In the winter of 1978, a quartet called Hot Rize, newly formed in Boulder, CO, played its first gig. The name was deftly plucked from the annals of bluegrass and the slogan of Grand Ole Opry sponsor Martha White Self Rising Flour. Within a few months, a permanent lineup had taken shape: Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Peter Wernick on banjo, Nick Forster on bass and Charles Sawtelle on guitar. They began their own yeasty leavening into one of the most influential and beloved bluegrass bands of the modern era.
Forty years after that first show, today’s version of Hot Rize (guitar star Bryan Sutton replaced the late Sawtelle in the 2000s) played a sold-out, three-night stand at the Boulder Theater and recorded it for posterity and release. The record, a 19-track CD and a double LP called Hot Rize 40th Anniversary Bash, comes out August 3. On July 12, the band plays Bluegrass Nights At The Ryman as part of a year of celebratory touring.
“There’s just so much history there,” said Bryan Sutton about the Boulder venue. “It’s the hometown of the band for all intents and purposes. Any time we play around Boulder it’s always sort of a homecoming feel. To have this special bit of energy on top of that was really cool.”
Also on hand and for the live sets were long-time friends and collaborators Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan, all signature stars of the era that Hot Rize helped shape. It was a celebration of the past and the prospects for a classic band with a renewed commitment.
Hot Rize found a sweet spot in beautiful, blurry area between bluegrass tradition and innovation. They wore suits and ties while playing for an audience, especially its western crowd, inclined to tie-die. They revived the early practice of gathering around a single microphone for clear high lonesome harmonies. But subtle sonic touches and a sharp song sense that resembled the innovative repertoire of the Seldom Scene kept the quartet at the cutting edge while a dynamic and diverse Colorado bluegrass scene exploded in their aura. And they created the alter-ego comedy band Red Knuckles & The Trailblazer, which interrupts their sets with whimsy and impeccably played Western swing and classic country music.
The accumulated respect and admiration of the bluegrass community was made clear when Hot Rize was named the first ever Entertainers of the Year at the inaugural International Bluegrass Music Awards in 1990. Other accolades included a slot on Austin City Limits, travels to Asia, Europe and Australia and regular appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and The Nashville Network.
When Tim O’Brien got the chance at a major label Nashville record deal in the early 90s, the band amicably retired. Sawtelle’s death from leukemia in March of 1999 seemed to suggest Hot Rize was a thing of history. But when a delayed live album came out in 2002, the desire to tour again led to the hiring of Sutton, a generation younger and a national phenom on his instrument.
“When I started the band was sort of dormant but there was enough interest from some festivals, which was why I came on board, to help see that through,” Sutton said. “And as we started playing more and enjoying it, through Pete’s chats with Tim and Nick, they said you know this band is still vital. People play (our) songs at jams. This is an opportunity. So that sort of built steam in the late 2000s.”
It took until 2014 for a debut album of Hot Rize 2.0 to come out. When I’m Free was built around band-written original songs and put the contemporary sound of the group with Sutton, who is widely regarded as the finest all-around acoustic guitarist of his era with ten IBMA Guitar Player of the Year awards. He is in the unique position of having grown up as a fan of Hot Rize 1.0 before becoming part of today’s unit.
“Hot Rize has a specific sound and I don’t want to do anything that clouds that for me, as a fan,” he says. “And to carry that into helping them celebrate 40 years, I think I do have a helpful perspective for those guys. Because they don’t know what it feels like to be a fan of the band for that long. In our discussions about what does this record mean? What does this time mean? What do these tour dates mean? I generally try to add that in there.”