By Dan “Buck” Buckner
(The following appeared in the April 2001 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited)
If Pete Wernick’s first recording with Country Cooking in May of 1971 marks the beginning of his music career, then May of 2001 will be Pete’s 30th anniversary in the music business. He has contributed to the music world in an impressive variety of ways, often as a “builder of bridges,” helping people open new paths to each other and to their dreams. His quiet voice and gentle diplomacy accurately indicate a caring, sharing, helping attitude toward his world. Pete is simultaneously a family man, a musician, a bandleader, a songwriter, a producer, a teacher, an author, and a scholar addition, he serves as president of the International Bluegrass Music Association and as president of the Family of Humanists.
“Dr. Banjo” (he has a PhD in sociology) is not your stereotypical bluegrass country boy. Born (February 25, 1946) and raised in the Bronx, New York City, he was first exposed to folk music in the late ’50s through friends who were playing the songs of the Weavers and the Kingston Trio. He and his friends spent their high school breaks jamming in a park across the street. When Pete first heard a record by Earl Scruggs, he remembers, “It was better than anything I could imagine, musically. It just seemed too good to be true.” Pete’s dad had found an old banjo at an auction that became Pete’s first instrument. A friend taught Pete how to play clawhammer style, but Scruggs style had to be learned by listening to recordings and trying to imitate the notes, as there were no teachers or instructional materials available. Pete remembers putting his first roll on ‘Charlie And The MTA.”
When Pete attended Columbia University in New York, he was a disc jockey on the college station, WKCR, and got into bluegrass heavily. His program was the only bluegrass show in New York City at the time, and his on-air interviews with Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Don Reno, and others helped to make Pete’s show a focal point for bluegrass music. Tex Logan invited Pete to his home for parties, and Pete worked with Tex in a band for a while. Other early influences were Jody Stecher and David Grisman, who broadened his exposure to the early greats of bluegrass. Before long, David and Jody were taking advantage of the radio station’s excellent tape recorders to record their music, so Pete had lots of opportunity to play with and learn from them They all remain close friends today.
Some of Pete’s bands from that time included the Morningside Mountain Boys, the Orange Mountain Boys, and the Old Hat Band He worked several months in the summer of 1969 with High Country in Berkeley, Cal.
Pete moved to Ithaca, N.Y., in 1970 to work as a sociologist at Cornell University. It wasn’t long before he organized Country Cooking. The band included Pete, Tony Trischka, Russ Barenberg, Joan “Nondi” Leonard, and John Miller. Some friends had just started a small record company, and it occurred to Pete that the twin banjo material that he and Trischka played would make an interesting and unique album
In three days in May 1971, with help from Kenny Kosek and Harry Gilmore (now known as Lou Martin), they used a quiet room on the Cornell campus to make an all-instrumental recording with two microphones. There was no contract, but an informal agreement assured the band of 50 cents per record. Thus Country Cooking’s “14 Bluegrass Instrumentals” became Rounder Record 0006. The album featured a number of Pete’s original tunes. Before long, all the band members were contributing their own compositions. The record sold well, heralding the entrance into bluegrass of young urban pickers from outside the Southeast. (In personal appearances and later recordings, the band also included various other musicians, including the Fiction Brothers and Andy Statman.)
Pete published his doctoral thesis in sociology from Columbia University, which earned him a trip to Hawaii to read a paper at an international conference. At about the same time, he published his first instructional book, Bluegrass Banjo (Oak Publications), and he noticed that, of the two, his banjo book (at 20,000 copies the first year) was the far better seller.
Within two years, he had produced the Bluegrass Songbook for Oak and a set of play-along bluegrass records for Music Minus One. These successes, plus the enthusiastic reception of Country Cooking’s albums, prompted him to become a musician full time.
In 1976, Pete and his wife, Joan (“Nondi”) moved to a quaint rural home near Niwot, Colo., where they still enjoy their wooded land. The next year, with the help of Colorado musicians, Pete recorded his first solo album, “Dr. Banjo Steps Out.”
Ever the recruiter, Pete formed a band which eventually evolved into Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, and Charles Sawtelle. (Charles’ contribution was not merely musical. He guided the band into the purchase of a huge Cadillac with a trailer. Pete remembers that Cadillac as a bonding factor in the early hardscrabble days). The band was an experiment that lasted 12 years as Hot Rize. (The name comes from the secret leavening ingredient in Martha White Flour.)
