Interview with Pete Wernick by Patrick Ferris
When the opportunity came for me to interview Pete (Dr. Banjo) Wernick, banjo player for the legendary bluegrass band, Hot Rize, it was something that a music writer dreams about.
Author of Masters of the Five String Banjo, How to Make a Band Work, Beginning Bluegrass Banjo and numerous instructional videos, Pete has a PhD in sociology and is one of the most influential banjo players alive today. His music has not only influenced banjo enthusiasts around the world, but Pete is now the first banjo player to be heard on another planet! On Friday February 27th 2004 the Mars Rover Spirit awoke to banjo picking from the song ‘Big Rock in the Road’ performed by Pete Wernick and then went on its final approach to the imposing rock called “Humphrey”.
Hot Rize was a cultural phenomenon in the world of bluegrass in the sense that they focused on the simple things that made bluegrass so good. Their single microphone singing style and even the name Hot Rize, named after the secret ingredient of Martha White Self-Rising Flour, the product Flatt & Scruggs promoted early in the 50’s and 60’s, was to emphasize their respect for the roots of bluegrass music.
Perhaps one of the most influential bluegrass bands of the last 20 years, Hot Rize continues to draw audiences and grow in legend each year, even though they officially disbanded as a full time band in 1990. The passing of guitarist Charles Sawtelle in 1999 was a huge loss to the world of bluegrass. Hot Rize performing commitments in 1999 were fulfilled as Charles Sawtelle memorials, with Peter Rowan or Jeff White filling the guitar slot.
A live concert recording from 1996, “So Long of a Journey“, was issued in 2002, the first new Hot Rize album in over a decade. Also in 2002, the group started performing again on an occasional basis. Bryan Sutton, one of Nashville’s leading session players, and guitar superpicker, was added on guitar.
My baptism into the Hot Rize fan club appropriately took place at Tacoma’s First Baptist Church as part of the Wintergrass festival. Performing Hot Rize favorites like Radio Boogie, Just Like You, Empty Pocket Blues and even the Flatt and Scruggs commercial for Martha White’s Flour, from which they got their name, brought the audience of several hundred to their feet in thunderous applause. I was mesmerized by the incredible collection of talent on the stage, seeing and hearing history in the making. Tim O’Brien’s vocals, mandolin and fiddle playing were amazing, and Bryan Sutton’s guitar playing made it easy to see why he is one of the hottest session players in Nashville.
After seeing the live show and experiencing a live Hot Rize performance, I can see where bands like Yonder Mountain String Band and Open Road got their influence and why Hot Rizecontinues to be a huge attraction to bluegrass lovers world wide.
HotBands – All of you congregated in Colorado. Why Colorado? What is there and why is bluegrass so popular there?
Pete Wernick – I arrived in Colorado in 1976, Tim and Nick both arrived the year before that. Colorado is just a really nice place and there was a nice music scene there. There wasn’t much of a bluegrass scene, but there was a bluegrass radio show that I got to take over for a while, and a lot of good pickers around. What’s now happening in Colorado I feel Hot Rize had a hand in, along with plenty of other stuff. The The Colorado Bluegrass Festival, which got started in the ‘70s, helped build a lot of interest. One particular guy who passed away about a year ago named Buck Buckner was responsible for getting people to turn off their TV’s and pick, and jam sessions flourished. At this point, you can go out in the Denver and Boulder area and go to a jam session every day of the week all year long, and there’s just a good attitude about getting together at each others’ houses, and the radio shows are still going. Hot Rize is the first band out of Colorado that made a splash nationally and we played a lot around the state and jammed guys like Drew Emmitt from Leftover Salmon and some of the guys from String Cheese Incident. As a Hot Rize member, I went out and jammed when we weren’t busy and met quite a few people that were into bluegrass and that had developed this Jamgrass style. They also helped the bluegrass movement along.
HotBands – Would you call this Newgrass?
Pete Wernick – I call it Jamgrass because it’s based on the principles of jam rock and roll, not just based on bluegrass. It usually has a progressive edge to it like The Newgrass Revival, which is a Newgrass band…whatever that is…it’s hard to define, but it’s all based on bluegrass technique, bluegrass consciousness, the bluegrass band format, and then taking material or ideas that have evolved past where Flatt and Scruggs brought it.
