete Wernick can be very persuasive. “I’ve always been the culprit about getting together,” admitted O’Brien, whose multiple projects have included 13 solo albums with Celtic, folk, jazz, and Americana influences, writing hits for artists such as Dierks Bentley and touring this year with Mark Knopfler.

“Pete reached out during the winter, and said we ought to do this,” O’Brien said. According to Wernick, he said, “I’m 63 and still in pretty good shape. How long can we wait and still do it right?”

O’Brien said that the music also called to him in a specific way. “Every once in a while, I’ll play a bluegrass gig. That’s when I realize that most of the bluegrass songs I know are Hot Rize songs,” O’Brien said. “It’s weird to do those songs with other people trying to sound like Hot Rize. So I figure, why not just play with Hot Rize?”

For Forster, the most important thing was that Hot Rize “not become an oldies band,” even if the “oldies” in question are their own songs. “It’s easy to envision us doing more. We’re all better musicians now, not to mention performers and songwriters,” he said.

A new album is a possibility in 2011. The band returned this summer to Colorado Sound studios where they recorded most of their albums. They recorded the old-time tune “Diamond Joe,” instrumentals from Wernick and Forster, and also re-worked Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” an early Hot Rize set staple that introduced the sound of the phase-shifted banjo.

One key to the Hot Rize revival has been the energy Bryan Sutton has brought to the endeavor. “Charles was a one-of-a-kind player, so his replacement was going to be different,” Wernick said. “We lucked out with Bryan. His stock in trade are these amazing solos, but his rhythm playing is just as important.” O’Brien seconds the praise. “Sometimes it’s just crazy to hear him play that stuff onstage,” he said.

Sutton said it took time to find his role in the music. “One thing that defines the sound of Hot Rize is the amount of air in the way they play, the space that they create for each other,” he said. “My improvement has been in awareness of the whole sound of the band. As opposed to being a hot licks guy, I’ve learned to leave more room.”

For his part, O’Brien had to go to a personal Hot Rize boot camp. “I needed to relearn some songs and get in shape to play a little faster and sing a little louder. I had to raise the action on everything. Charles always said you have to have high action if you want to play loud.”

When he was twenty and hosting at New York City’s only bluegrass radio show, Pete Wernick got a chance to interview Bill Monroe. “Monroe was about 55 then—it seemed incredibly old to me,” Wernick said. “I asked him how much longer he could possibly keep playing. He thought maybe 10 or 15 years. It turned out to be 30. So, who knows how long Hot Rize will play?”

Hot Rize’s strong influence on bluegrass music has become more evident over time. “Bluegrass was [born] in 1945, so it’s about 65 years old. Hot Rize has been playing for half the history of the genre,” Wernick noted.

They have become the template for modern bluegrass groups and mentors to the next generation of pickers, rising stars such as Chris Thile and Sarah Jarosz. Purists may groan, but Hot Rize has also inspired a highly successful trio of Colorado “jamgrass” bands—Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, and Yonder Mountain String Band—who have provided a different bridge to bluegrass for a new generation of fans.

Bryan Sutton said the lesson is clear: “Hot Rize proved that if you’re true to the core elements of bluegrass—great songs people can relate to, tight singing and picking—you can also make something new and creative.”

Tim O’Brien is pleased that Hot Rize’s body of work has held up so well over time. “We’re part of each other,” he said. “So, when we get together it’s like a family reunion…all, uh, eight of us.” And, as Charles Sawtelle would say, it’s still a professional unit.

Tim O’Brien moved his family to Nashville where he embarked on a diverse solo career that includes writing songs recorded by the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, and Dierks Bentley, releasing 13 solo albums with folk, Celtic, and American accents including the Grammy-winning Fiddler’s Green. His latest, Chicken and Egg, was released in July. He recently backed Mark Knopfler on stage, tours as a solo act, and with the Tim O’Brien Band. In 1993 and 2006, O’Brien was named the IBMA’s Male Vocalist Of The Year. He helped launch the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, is a former president of the IBMA, and recommends the Tim O’Brien Model Nugget mandolin. (www.timobrien.net)

