Pioneering Boulder band Hot Rize has tour, new album in works

Hot Rize, from left, at 2014 RockyGrass:  Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O'Brien and Bryan Sutton. (Gabe McCurry / Courtesy photo)
Hot Rize, from left, at 2014 RockyGrass: Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O’Brien and Bryan Sutton. (Gabe McCurry / Courtesy photo)

By Quentin Young

Hot Rize once played a show at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder with headliner Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. Today, the band is widely credited as a progenitor of progressive bluegrass. But sharing a bill with Monroe could be intimidating, and it didn’t help that he was reputed to have a prickly personality.

But the band apparently impressed Monroe, based on what he told Hot Rize’s Pete Wernick after the show.

“He said, ‘Your band sounded pretty good tonight, Peter,’ ” Wernick recalled during a recent interview. “That was like a symphony to my ears.”

Chautauqua has been the site of many memorable moments in Hot Rize’s more than three decades of playing. The quartet is planning to make another memory at the venue when it performs Friday, Sept. 26. The show will mark the release of When I’m Free, the band’s first studio album in almost 25 years, and it’s one of the first engagements in its first tour since 1990.

The band has gotten together for periodic shows over the years since it ceased full-time operations more than 20 years ago. But Hot Rize is filling its calendar again. The band has new material, and the demand’s there.

“We’ve been really lucky that there’s a lot of people who still care about Hot Rize,” bassist Nick Forster said.

Hot Rize, which formed in 1978, grew out of a circle of musicians who were connected to the Denver Folklore Center. With Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Charles Sawtelle on guitar and Wernick and Forster, the band put itself at the forefront of the era’s evolving forms of bluegrass.

A Hot Rize promotional photo from 1978, the year the band was formed. (Hot Rize / Courtesy photo)
A Hot Rize promotional photo from 1978, the year the band was formed. (Hot Rize / Courtesy photo)

Their reverence for tradition was indisputable. They wore suits and named themselves after a leavener from Martha White, a brand that Flatt & Scruggs made part of bluegrass lore. But Forster played electric bass, which some purists could not abide, and Wernick sometimes used sound effects on his banjo. And they were from Colorado, far removed from bluegrass’ Appalachian homeland.

With one foot in the past and another in the future, they blazed a path that was further explored by The String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band and other national acts that had electricity in their packs. Phish often covers the O’Brien-written Hot Rize song “Nellie Kane” during concerts.

Success came early for Hot Rize —- they played the then-regional “Prairie Home Companion” in their first year, a show they return to Saturday— and the band, as Forster put it, “hit all our targets.” They played Austin City Limits and the Grand Ole Opry, became regulars on the festival circuit, earned a Grammy nomination for 1990’s “Take it Home,” and were named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s inaugural Entertainer Of The Year. Wernick said he was “living a dream life for a musician.”

“The idea of not only getting to play music but play for appreciative people … not many people get to do that,” he said.

After 1990, the band performed only sporadically. O’Brien went on to write songs for Garth Brooks and other country heavyweights and now lives in Nashville. Forster created eTown, the nationally syndicated radio program produced in Boulder. Wernick, who is known as Dr. Banjo and still lives in Boulder County, is a popular bluegrass teacher. He has worked with fellow banjoist Steve Martin, and his work is featured on Martin’s “The Crow.” Sawtelle, an influential flatpicker who toured with Peter Rowan after Hot Rize went cold, was diagnosed with leukemia and died in 1999.

The members of Hot Rize convene during a recent recording session. (Tobin Voggesser / Courtesy photo)
The members of Hot Rize convene during a recent recording session. (Tobin Voggesser / Courtesy photo)
Hot Rize hired superstar flatpicker Bryan Sutton for the smattering of performances it did in the intervening years, and it’s with Sutton that the band is rising again. The band recorded “When I’m Free” last year at eTown’s recording studio in the program’s new downtown Boulder facility. It was the first album recorded at the studio. When the band made records in its heyday, it had material readily available. It was different this time.

“We had to build this one from scratch instead of skimming off the cream that was generated every year when we were on the road together,” Wernick said.

The material might be new, but the essence of the band remains the same.

“Things develop over the decades,” Wernick said. “You can see the same tree, but you can see some new branches on it.”

The band is giving its restart at least a 12-month commitment, Forster said.

“It’s probably the same level of commitment as when the band started,” he said.

One goal is to expand the fan base. The band’s management wants to attract fans of The String Cheese Incident and other bands that Hot Rize helped inspire, Forster said. That’s partly why they’re booked at the rock-leaning Denver venue Cervantes on Saturday, Sept. 26.

The Chautauqua Auditorium used to be a thing of Hot Rize’s dreams, and Forster still remembers when the band first sold out the venue.

“It was a real milestone,” he said, adding that for the album release, Chautauqua “really feels like the right spot.”

Chautauqua was particularly important to Sawtelle, and after his death a memorial was installed in his honor just outside the venue. It’s a large circular bench inscribed with a Sawtelle saying: “Never turn anything all the way up.”

Contact Times-Call staff writer Quentin Young at 303-684-5319 or

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