In the ‘70s I was in a band called Country Cooking that put out a CD of instrumental of some hot picking and new arrangements. I found out later that this had a big impact in parts of Europe because they sensed there was something else going on in bluegrass beyond the traditional Southern bluegrass. Even though we weren’t talking their language, they were inspired by Country Cooking because they realized we were playing bluegrass our way, and that encouraged them to play bluegrass their way. There is a lot of progressive bluegrass coming out of Europe, especially the Czech Republic. It gives me a great charge to think I had a hand in helping people get the courage to go their own way.
Hotbands – You had a hand in helping so many people learn bluegrass through your banjo camps. Did you start those in Colorado?
Pete Warwick – Oregon was the first place I ever gave an instructional week. Portland State University had a program called Haystack and they contacted me to give banjo instruction. I did a whole string of those and have developed weekend clinics all over the country including overseas. Lately I have a new program that I’m very excited about that I call a ‘Jam Camp’. The idea is to take people that aren’t fully comfortable with jam sessions and getting them started playing in groups with simple 3-chord songs. That’s enough for a LONG night of having fun playing bluegrass! Three chords on the banjo is the key to life, which is a quote out of a Vince Gill song.
When Hot Rize started, we decided to go retro up to and including our attire, because bluegrass was progressing away from the tradition with new chord progressions, tempos and the like. In the beginning, we picked a lot of songs that were two and three chords, and that was our style. People welcomed our simple approach because it was going back in the other direction toward what it was when Bill Monroe started it. This worked out good for us because not only was it in our hearts and we were all very enthused to do it, but there was a longing in the bluegrass community from people who had seen it unfold decade after decade that didn’t want all the young people drawn into rock-and-rollsville.
The jamgrass thing was something that they were tolerant of, but they’re a lot more comfortable with a young band like the Del McCoury band or Open Road or some of the other bands that are out now that emphasize the hardcore bluegrass soul and leave the complexity stuff out. There is a lot of complexity in bluegrass, but the more complex you get, the more you rob yourself of the consciousness that you need to put the best feeling into it. If you’re really working hard to remember the chord changes, how are you going to remember to sing soulfully and play with a great groove? Not that that can’t be done, but for a guy like me, I always found it very comfortable to start the shows in Hot Rize with Blue Night…a very simple three-chord song. It’s pretty hard to miss with that song because it’s a good song with meaningful lyrics. We don’t play the hardest stuff we know how to play, we just play good with the best tone we can and put some drive into it and it works for Hot Rize. I think people respond to passion and depth rather than complexity. Complexity is impressive, but it wears off pretty quickly if you don’t have the other stuff too.
HotBands – Is there a Nashville ‘Insiders Club’? There are so many bands out there…is there a certain dress code or etiquette that a band needs to fit in order to be part of the Nashville family?
Pete Wernick – There was this super-gala which completely had a style when we started it up again in the late ‘70s. Nobody was doing it, then The Johnson Mountain Boys started doing it and various traditional bands now like Open Road just do it for the same reasons we did it…because that was the way Flatt and Scruggs, Monroe and The Stanley Brothers presented themselves, and it just seems ‘normal’ to do something like what they did. Getting back to your question, I don’t think there is really a dress code and I don’t think there is a much of a ‘clique’ either. I think people come into town or through town and it’s a nice music community with lots of people getting together and hanging out for events, even though they’re in competition with each other in the marketplace, and these are some of the best, they’re pretty nice.
HotBands – I’ve heard that Branson, Missouri is known as ‘The New Nashville’. Is bluegrass big there?
Pete Wernick – I have no idea because Branson might call itself ‘the New….whatever it wants to call itself’, but it’s not even comparable to Nashville except that they’re both tourist attractions. Nashville is where the music industry having to do with country and bluegrass LIVES. It has a very deep tradition going back to the 1920’s when the Grand Ole Opry started in Nashville, thanks to the radio station WFM. Branson decided it would become a country music haven and have lots of theatres and bring in tourists who liked going to the Ozarks. If they call themselves that, I don’t mean to insult them, but that’s not a proper name for them.
