Dr. Banjo » Notes From The Road » Hot Rize Returns

Hot Rize Returns

Notes From The Road: This is my “Pete’s-eye view” feature on this site, with reports on interesting people and events I encounter in my travels.

Hot Rize returns, June-August, 2002, with shows in Colorado, Oregon, and Nashville–the Opry and the “old” Opry

After three years of no Hot Rize, Tim, Nick, and I decided to bring the band back to life. Since Charles Sawtelle’s death in March, 1999, there were times when the three of us played together and did Hot Rize material, but the aim was to pay respect to Charles, not to present ourselves as Hot Rize. Charles was such an important part of us, it didn’t seem right to just replace him and go on. For over twenty years, Hot Rize had meant the four of us. But after three years, with a new album out of the band in 1996, it just seemed time. We set up six performances, and broke the ice.

Boulder, Colorado

The first gig was an E-Town radio show taping before a large audience at Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium. Nick and his wife Helen co-produce the syndicated show, and have been doing it very well since 1991. This was Hot Rize’s first E-Town appearance, so it was a momentous night. I remember feeling pretty nervous before going out and playing, but with the first pounding pulse of “Blue Night”, things fell into place. The audience cheered us on.

Bryan Sutton, who is playing guitar with us, did a good job straddling the line between evoking Charles and being his own man. We ripped through various old favorites, as well as the sort-of-title cut of the new record, Climbing Up a Mountain, whose lyrics include the record title, “So Long of a Journey”. During the interview portion of the show, Nick helped us reminisce about the early days, and brought things up to date with questions about our current projects. I got a chance to do something I’d wanted to do for a while: interview Nick. I asked him about his early musical interests and got him to play one of his favorite licks from back then (a Jimi Hendrix lick, it turned out).

The show was a lot of fun, and also featured an interview Nick did with US and Russian astronauts in the space station. The crowd got to see the space travelers on a video screen as they talked, and was tickled by the miracles of weightlessness. The upper of re-starting Hot Rize had me floating as well.

String Summit, Oregon

Photo: Biran Langeliers

This first-time event was the scene of the band’s return to festivals. Our last one had been almost four years previous, the our last performance with Charles, at the Grand Targhee festival in Wyoming. The String Summit festival is hosted by Colorado’s jam-grass heroes, the Yonder Mountain String Band. For the festival’s first year, YMSB and their management people came up with a classy lineup including the David Grisman Quintet, Psychograss, Danny Barnes, Pete Wernick and Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five), and some highly talented northwest bands.

The festival site, Horning’s Hideout, northwest of Portland, is as pretty as one could ask for, with lots of tree-lined slopes, and a scenic lake and bridge. After a heavy rain that soaked the enthusiastic crowd during the festival’s leadoff set (by Flexigrass), things dried out for the YMSB’s extended sets. Both George Weber and I represented the Flexigrass in some of the jamming proceedings on stage, and a high energy level was achieved! At one point, Dave Johnston, YMSB’s banjo player, his Indiana buddy Noam Pikelny, and myself, did a three-banjo jam which got quite a reaction. We ended up playing two extended numbers. I remember one of them was Scruggs’ Ground Speed.

Hot Rize’s Saturday show was powerful and smooth, and crowd-pleasing
too. Some serious sound problems involving out-of-control sub-woofers made it tough at times, but we played through the hums and delivered the goods to the crowd. This was our first-ever set playing 90 minutes of uninterrupted bluegrass. As you may remember, for most of Hot Rize’s career, our traveling companion band, Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers, would relieve us for a spell mid-set, allowing us and the audience to relax from the intense pace of driving bluegrass music. The current Hot Rize is on its own without Red and the boys, so the 90-minute bluegrass set was a new thing. Bryan inserted some variety by singing New River Train, and we aired out favorites old and new, from Charles’ instrumental The Butcher’s Dog, to our traditional closer, Shady Grove. I was thrilled to be part of the energy pulse and the close harmonies that I remember from all the years with the band. Definitely like putting on a pair of long-lost favorite shoes.

