Hot Rize: From Old Grass To New Grass

By: Kathy Foster-Patton

Hot Rize original press shot
(L to R) Scap, Sawtelle, O'Brien, Wernick
Those were heady days, back in the '80s, when Hot Rize toured across the country giving their all to make it as working musicians. Bandmates Pete Wernick (banjo), Nick Forster (bass), Tim O'Brien (mandolin) and Charles Sawtelle (guitar) came together in 1978 and toured until 1990. They continued to play together sporadically until Sawtelle passed away from cancer in 1999. His surviving bandmates brought Bryan Sutton on board in 2002 to play guitar with them in the scant performances that are today scheduled around their individual projects. In many ways, Hot Rize led the way in bridging the music of traditionalists to many of the progressive groups like String Cheese and Yonder Mountain String Band. Wernick, Forster, and O'Brien recently spoke about their history and what inspires them to play the few gigs that they currently schedule.

Hot Rize came together with a simple goal in the beginning. "The original idea for Hot Rize was that we were going to get together for the summer and just play some festivals," Forster explains. "Tim had a record and Pete had a record and the idea was that we were going to get together and play tunes from those records and play some festivals and see what happens. 31 years later we're still playing music together. It was a very easy commitment to make early on."

O'Brien goes a little further to enumerate their goals at the time. "We wanted to play traditional bluegrass with our own stamp on it, but we wanted to try to fit into the genre and pay tribute to it, really," he says. "We also wanted to explore other areas and one of those was doing a little bit of comedy with the Trailblazers and another was writing songs. We mostly walked inside the line of the bluegrass borders but we went outside it a little bit here and there."

Wernick came up with the name for the group. "That was my idea to use the Hot Rize name; I take credit for that. Hot Rize was the secret ingredient in the Martha White flour, and Martha White was the sponsor for the Flatt and Scruggs television show," he explains. "I had some names for bands tucked away in a file and I suggested the name and everybody said, 'Okay.' Normally it takes longer than that - sometimes it can take forever. The Martha White Company allowed us to print our t-shirts with no compensation. The one stipulation they had when I called and asked them if I could use the Hot Rize name, they said, 'Keep the show clean.'"

The guys outfitted themselves in vintage ties and suits that they purchased from thrift stores. In a time when they could have gotten away with wearing t-shirts and jeans, they chose to dress up for the stage. Forster explains, "That was the tradition. That's where bluegrass came from. Bill Monroe played in suits and ties and Ralph Stanley and the Osmond Brothers and Jim & Jesse. That's what people did. Now it just happened that people of our generation didn't. But we made a conscious decision to separate ourselves from the pack and it made it such that the older audience and the traditional bluegrass fans could look at us and say, 'Oh, my, look at those nice young men and aren't they good and don't they look good in their suits.' But if people looked closer they would see that we were wearing thrift store suits and we had old '40s ties, big old wide silk ties that were a throwback. We were wearing vintage ties as an homage to the people who came before us. So there was a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek from the get-go." Wernick adds, "Our ties were an indication that we're not just carbon copies of the guys you've been watching. We're winking at you a little bit while we do this."

There was any number of contributions that made the Hot Rize sound unique, but Forster remembers the vocals with particular reverence. "Singing with Tim is a unique thing in my world" says Forster. "I get to sing with a lot of people on Etown and I have sung with lots of other people in other musical situations but I think it's because we kind of grew up together and I became a better singer and I know Tim did too in the course of Hot Rize. He's always been an amazing singer, just remarkable. Our duet sound, I think, is a distinctive part of what makes Hot Rize sound like Hot Rize."

Hot Rize - Wernick, Sawtell, O'Brien
"We broke some ground, with Pete using the phase shifter [a device Wernick invented to morph his banjo sound] and me using the electric bass and Tim's mandolin playing style and our songwriting and original material and Charles' style of playing the guitar and the whole evolution of the show" continues Forster. "It was really ground breaking in a lot of ways. We brought a lot of people to bluegrass that otherwise may not have felt welcome. I'm really proud of that."

Stringing one thought into the next, Forster was eager to talk more about the songwriting associated with Hot Rize.

"I think the challenge in bluegrass music is to write songs that fit the genre and that achieve some level of timelessness while still representing a new body of work. I think that was one of the strengths of Hot Rize. Tim, Pete, and I contributed a bunch of new material. Songs like Tim's 'Nellie Kane' and I wrote a song called 'Shadows in My Room' and Pete's 'Just Like You' and some others with that sort of classic bluegrass timelessness to them that were part of the modern bluegrass repertoire. I think that is a really important thing," Forster observes. "If you look at all the original material that Hot Rize contributed over the years I think there's a lot of those songs that really stand the test of time and they fit the older style but are touching on more contemporary ideas and more contemporary influence. We were really lucky that we had some fresh songwriting in the band, that we could contribute some new material that wasn't sub-standard. Original songs are better if they're good songs. I think that that's a very distinctive thing that Hot Rize did. It comes from that same thing that we really did our homework. We loved listening to traditional bluegrass and really connected with it and respected it and it was natural to us as songwriters to start with that. I think almost any of [the songs are] memorable because you're talking about not just nostalgia but these songs are kind of iconic. We started every show with 'Blue Night.' 'Blue Night' is a song that says to me, 'Okay, this is Hot Rize.'"

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