Hot Rize did not meet the criteria of the ’70s for a traditional bluegrass band. They used an electric bass, they weren’t from the Southeast, and Pete sometimes actually used a phase-shifter on his banjo. This was heresy! But gradually the band caught on, because the music was not only technically excellent; it reached the heart. Original songs such as “Walk The Way The Wind Blows,” “Midnight On The Highway,” “Hard Pressed,” “Gone But Not Forgotten,” and instrumentals such as “Frank’s Blues” and “No Brakes” convinced the bluegrass crowd that this slightly different sound was, indeed. bluegrass at its best, “We worked very hard throughout the ’80s, but it was fun and very rewarding. I really enjoyed touring in our bus and playing our brand of bluegrass,” Pete remembers. “We had our own sound, and we put a lot of feeling into it.”
Hot Rize was a democratic band, on and off the stage. Each member had his duties, and they decided things by a five-way vote, including their sound man and road manager, Frank Edmonson, as an equal partner. In the beginning, Pete took the role of business manager and booking agent. “I believed so much in the band, and I knew it would take some intense legwork to launch it,” Pete remembers. After the release of the second Hot Rize album, Keith Case and Associates took over the bookings.
Characteristically, in the last years of the band’s existence, Pete wanted to share his experience and expertise, so he wrote a very helpful book, How To Make A Band Work, which is scheduled for re-release this year by Mel Bay Publications.
Pete compares the beginning years of a band’s history to a three-stage rocket, The first two stages are huge things full of concentrated fuel, expending tremendous energy, and they serve only to get the rocket off the ground. Once in orbit, the capsule encounters little resistance and travels fast with much less effort. He counsels bands that patience is important, and you may not think your payload is moving at all, but high-energy efforts will pay off in time. “It’s tragic, it’s very sad to see great bands break up after all the effort they have put in and the fan loyalty they’ve built up,” he muses. “I hope my book helps keep some of them on track and happy.”
In 1990, Hot Rize disbanded–sort of. Each of the musicians went on to other things, but Hot Rize continued to do occasional reunion gigs. Charles Sawtelle died in 1999 after a five-year battle with leukemia, ending an era begun in 1978, but, according to Pete, the legacy will not die with him, “Tim and Nick and 1 have played Hot Rize music with other people, and I think it’s likely we will again at some point.” To be released in 2001 is a live Hot Rize album recorded in 1996.
After the breakup of Hot Rize, Pete expanded his teaching. He has run winter banjo camps since 1984 that have helped over a thousand pickers of all levels to improve their picking. For a time, he traveled to other states for mini-banjo camps, but as his son, William. began elementary school, he “got a lot stingier” with his weekends and traveled less. Pete still offers workshops at the many festivals he attends. “1 enjoy teaching,” Pete says. “1 always get a thrill making that big connection. When you see that you’ve helped somebody fulfill a dream of theirs, what a charge you get! It’s humbling.”
Pete’s latest bridge-building effort is teaching bluegrass jamming. His first classes were held at H.B. Woodsong’s music store in Boulder, Co., (near Niwot), Pete now offers a four-day jam camp at Merlefest, and has just released an instructional video about jamming. “Over years of teaching, I started to realize that out of all the hungers or lacks in the bluegrass world, this [wanting to jam] was one of the toughest, loneliest hungers. It was invisible to almost everybody except the family members of those– well, shall we say, the wannabes. Even their music teachers don’t usually teach them jamming skills. And I thought, I could be helping these people make the connection to their beloved music, and help them to not give up on the music and not give up on their instruments.”
Pete maintains that a key aspect of teaching jamming is the need to “lower the bar” by starting with easy songs at moderate tempos. Learning the chording behind singing comes before taking a solo. “Some of those people will, once they are on the ladder, start moving up the ladder. Given the right situation, they’ll start jamming with their friends at bluegrass festivals,
“I’m really juiced about it,” Pete enthuses. “On the one hand, it’s stimulating and fun to teach a hot, young banjo player how to sound really good and how to play every lick that I can think of. I still have a fascination with that. But to help people learn to jam is a more global type of mission. What I’m hoping to do, is to teach my method to other musicians who’d like to make some extra income by teaching.” Pete advises “closet musicians” who go to jams, but find the skill level too high the following: “Look for others who have brought an instrument, but it’s still in the case, just like yours. Suggest that you go to another room, or outside, to play some easy songs together. Ask, What do you know? Let’s play it slow. O.K.?’ That way, you can break out of that shell you feel you are in.” Pete’s recently released bluegrass jamming video, shows folks how it’s done, with help from Hot Rizer Nick Forster, Sally Van Meter, and members of several younger Boulder-area bands, including String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band.
