Since 1986, Niwot-based banjoist and bandleader Pete Wernick has been president of the International Bluegrass Association, located in scenic Owensboro, Kentucky. He's eminently qualified for the post: He's been a professional bluegrass musician for more than a quarter-century, and because of his membership in Hot Rize, a Colorado quartet that enjoyed considerable popularity from the time of its late Seventies birth until its 1990 dissolution, he can claim an important role in broadening the audience for this wonderfully idiosyncratic sound. But Wernick is also interested in tinkering with the style--something that's anathema to certain bluegrass sticklers. As a result, he says, "I try to tread lightly when I'm around traditional bluegrass people. I really don't feel like what I'm doing is superior to bluegrass. It's just my own personal vision, and it's one that I like well enough to run up the flagpole."
Wernick calls the musical product of his band, Pete Wernick's Live Five, "virtual bluegrass," but that doesn't mean it has anything to do with computer-age technology. Rather, the moniker denotes an approach steeped in American roots music but played on instruments never before used in a bluegrass context--specifically, clarinet and vibes, played by Bill Pontarelli and George Weber, respectively (Wernick, bassist Rich Moore and drummer Kris Ditson complete the Five's lineup). "Naturally, we don't sound like a bluegrass band," Wernick concedes. "We sound as bluegrassy as these five instruments could. But we're not really a jazz band, either, although with this instrumentation, we could be. I suppose I would call this an original style of music. We're an experimental band with bluegrass as our main influence."
Such a scholarly take on bluegrass comes naturally to Wernick, who grew up not in the backwoods of Appalachia, but in the heart of New York City. He first got involved with the music through his father, a math professor who collected instruments as a hobby ("He's 85, and he still plays a little harmonica," Wernick notes. "When he comes to visit, we go to the Swallow Hill harmonica club"). Among the noisemakers in the senior Wernick's collection was an old banjo, and at age fourteen, Wernick, having fallen under the sway of Earl Scruggs, set out to master it. "It was barely playable, but I played it anyhow," he remembers. "Then I got a Gibson Mastertone model for my high school graduation."
By the time he attended New York's Columbia University, Wernick was immersed in all things bluegrass. He hosted a bluegrass radio show, traveled to several bluegrass events in the southern U.S. and sought out the best musicians he could find with whom to jam. His first band, based in New Jersey, was called the Orange Mountain Boys; later, while in graduate school, he formed another act, Country Cooking, with several fellow students, including banjoist Tony Trischka. Country Cooking eventually made two albums for the fledgling Rounder label; most of the cuts from them appear on a recent compilation CD, 26 Bluegrass Instrumentals by Country Cooking. A third album, Country Cooking and the Fiction Brothers, was released by Flying Fish, a small but distinguished folk company, in 1976.
Despite Country Cooking's rising profile, however, Wernick didn't see his banjo as the key to his livelihood--at least not at first. After receiving his doctorate in sociology at Columbia, he went to work at Cornell University and quickly began making a name for himself in academic circles. But as time passed, he realized that music had a more powerful hold over him than he wanted to admit. "I began to notice that all my friends were musicians, not sociologists," he says. "Something had to give."
In the end, it was Wernick's writing skills that gave him the financial wherewithal to opt for a musical career. He had begun teaching banjo on the side, and the experience reminded him of the difficulties he had had learning to play in the first place; he hadn't been able to track down any banjo instructors in his New York neighborhood, and the sole instructional book for banjo that he found "got it wrong." Since no better publication had arisen since then, Wernick resolved to pen a tome of his own. The result, Bluegrass Banjo, is still in print after nearly twenty years, and its sales recently topped the 200,000 mark. "It turned out there was a huge demand for a clearly written book explaining how to play Scruggs-style banjo," he says. "And when the royalties surpassed what I was making as a sociologist, it occurred to me that maybe it was time to make a go of music."
Using his banjo-book nest egg, Wernick and his wife, Joan (a fellow member of Country Cooking), moved to Niwot in 1976 and fell in with the musicians hanging out at the Denver Folklore Center. Wernick recorded a solo album (Dr. Banjo Steps Out) for Flying Fish the next year, and among the sidemen he used was multi-instrumentalist Tim O'Brien. The following year, O'Brien, Wernick and two other Folklore Center regulars, Nick Forster and Charles Sawtelle, formed Hot Rize. Over the next twelve years the combo released nine albums and established itself as one of the country's premier bluegrass practitioners.
Hot Rize's end came after O'Brien (who'd seen country star Kathy Mattea cover several of his songs) was signed to a solo recording contract by the RCA label. At loose ends, Wernick wrote a second book, How to Make a Band Work--about, as it turned out, tactics musicians can use to keep acts together--and freelanced in assorted musical settings. His restlessness ultimately resulted in the inception of the Live Five, which debuted on Wernick's 1993 solo album, On a Roll, issued on the Sugar Hill imprint. The platter also featured Wernick playing more standard bluegrass material arranged in a traditional manner; he concedes that he was hedging his bets. But the Live Five tracks were embraced by reviewers, giving him the confidence to make the band his primary focus. Sugar Hill has supported his decision and will release the inaugural Live Five CD in late spring or early summer.
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Meanwhile, Wernick has agreed to participate in a Hot Rize reunion. The bandmembers have played together a few times since the outfit's demise, but the upcoming regrouping is the most extensive yet: ten dates across the country (including a March 6 appearance at the Boulder Theater). "Tim is getting ready to move to Nashville later this year, so it will be nice to get together, see more of each other and re-experience the very enjoyable world of Hot Rize," Wernick says. He adds that there's been "some talk" about possibly recording one of the shows for a live album, but he characterizes this speculation as "premature. We want to focus on playing music for ourselves and for our fans first--that's the primary thing. This entity has a lot of trading value in the business, but that's not what's first in our minds."
As for the Live Five, Wernick is eager to gauge the reactions of bluegrass purists to an undiluted dose of his strange musical brew.
"This band is clearly outside the guidelines of bluegrass, and yet a lot of what people like about bluegrass is also present in it," he contends. "I didn't want to tell bluegrass fans, `Goodbye, I'm leaving. I'm going to jazz now.' I wanted to say, `I have an idea of something different. And even though it's not bluegrass, I think you'll like it.'