The Return of Colorado's Bluegrass Kings

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If there's one band that put Colorado bluegrass on the map, it's Hot Rize.

Longtime members Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O'Brien and Charles Sawtelle met at the Denver Folklore Center in the late 1970s. They worked there in various capacities -- as music instructors, instrument repairmen or at the store. Wernick and Sawtelle had a band called the Rambling Drifters that played the Folklore Center's venue every Tuesday, and Forster and O'Brien often joined them as sidemen. The collaborations gradually got more formal; Wernick, O'Brien and Sawtelle contributed to each other's solo records, and the three decided to form a band called Hot Rize. They recruited Mike Scap, who lasted only a few months before quitting, and on May 1, 1978, Forster came on board as the band's bass player. O'Brien played mandolin and fiddle, Wernick played banjo, and Sawtelle played guitar.

See also: Telluride Bluegrass Festival's Longtime MC Reflects on Colorado's Most Storied Music Fest

There was already a thriving world of folk and bluegrass music in Colorado for Hot Rize to join in the '70s. The fledgling group found ways to perform, often in local bars or at weddings and square dances.

The band ascended quickly. Within six months of forming, Hot Rize found itself playing the popular radio show and at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It continued to play clubs and bars along the Front Range and in mountain towns in Colorado and Wyoming; there were also larger tours, with Hot Rize becoming the first Colorado bluegrass band to play the Grand Ole Opry.

Realizing that their core fans weren't big drinkers, in 1982 the quartet began renting the Niwot Grange Hall for regular sets throughout the winter. They charged $2 for admission that first year, and $3 in 1983, adding a dollar to the door price each year for the rest of the decade.

Part of the reason that Hot Rize found such success was that it was pushing the boundaries of conventional bluegrass. The bandmembers had wide-ranging musical backgrounds and interests, leading them to approach the music differently. Wernick uses a phase shifter on his banjo, Forster plays an electric bass, and O'Brien's mandolin work frequently resembles jazz or even rock and roll. And unlike many of their peers, they didn't limit their catalogue to covers of old standards; from the beginning, Wernick suggested that they write original material, despite their lack of experience with bluegrass. For the band's 1979 self-titled debut, O'Brien wrote "Nellie Kane," which remains one of the group's most popular songs. (Phish has covered it at more than sixty shows.)

"That was Tim's first attempt to write songs in the bluegrass vernacular," says Forster, "so we knew it was going to work out."

Hot Rize continued to push boundaries, both in bluegrass and in what was possible for Colorado bands of any genre. The band's fifth and (at the time) final record was nominated for a Grammy, and its biggest single, "Colleen Malone," won the International Bluegrass Music Association's Song of the Year award in 1990.

The band split up that same year, after O'Brien was offered a major-label recording contract as a country artist. Throughout the '90s, Hot Rize continued to play one-off shows and even went on a small tour in 1996. But its members had other priorities, musical and otherwise, that prevented a full-time reunion. Forster established the radio program, which is taped in Boulder and features live performances from artists like Randy Newman, Ani DiFranco and Willie Nelson. O'Brien's solo career led him to new success on the charts and on the road, and Wernick established a reputation as one of the world's foremost banjo players and teachers. Any hope of a lengthy reunion with the original lineup ended in 1999, when Sawtelle died of leukemia.

By 2002, bluegrass was enjoying a renaissance, and the band started playing shows again, with guitarist Bryan Sutton -- who'd previously played in Ricky Skaggs's band -- replacing Sawtelle.

Still, Hot Rize was relying on its old repertoire, and the bandmembers were getting restless. "We needed the juice to make it vital again," says O'Brien, "to have something we're proud of presenting again. It was okay to do all the old stuff, but I had sort of written it off as a nostalgia trip a little bit.

"[Wernick] approached me three years ago and said, 'You know, we do something that nobody else does, and we really ought to do it while we've got the time to do it.' I give him a lot of credit for that."

So they set to work writing the first Hot Rize record in 24 years: When I'm Free, which the band recorded live at eTown Hall. It was a particularly collaborative experience. "We just settled in and made the record unlike any other Hot Rize record," says Forster. "We just sat in a circle, with no headphones, looking at each other and playing everything live.

"Music is so much about the intangible exchange of energy," he says. "You can tell when someone's having an experience whether you hear it on the radio, CD or vinyl or live. Audiences, without even knowing it, are really sophisticated, and they can pick up on something that's happening in real time, where there's actually an exchange of energy going on. I think recording it live increased the odds of us finding those little moments where there's a spark. I'm really happy with the fact that the way Pete plays the banjo, the way Tim plays the mandolin, the way I play the bass and the way Bryan plays guitar, and the way we sing together, doesn't sound like anybody else. It doesn't sound like we're copying everybody; it just sounds like Hot Rize."

Plenty of artists, including Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon, have been directly influenced by that sound over the past two decades. And Hot Rize helped develop an aesthetic to which bands like Paper Bird, Bon Iver and Mumford & Sons owe a debt. The group's members aren't surprised at the broad and lasting appeal of the style.

"It gives people a timeless thing that predates their workaday world," says O'Brien. "I like pop music, for sure, but I'm more into something that takes you away. Classical music, jazz and ethnic music really does it. And bluegrass is part of our DNA in the United States. Country music and blues? Those roots forms are part of our cultural makeup. It's a starting point for a lot of things; it touches humanity in its earliest forms, I think. These songs evolve and continue, and the themes and the sounds kind of reach back in time and reach forward to the present day. I like that part of it a great deal."

In addition, traditional music offers unusual flexibility. "I like the mobility of it," says O'Brien. "You can play it at a campground or on a back porch or a stage. It can be music for dancing or music played for fun, just for the participants who are playing."

"This is a very egalitarian style of music," adds Forster. "If you're talking about metal and hair bands in the '80s, you go to a spectacle to be entertained, but this is very participatory. It's human-scale music."

Hot Rize will play a pair of Denver-area shows this weekend: Friday at Chatauqua Auditorium and Saturday at Cervantes' Ballroom. For a full schedule, visit hotrize.com.

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