HotBands – I wanted to touch on the banjo camps again and the inspiration for that. Was it philanthropic?
Pete Wernick – Philanthropic for me maybe! In the middle of the winter there’s not that much gigging going on, so you’re not making much money and you’re usually spending money making a record. The experience over the summer that Portland State University had me doing was very positive and a friend of mine suggested that I do it on my own in Colorado. I doubted it, but I gave it a try and thanks to the advent of the personal computer…I had just received the week before to work on a book called Masters of the 5-String Banjo, I used my database of everybody that had ever ordered anything from me, and I was not only able to fill up a class of 20 for the first week, but an additional 17 for the next week! That was my inspiration…just a musician trying to make a buck. I had already put out instructional materials already and had a very big selling book I wrote in 1973; the same year I got my doctorate in sociology. I put out a bluegrass banjo instruction book and it was a great year to put out this type of book because Deliverance came out the year before, and Dueling Banjos was really popular. I had taught students for the better part of 10 years and had figured out a way of teaching that seemed to be working well. I did a thing for Music Minus One called Music Minus One for Banjo, trying to get my music career pumped up any way I could besides making records and performing.
The instructional stuff was in big demand and I can tell you that a very big inspiration for me about that, was that when I started, there wasn’t anything. There was a Pete Seeger book, and as great of a musician he had been all that time, the book didn’t cover Scruggs style; didn’t cover bluegrass, and he admitted to not knowing anything about it. There was one not really typical pattern in there that I tried to learn and see if it matched up to what Scruggs was doing on his records…this was when I was 15 or so with a record player, no prior musical training or knowledge and nobody to show me.
HotBands – You must have had a good ear.
Pete Wernick – Well I didn’t have a good ear either, but I had friends who played folk music and I was playing Pete Seeger style folk music. Over a period of time, with a lot of diligence trying to get the fingers going on the right hand, I had seen Scruggs and realized that he wasn’t doing the pattern that was in the book, so that kind of freed me up to ignore Pete Seeger at that point…nothing against Pete Seeger, he’s a fantastic musician and contributor to our society, but he was not what I needed at the time.
HotBands – How old were you when you first saw Earl Scruggs?
Pete Wernick – I saw him when I wasn’t quite 15 years old in New York City, which is where I grew up. That nailed it down for me…I had heard him before I even started to play banjo and thought it was the most incredible thing I could imagine a human being doing…playing banjo like that…it totally lit my fire because it didn’t sound like anything a human being was capable of doing. Once I could play some decent banjo with my friends, I decided to go after the Scruggsthing. I had these records and I learned the chord changes and then tried to get my fingers moving and once in a while I bumped into something that really sounded like what he was doing and over a period of a couple of years I kind of pieced together something that sounded fairly credible as Scruggs style banjo and still didn’t have a band to play in.
When I got to college, I started seeking out people and had gotten groups together with people I knew from around New York City and was asked to be in a very good group, and that helped to develop my music. I started writing tunes a little bit around that time, then moved to Ithaca to continue my graduate studies and hung with Tony Trischka, who was at that time an unrecorded banjo player. He lived at my house for a while and we worked up twin banjo arrangements and got the beginning of Country Cooking together playing some of the Nashville country stuff. We had some friends that started a record company in Ithaca called Rounder Records that had put out two or three records at that point. I suggested a twin banjo record and they said ‘sure’. We didn’t have a contract or anything but we went into the Cornell student union building a couple of days in May of 1971 with a 7 � inch recorder and two microphones and made the record that I think is still the top selling record I’m on, called ‘Country Cooking – 14 bluegrass instrumentals’. It was primitive in various ways, but we had pretty good up-tempo tunes and people liked it. It and the second record we did are now combined into one CD called 26 bluegrass instrumentals that is still selling 33 years after we cut it.
Earl Scruggs himself declined to ever try to write a book because he said himself that he didn’t think it was possible to write down what he was doing. Later, Bill Keith came along and was able to write it down and came out with the Earl Scruggs instruction book. That book was primarily tablature of what Earl was doing on the records…it didn’t really have any concept of a real method by which you would learn a step at a time, and that’s what I learned how to do by trial and error with people.