Pete’s career as a musician, post-Hot Rize. has grown in a typically original way with his band Pete Wernick and Flexigrass. One way to describe the music is by asking you to imagine Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton. and Earl Scruggs. Pete’s control of the three-finger roll blends wonderfully with the clarinet, vibraphone, bass, and tasty snare drum. This bridge that Pete has built is a musical one, a span between Dixieland, swing, and bluegrass music. And the result is an upbeat and highly original sound that sets your feet moving! Asked how he got the idea, Pete said, “Well, 1 just liked these sounds and thought they would blend well, so I found the right musicians and we tried it. It clicked! After we got it recorded on the On A Roll’ album, a lot of people said it was cool. That was satisfying not only the music itself, but the combining of two great musical traditions. It’s not exactly the Hatfields and McCoys that are being united, but you’ve got some long-lost cousins out there that have been living in different parts of the country, and the cousins are called bluegrass and Dixieland. You could do a master’s thesis on the parallels between the two. When I first heard Pete Fountain play clarinet, I thought, He ought to be in a bluegrass band. I didn’t create Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five) just to make a point; I wanted to hear what it would sound like. I found it very likable, especially due to the great musicians in the band. It may take the rest of my life for it to catch on, but we’ll keep on doing it. After Hot Rize, Pete also formed a duet act with his wife Joan that features her powerful vocals and steady guitar, and Pete’s vocals and banjo. Their recording, Windy Mountain is definitely roots material, with the mountain sound we have come to call “high lonesome” Pete explains, “She’s a really fine singer. I love her style and her sense of music. Our musical tastes match almost perfectly. Even though it’s sometimes daunting to be in a duet with your spouse, there’s some special satisfaction too. We’ve got a record together that our son helped us produce, and we’re really proud to be playing together.”
After 15 years as the President of the International Bluegrass Music Association Pete will be retiring due to term limit. He was elected President to the IBMA in 1986. Though he’d been promised that it would be a figurehead position, Pete found it challenging and exciting to be part of the brainstorming team that got the IBMA going. Pete’s scholastic training came in handy when his statistical analysis of U.S. Census data about the bluegrass audience helped to energize IBMA’s marketing efforts in the mid-’90s. But his most meaningful contribution may well be his promotion of young musicians. Through lobbying over two years, he finally got a youth group on the IBMA Award Show stage in 1993 after assembling a band promo package (created by combining material from homemade cassettes). The group, consisted of Chris Thile, Cody Kilby, Josh Williams, Michael Clevend, and Brady Stogdill, with an average age of 12, drew an electrified response, and video footage of the performance made national television. IBMA’s educational efforts aimed at children went into higher gear after that.
The next year. Pete produced and played on Chris Thile’s first solo album. recording in a small studio in the Thiles’ back yard in the mountains above San Diego, Cal. Pete remembers the time fondly. “Their recording studio was about the size of some people’s walk-in closets. The whole building was about 12 feet square. Although most of the cuts used five instruments, we couldn’t record more than three at a time, because that’s all the room we had. But it worked out, thanks to the great musicians. I will always treasure that time, helping an emerging genius make his first musical statement. It was so nice doing it in the context of staying with the family. They’re great people. Chris had just turned 13, and his dad would have to tell him to sit still, no, you can’t watch TV, stuff like that, and yet Chris would come up with musical ideas that were so sophisticated that we could only use some of them on the record. Chris was just pouring them out. He was very nice about being told, ‘No, that will have to go on the next record.’ “Chris now lives in Nashville and, along with his band, Nickel Creek, is definitely on his way to the top of the musical heap.
Pete is also the president of the Family of Humanists, a group that focuses on human values as opposed to supernatural religious belief. “The Golden Rule is the basic rule of society and most religions. I love the way it cuts across cultures and focuses on respecting and caring for others. Whatever beliefs there are, if they’re oriented towards human goodness, let’s give them some respect,” says Pete. “Let’s not say, ‘My way is the way everybody should be doing.’ Let’s find some common ground, and walk together on that common ground. I don’t think that when we get to the end of the road, we’ll feel bad that we walked it with somebody else who was a little different, I like the song, “You Go To Your Church, [And I’ll Go To Mine, But Let’s Walk Along Together].”
In a philosophical mood, Pete muses about the role of the bluegrass community in our world. “There’s a lot of really bad sickness in our society, and it has a lot to do with greedy, superficial things going on. And the antidote for that is for people to share, in a community way, something natural and honest. If you have that happening, it’s like medicine on a wound.” Bluegrass music promotes healing and bridge building.
Whether in front of the crowd or behind the scenes, you can count on this: Pete Wernick is finding new ways to build bridges that you and I can use.