With his instructional books, DVDs, and banjo camps, Peter Wernick is one of the foremost bluegrass educators in the nation. Dr. Banjo was the first and longest-serving president of the International Bluegrass Music Association. He performs as a duo with his wife, Joan Wernick, and they recently played at the first Russia-America Bluegrass Jamboree. His Flexigrass band plays a distinctive blend of jazz and bluegrass, and he’s also joined Long Road Home, a young traditional bluegrass band. His five-string banjo work is featured on six of his albums and many other sessions including Steve Martin’s The Crow. (www.drbanjo.com)

In 1991, Nick Forster created eTown, a weekly radio program featuring performances by diverse musicians ranging from James Taylor to Ralph Stanley and includes conversations on environment issues and creating community. His Wendell Mercantile guitar licks open eTown on 240 stations across the country and around the world in various digital forms. Forster has produced albums including a Grammy-nominated release by Kate MacKenzie, and is part of the occasional jam-roots music group, 30db, which includes members of Umphrey’s McGee and Yonder Mountain String Band. (www.etown.org)

Charles Sawtelle, “The Bluegrass Mystery,” formed a bluegrass band called the Whippets and toured with Peter Rowan following Hot Rize’s semi-retirement. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died of complications from a bone marrow transplant in 1999. A long-awaited CD of his songs, Music From Rancho DeVille, was produced posthumously by Laurie Lewis. The Bluegrass Guitar Style Of Charles Sawtelle by Dan Miller has also been published. (hotrize.com/hrguys/charles.html)

Bryan Sutton is widely acclaimed as one of America’s top flatpicking guitarists, winning a string of Best Guitarist awards. He’s Nashville’s studio guitar go-to guy and you can hear his licks on music by the Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton, and loads of bluegrass recordings with Jerry Douglas, Rhonda Vincent, Don Rigsby, and Aubrey Haynie. His solo recordings include the well-received Not Too Far From The Tree, a collection of duets with his guitar heroes including Norman Blake, Dan Crary, David Grier, Doc Watson, Russ Barenberg, and Tony Rice. He’s in Tim O’Brien’s touring band (with Mike Bub and Stuart Duncan) and also tours as a duo with O’Brien. (www.bryansutton.com)

Discography

Hot Rize (1979)
Radio Boogie (1981)
Hot Rize/Red Knuckles And The Trailblazers Live In Concert (1982)
Traditional Ties (1986)
Untold Stories (1987)
Classic Hot Rize And Red Knuckles And The Trailblazers DVD (Recorded 1987)
Shades Of The Past Red Knuckles And The Trailblazers (1989)
Take It Home (1990)
So Long Of A Journey (2002, recorded 1996)

John Lehndorff has written about bluegrass and acoustic music for thirty years for numerous publications including the Rocky Mountain News.

This version of this article has been modified from the original print version.

2 Responses to “On The Rize – Landmark Bluegrass Band Still Hot After All These Years”

  1. Great Article on Hot Rize! I was very fortunate to be one of Hot Rize’s early fans in the late 1970s while working, living in Colorado. I’ve attended most of the early Telluride Bluegrass Music festivals from the late 1970′s to around 1990 (Not so frequent after ’90) and Hot Rise was always my favorite bluegrass band. I have nearly all their albums including Red Knuckles and The Trailblazers-”In Concert”. The group along with many of their contemporaries helped me forge a style compatible to the spirit of Camp Ground/Campfire jamming and during one festival in Pueblo,Colorado (Mid-1990′s) I had an opportunity to jam with Pete Wernick and wife Joan!
    Great to see their comeback after the unfortunate loss of their great flat top picker Charles Sawtelle about 10 years ago.
    John Mascaro
    Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
    Almost 30-years member of the South Florida Bluegrass Assn. (Miami, Florida)

  2. Justin Mitchell says:

    Great to see this update, which I learned about via Pete Wernick’s mass email announcing the first HR tour of the 21st century.
    Like the author of this, I also worked at the Rocky Mountain News and saw and interviewed HR members through the years, but never with John’s expertise. I’ve been living and working in China for the last seven years, someplace bluegrass is hard to find as you might imagine. Though I did meet one hardcore bg fan, a Brit expat in Hong Kong who is a HR fan with whom I traded disks.
    I only wish they’d consider a swing through Beijing and other parts of the PRC. I saw a Mongolian throat singing quartet the other night that had some definitely cool fusion and jam possibilites. Genghis Khan meets Bill Monroe at Mao’s place.
    Justin Mitchell
    Beijing (China, that is…)