The thing with the right hand on a banjo player is like speaking a language…whatever the rules of grammar are and whatever the vocabulary is, you have to have it internalized enough so that you don’t need to concentrate, because when you play at that speed…and I’m talking six to ten notes a second, it has to be in muscle memory similar to the same part of your brain that language is in. There’s a major analogy between learning music and learning language, so there are certain things I can’t be responsible for. I have to tell a person that you just have to keep at it and jump in bog and slog around so that you can make up a solo that aren’t just patterns you learned out of a book.
Bluegrass isn’t like piano or cello where you just sit down and duplicate what is on the paper; in bluegrass, it’s mostly ear training, memorization and spending a lot of times just trying things. With a good ear you can learn how to copy stuff very closely…with tablature you can learn exactly what somebody is playing, but you can’t sit in a jam session in the dark after hours at a festival and do anything.
I feel that bluegrass is better taught by getting people together, and playing with each other rather than teaching out of a book, which emphasizes more on soloing than on playing with others. I’ve put out a book with a lot of words to songs in it so that people can get together and start with the basics, and that’s all it takes; the first rung of the ladder is very close to the ground…you don’t need to study something for two years before you dare venture out to a jam session.
HotBands – Did you have tunes ready to record before the first Country Cooking record?
Pete Wernick – I found out later that I was the first person to record a David Grisman song, which I found out later was a copyright violation, and Grisman still teases me about it. That was the first original tune that was written by anybody I knew…he was around New York at the time as was I and we knew each other and I learned his tune called Cedar Hill.
HotBands – Did you play with each other in New York?
Pete Wernick – Some…he was more advanced than I was, but as I got better, we got to play some and record some at the bluegrass radio station at Columbia University where I had my bluegrass radio program in college. That was another big part of my learning because when you’re a DJ, if you wanted to do an interview with somebody like Bill Monroe, they would sit and talk with you.
HotBands – Kind of like this?
Pete Wernick – Yeah…kind of like this. They liked it, I liked it, I learned a lot and heard a lot of records and learned a lot just from my radio show. It also gave me access to a high quality tape recorder, which made David Grisman very interested, because even as a teenager, he was very interested in recording stuff, so on Christmas break, we would hang out at the radio station at the college when nobody was there and make bluegrass recordings. David had been writing songs, and I realized that you didn’t have to wait around for somebody else to write a tune for you to learn, you could write your own tunes. I wrote a few that were on the first Country Cookingrecord and I was the only person that came to that record with tunes that we’d already been playing. By the second record, everybody had tunes that they had already been playing.
To be accepted by bluegrass people, you can’t just come in and say “Oh, I’m going to do a whole new thing now”; they don’t appreciate that because they value the traditions very very highly, and for very good reason…people just don’t understand.
HotBands – What is the reason?
Pete Wernick – The reason is because this stuff was put together over a long period of time by people who nursed it and tried to make it really good…especially guys like Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. They honed their music to a very fine sheen and included what they didn’t want as well as what they did want. If you listen to the old records, you hear guys that are not only playing their own instruments, but guys that have a concept of ensemble music which really is a very big evolutionary step from the stuff that came before. The stuff that came before came from a lifestyle and a tradition; different people coming from different parts of the world the Southern mountains and bringing fiddle music and old folk songs. Monroe incorporated black blues and all this stuff turned into a beautiful amalgam called bluegrass. If people just come along and learn their techniques and don’t even know that stuff and don’t respect it, then an important link with the past is broken. It’s good for people to go to Ireland or listen to black blues music and hear where Monroe got his influences. Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs built the bluegrass audience, which is why you need to be respectful. I went to the first bluegrass festival in 1965 and it was attended by several hundred people.
HotBands – You went to the very first bluegrass festival?