RockyGrass, Colorado

This festival is special to everyone who plays it, as it’s in such a beautiful place (foothills of the Rockies, near Boulder), the talent is so excellent, the crowds so enthusiastic, and everything is so well-run. It’s no wonder the festival sells out in advance, pretty unheard-of in the bluegrass business.

Pete, Nick, Tim, Bryan
Photo: Phil Harris

RockyGrass is extra-special for me, since I’ve played it all 11 years, and I live just 20 minutes away. For Hot Rize, it had particular meaning this year, as our full-fledged reappearance to our home-base audience. We pulled out some deep-catalog tunes like Land of Enchantment, Standing in the Need of Prayer, Money to Burn, and Let Me Love You One More Time. (I got some good points at home for dedicating that last one to all our wives, who certainly deserve recognition for their love and support over the years.)

Once again, Bryan pleased with New River Train (this time including the verse, “You can’t love three, t’s against the law in Tennessee”). It’s neat when such a hot guitar player just cuts loose with an old favorite like that. Bryan has a nice laid-back presence to go with his super-quick and clean, inventive leads. A lot of folks praised him highly as an excellent choice to handle guitar duties in our new incarnation. An especially nice touch: Nick brought from home Charles’ main guitar, the treasured 1937 D-28. Bryan played it on the show. I think Charles would have really liked that.

The sound worked well for us, according to reports of trusted listeners, and I felt satisfied that we hit our stride with a set that had nice peaks and valleys and plenty of our brand of bluegrass energy. Near the end of the set, Tim told the audience that we are so much a part of each other, it feels great to do what we do together. Or something like that! Truly a fulfilling experience.

Other highlights of the festival for me were playing with some of the most progressive, advanced bluegrass players on the planet, and some of the most down-to-earth traditional folks as well. Namely, Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka in a Saturday extended workshop, and The Lilly Brothers. Pretty amazing to go between these two extremes in less than 24 hours!

Bela and Tony are wondrous musicians, with such wide and total command of the instrument, that the rest of us skake our heads with wonder and appreciation. Bela played his incredible showpiece, a 5-minute Bach Partita, and answered questions from me about how he worked it out for the banjo (“It’s hard,” he said. “This music was not written for banjo, and took a lot of translating into banjo fingerings,” including changing the original key.) Tony regaled us with early-era banjo tunes including pieces by J.P. Sousa and Gus Cannon, as well as a new composition. When he said it was yet unnamed, I asked for title ideas from the audience. The favorite was “Orangatwang”. As a threesome we blasted through Shuckin’ the Corn with our distinct styles in clear contrast, and finished with the old Country Cooking favorite, Big Ben, in three-part harmony. A great time was had by all.

Next day was my day to pay tribute to bluegrass legends Everette and Bea Lilly, and their late partner, Don Stover. The brothers are 78 and 81, respectively, and with Everette’s sons Daniel and Mark (Everett Alan Lilly couldn’t make it due to a health problem), we were the Lilly Mountaineers for an hour-long workshop and a 75-minute set. Adam Aijala from Yonder Mountain filled in for Everett Alan on guitar and did an excellent job. (Not a typical gig for him!) The group provides a high-energy return to the early days of bluegrass, complete with old sentimental songs, driving instrumentals, crazy cornball comedy, and good sincere neighborly emcee work from Everette. A slice of bluegrass past, for the Colorado folks.

Everette, who acts as band leader, has made a point of telling me how much he and the group like the way I play their style. As I tell him, I consider it good medicine for me to immerse myself in their music. Singing Get in Line Brother and playing Earl’s Breakdown and Your Love Is Like a Flower (which Everette did as a member of Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mt. Boys in the early 50s) touches a deep nerve in my bluegrass soul. This family represents the traditional music at the root of great bluegrass, and I was honored to be part of it.

