Hot Rize was bluegrass before bluegrass was cool

The modern bluegrass revival might not have happened if not for Hot Rize, the members of whom met each other through the Denver Folklore Center in the mid-'70s. Kindred spirits in their appreciation for the folk music they were exposed to as kids, the members of Hot Rize made bluegrass accessible to a wide audience by showing how fun it could be without compromising the musicianship or the simple charm of the art form.

During its initial run, Hot Rize appeared numerous times on A Prairie Home Companion in addition to playing on Austin City Limits and at the Grand Ole Opry. We spoke with the group's bassist, Nick Forster, the founder and host of the NPR program eTown, about his first exposure to the music he helped make famous, as well as his early childhood in Lebanon.

Westword: How did you first get interested in folk and bluegrass music?

Nick Forster: I grew up in the Huntington Valley in New York. A couple of towns over was Pete Seeger. When I was a kid, eight or nine years old, I started seeing Pete Seeger around, playing the banjo. One of the founding members of the New Law City Ramblers, John Cohen, lived near where I did, as well. When Bob Dylan first came to New York, that was the band that blew his mind. They were really doing faithful reproductions of traditional recordings, many of which were field recordings they had done themselves in Appalachia.

You were born in Beirut, Lebanon. Did you spend any time there as a child, and what was it like being the son of someone who worked for the State Department?

You know, my dad only did that one tour for the State Department. My parents loved living in Beirut, but I was only two when I came home to the United States, so I don't have a lot of visceral memory of what that was like. I was born there in '55, and in the mid-'50s, it was the "Paris of the Middle East" — ski in the mountains and swim in the ocean the same day. It was very cosmopolitan. All the Paris dress designers had shops in Beirut. My mother wanted to stay there, because she was in heaven. My older sisters went to school in a French-speaking school and learned some Arabic. I wasn't particularly talkative in those years.

My dad had a diplomatic sensibility, but he went in a different direction. He was in Nelson Rockefeller's cabinet in the Department of Transportation for the State of New York. He had some banking gigs. He was unemployed for a while, kind of scrapping around, and then he figured it out again later. He was one of those World War II-generation guys — very smart, well educated, good athlete. He went to Harvard when he was sixteen and World War II when he was eighteen. Yeah, he was an underachiever.

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