Pete Wernick – I did. I was near Roanoke, Virginia in 1965. Musicians came from all over the place to be part of that festival, but not that many people came. There’s a film of the stuff that went on, and you can see that it was poverty…it was a couple of benches stuck out in front of a makeshift stage in a horse farmers field. That’s what Monroe and The Stanley Brothers and Doc Watson and these big stars performed on. There weren’t any tour buses…everybody showed up in station wagons and cars. I think the price for the weekend was $6. Bluegrass at the time was on hard times and over a period of years, the bluegrass festival thing caught on. By the early ‘70s there were several festivals going on, the Telluride festival in Colorado started in 1971, and that made it possible for young bands like the one I was in, to perform for large audiences…you didn’t have to play in a bar someplace that reluctantly hired a bluegrass band when they really meant to hire a country group with electric gear and drums. Bluegrass became proud of itself and started the first bluegrass magazine in 1966 and all the things have followed since. Events like Wintergrass couldn’t have existed without that first festival. I think a lot of people at Wintergrassare aware of that, but a lot of the new people that keep showing up and of course are very welcome, need to be apprised of that.
Yonder Mountain String Band, who are friends of mine, weren’t even born yet at the time of the first Country Cooking record. They wanted to work some stuff out with me from that record and I said “None of you were born when that record was released, right?” and they said “That’s right, we’re all in our 20s and that record is 30 years old” and I thought that was cool. We’re buddies…I’m really proud of them, and one of the things I like best about them is that they realize themselves not only who’s shoulders they’re standing on, but that they convey that back to their audience…that this stuff didn’t just come out of nowhere…that four kids out of the Midwest decided to start this kind of music. Monroe can start what he did out of nowhere, but there was precedence for it. You don’t have to know what fiddle tune was written by what artist from what country, but it’s just important to know that Yonder Mountain String Band didn’t invent bluegrass, and that if you’ve only heard Yonder Mountain String Band that you should go out and hear Del McCoury…someone that actually played with Monroe and knows what the Monroe style is all about.
Hot Rize is also influence by the early bands and that’s important to know. If you listen to Ricky Scaggs, you’re hearing music originating from the Southern Appalachian’s. He was on TV with Flatt and Scruggs at age six, played with The Stanley Brothers a lot and finally joined them full time when he was 15. Stuff like that might be a revelation to some people, but it’s a real big family tree…not just a bunch of bands trying to make money in the music industry…it’s a family.
HotBands – I wanted to touch on what brought you out to Colorado. Was it just serendipitous that the four of you met in Denver, or were you drawn there for the music?
Pete Wernick – I got my doctorate and then quit my job at Cornell University because I had written a couple of books and the royalties were enough to live on for a while. There wasn’t much of a bluegrass scene in Colorado but the weather was nicer than New York and there was a very friendly folk scene. I can’t say that it was because I was in Denver that I got together with good musicians, that would have happened in Seattle if I came here, but it’s more a matter of what those good musicians do when they get together, and we had a chance with Country Cooking to cut a record.
The idea with Hot Rize was that I really wanted to be in a band with Tim. Tim had never been a lead singer and in the band he was in, he only occasionally sang harmony. I knew he was way too good of a singer to not be the lead singer of a bluegrass band, so I proposed that we put that together, and he agreed. We got together with a couple of other guys we knew; Charles Sawtelle and I had a kind of informal band together for a couple of years before Hot Rize got started.
HotBands – Mike Scap was the first guitarist in the band. Why did he leave?
Pete Wernick – He had a personality that wasn’t suited for a musician’s lifestyle. He does a lot better being very reclusive, unfortunately for everybody else. He doesn’t like traveling in a car and really dislikes traveling by air. He is a very amazing and highly evolved guitar player. We did some recording together that helped me get a contract with Flying Fish Records to do my first solo album, but then he was too afraid to fly out to Colorado from New Jersey to be on the album, so we got Charles instead. He came out finally to start Hot Rize, but there was just too much nervous energy problems with him. I’m still in touch with him and he’s still a wonderful musician, but unfortunately, he’ll never be well known because he just doesn’t have the temperament for it. He finally quit the band after three months, which is the longest he’s ever been in any band, and then we got Nick on the spur of the moment because we had gigs coming up. I facilitated all of this by getting on the phone and getting every possible gig that we could get so the band could be working steadily.
HotBands – So you were the acting band manager when the band formed?
Pete Wernick – I was essentially the band manager and we brought Nick on as bass player, which we knew he could play because he was already so good on guitar. Charles, who had been the bass player, switched to guitar.
HotBands – If Nick was a good guitarist and Charles was already playing bass, why didn’t you just put Nick on guitar?