The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville

Hot Rize had played here before, but again, returning to old territory in a new incarnation had a special significance. This is one of the top performing venues anywhere, partly because of its history as the long-term home of the Opry (where bluegrass as we know it was first heard, in the mid-40s, and where Hank Williams and so many country stars got their start), but mostly because it just sounds so good. Built as an (obviously) all-acoustic tabernacle in the 1800’s, now with an up-to-date sound system, it’s a taste of sonic heaven.

And for Hot Rize also a bit of old home week. We got to visit with some old friends, as well as a contingent of 7 of my jam campers from my Merlefest camp, several from Virginia, one from Missouri! IIIrd Tyme Out opened the show and did their usual fine job. It was good to see them, as we go back a ways with all of them, before they had their band. Jill Douglas, Sean and Sara Watkins, and Cindy Sinclair came by, and Bryan’s wife and baby daughter Maggie paid us a visit too.

As usual, I was a bit spooked by the charisma of the venue before we started, but with the spirit of the place and the friendly, receptive audience, it felt just right, almost immediately. I even forgot the pretty bothersome plane cancellations that turned a 2 1/2 hour non-stop into a 17-hour all-nighter with two *long* intervals hanging out at two airports. I had my son Will with me for company, and did we ever have fun… He’s a trooper and except for the flights, we really enjoyed our time in Nashville.

The band was in the groove start to finish, and even after playing well over an hour, it seemed like we’d only scratched the surface. A good feeling, considering everything.

The Grand Ole Opry

It was a little strange to think that the last time I had performed here was 21 years ago. It was when Hot Rize was three years old, and our relationship with the Martha White Flour company had yielded us our big chance to appear on the world’s most famous and long-running radio program. Then as now, the backstage was a bustling labyrinth of hallways and dressing rooms. The backstage crowd merges with the line of performers ready to hit the big stage and perform for the crowd of 4500 as well as who knows how many hundred thousand folks tuned in all over the world (yes, WSM is on internet radio).

On the Opry, it’s typical to play one or two songs on a show, and perhaps on both shows. So we were glad to find out we had two songs on each show. That’s a lot for the Opry, but it’s definitely a little different from a regular show when you have exactly one song to “warm up the crowd”, followed by your “closer”. We did Goin Across the Sea and Colleen Malone for the first show, and for the second, Climbing Up a Mountain and Walk the Way the Wind Blows. That last one was at the suggestion of our friend Eddie Stubbs, a man born to emcee the Opry. It was great seeing him.

Eddie introduced me to Jeannie Seeley, the legendary country star and major bluegrass fan, who back around 1960 implored her record company to let her make a bluegrass. She told me how chagrined she was when the company, Capitol, a few years later suggested to Rose Maddox that she record the first ever female-led bluegrass album. She also introduced me to her husband and band member, Benny Burchfield. His contribution to bluegrass goes a long way back, but I remember it well: Sdeman for the Osborne Brothers around 1960, on many great records including the great Osborne Bros. instrumental album featuring lots of twin banjo, Benny playing with Sonny. Benny wrote the first tune I ever recorded, Big Ben on the first Country Cooking album. I thanked him for that.

When Ms. Seeley introduced Hot Rize, she said, “I love good bluegrass… and I hate bad bluegrass!” A little unnerving to hear just befor you start to play, but I think we passed.

We got to meet the guys in the new and successful band, Pinmonkey, whom we shared a dressing room with– room #2, that Lester Flatt always used to use, and now adorned with pictures of Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, etc.

On the way over to the Opry, Tim, Nick and I, along with my son Will, went to the Springhill Cemetery for a visit at John and Marie Hartford’s graves. It was late afternoon, and quite peaceful there by the gazebo and beautiful large headstone. We took out our instruments and played songs in John’s memory. Tim sang Gentle on My Mind, I sang All in My Love for You, and we did several others and reminisced about our great times with John and Marie. A good way to tune up for the Opry.

This concludes my report on the summer of Hot Rize’s return. We still have one more gig this year, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Oct. 6. But there’s already talk of some possibilities for next year. Stay tuned!

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