Pete Wernick – Because Charles was a bluegrass guitar player but moved to bass so Mike could be in the band because he was so amazingly hot, but when he quit, it was pretty obvious that Charles was a very capable player and the right guy to continue on playing guitar. Nick wasn’t a bluegrass guitar player necessarily, but we all knew he was a talented musician and knew he’d do a good job filling in on bass. We have a standing joke because we never told him if he was hired or not but we kept asking him to play shows with us, so every now and then even to this day, he’ll ask us if he’s going to get the gig.
There was a lot of unfolding of the Hot Rize story, but that was the nucleus of the band that came together in May of 1978, and it was April of 1990 that we played our last gig as a full time band. We didn’t like calling it “The last Hot Rize show” because we were all still friends and still liked playing together.
HotBands – What was the reason for the split?
Pete Wernick – It was a very simple thing really. Tim, who is such a talented musician and talented guy, became a great songwriter and a couple of Hot Rizesongs were picked up by Kathy Mattea who was a big country star, and turned the songs into hits. This brought the powers of Nashville, who were looking for offbeat new talent like Lyle Lovett, to Tim, who was signed by RCA records. Tim had wanted that and had been courting that for years, so it was a career move. He recorded a whole record that they decided not to put out because it wasn’t considered country music, so they passed up on an incredible musician because he didn’t sound like whatever it was they wanted. So Tim just went his own way with his music and put together an incredible solo career. We all thought that was good for him, so it wasn’t a bitter break up, it was just an opportunity for Tim, and the rest of us just had to figure out what we were going to do. Nick went on to start a radio show, Charles became a producer of records as well as doing a lot of performing with Peter Rowan and other people, I started a band called Live Five, which is still going, as well as a duet with my wife and the banjo camps.
HotBands – You’re the President of the International Bluegrass Music Association?
Pete Wernick – I was. While in Hot Rize I decided to run for the first President of the IBMA in 1986 and really got into that gig because I was into helping grow a trade organization that would work for bluegrass as a whole. I’m interested in doing whatever it is I’m doing the very best that I can.
HotBands – All of you have had solo careers that are successful in their own right, but Hot Rizewas really a cultural phenomenon in the genre of bluegrass. Why do you think that happened?
Pete Wernick – That happens when a band stays together. When a band stays together and just keep playing all over the country in a lot of places, they play for a lot of people. Hot Rizesucceeded for a number of reasons and that was partly an attitude, which was that we really value traditional bluegrass and that we weren’t going to just duplicate it; that we had our own ideas that we were going to combine with it but not differently so that we would be labeled not really bluegrass. We won awards for both contemporary bluegrass band of the year and also traditional bluegrass band of the year in the same year, which was very cool as far as we were concerned because we liked the fact that we could appeal to both audiences…it helped make us more popular and get enough money to live on after a while. In 1987, we got on Austin City Limits, which was an incredible thing for our careers and also for bluegrass as a whole.
Hot Rize was known for bringing back the single microphone style of singing. Back in the old days, everything was done on one and at most, two microphones. Records were recorded that way too. In the 70s people came along with more advanced equipment and pretty soon every person in the band had two microphones and would line up across the stage. A lot of the instrumentation and teamwork that bluegrass started got replaced in favor of supposedly better sound, except that it wasn’t better. You suddenly relinquished all your control to the soundman and sound system. The best bluegrass is played when the instruments know they sound good and the audience can hear it. Year after year we were the only band that would sing into one microphone; now it’s so common that it’s hard to remember a time that there was only one band doing it. Each instrument has separate mics but there is a lot of choreography and teamwork that is a part of real bluegrass. It’s a team and not just a bunch of virtuoso guys that are in their own little closet.
HotBands – You’ve inspired and influenced an entire new generation of bluegrass musicians. Who do you like and why?
Pete Wernick – Oh, I’d love to talk about that! The youth movement is in full bloom and it’s amazing to see how many really good young pickers there are out there, and I don’t mean 18 year olds…I mean NINE year olds! There’s SO much young talent around and in some cases I’m just waiting for it to mature into the kind of musicians that are not just proficient, but can get under your skin with the kind of material and soul that the best bluegrass has.
A group like Open Road is very impressive in that way. I was just listening to their forthcoming record today on the plane. They have a completely obvious and definite style…they’re not imitating anybody, and there’s a lot of imitator bands out there that don’t get very far with me because I’ve already heard the original people. There’s a band called King Wilkie that I’ve heard that a lot of people are talking about. They’re named after Bill Monroe’s horse and I’ve heard they get a lot of their influences from Hot Rize which is very flattering, but I need to expose myself to their music a little more. I heard them do one set and it sounded really good. There’s also Nickel Creek, but everybody already knows about them. I like the Waybacks but they aren’t really bluegrass…they’re very original and they have that all-important factor of “the whole is greater than the sum of all the parts”. It takes a while for that to cultivate out. It takes a while to become a writer of songs that people actually want to learn and not just be a vehicle for somebody’s virtuosity. The stuff that Bill Monroe wrote in his 30s and 40s is still the best material.
I think that anybody who is prominent in the bluegrass field is not only trying to be a good musician, but are trying to contribute material that will last a while…not just write songs that show you can sing a high note and play fast. It’s the lyrics that really bonds a person to a song…not just how fast somebody is playing.
HotBands – I love your song Just like you
Pete Wernick – That’s probably my best selling song, and I have other songs, many of which have been recorded, and I’m proud to say they were written out of true-life experience, and that hopefully they will touch people. That song is designed to bring people to a realization, and that would be good if people got that realization before they were 70 years old.
HotBands – I wanted to ask you about your views on the Internet and file trading.
Pete Wernick – The Internet has is efficiencies that are pretty cool…you can get your stuff on the website and have someone hear it instantly rather than having to pay money on postage. That’s a very cool thing and it’s opening up a lot of ways that people are still figuring out…it’s a new paradigm for music that will probably make a lot of record store owners unhappy, but back in the early 1900s there were a lot of horse and buggy people that had to find other careers. I think the record store is on the way out, unfortunately in some ways. So the Internet is doing an awful lot, but people need to remember that even though they can do everything from their chair and computer, they still need to get out and play music and bring people together. We need a more face-to-face society. We don’t want a society where everybody is stuck in their own little cubicle…we need to be able to be around people and be social with each other and learn how to be a whole greater than the sum of the parts rather than being alone staring at your computer screen.
HotBands – As far as file sharing goes, what are your feelings?
Pete Wernick – I buy both arguments: Why there shouldn’t be any and why it needs to be prevalent.
HotBands – But you know file sharing will be there no matter what.
Pete Wernick – It will be there no matter what but people need to be aware of the rights of the creative musician that are trying to make money on their career. If a doctor’s services could be copied for free, there would be a lot less reason for them to attend medical school because they lose the incentive to make money. Musicians in bluegrass have been starving for years. There are a few millionaires but not many, I’ll tell you. Most people would really like to be able to buy a house to live in with their family and it’s not that easy and was almost impossible until recent years. I think most people are totally unaware of that and could care less whether the guy whose records they’re copying makes money. They don’t care if Larry Sparks makes money but if Larry Sparks doesn’t make enough, maybe he can’t stay in business. That’s something that I think people are extremely callous about. It’s not like they’re Metallica….there’s no millionaires in bluegrass except for maybe Earl Scruggs…that’s about it.
HotBands – Don’t you think file sharing gets people to the shows?
Pete Wernick – It gets the music around and that’s why I allow people to come in just to tape us, but I really hope those people will then spend money on the show or the records. Musicians and songwriters do the very best to put out a good product, and if everybody is just trading around for free, music becomes undervalued commercially, and all the effort that goes into building a career goes out the window. Who’s going to pay somebody two days travel just to get to a gig if everybody is at home listening to their files? There’s a lot of injustice everywhere in the music business, and I can’t stamp out all the injustice, but I would just like people to understand what they’re doing that is not feeding the beast that is giving them output. If people are too selfish about that stuff, and there’s a lot of selfishness in this society…they don’t understand what it’s like for the other people and what they need to do what they do, then we’re going to have bad consequences.
HotBands – When all of you formed Hot Rize 25 years ago where did you think it would take you?
Pete Wernick – I had no idea it would lead to anything. We all just took one thing at a time and one thing led to another.
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