By Claire Chase, Left Hand Valley Courier
Looking out at the mountains in autumn’s afternoon sun from his modest porch with the million-dollar view, Pete Wernick said, “It’s so gorgeous to sit here. In my mind, there’s no better place to live.”
He recalled playing a show in Colorado in August 1975 and said, “I remember thinking I’d be a happy guy if I could live around here, and one year later I was here. I feel fortunate.” Almost 28 years later, the Left Hand Valley is richer for having the Wernicks call it home.
“For a lot of people, Colorado is a magical place – blue sky, clean air. It is special in people’s minds. Niwot is a great combination of all the best parts of Colorado. Anybody who lives in the Left Hand Valley knows what I’m talking about.
Thanks to Hot Rize and other bluegrass bands, in a small way, I have been able to represent Colorado. I feel proud to do that,” said Pete.
Pete Wernick is Niwot’s most accomplished bluegrass musician. Joan Wernick is an accomplished musician in her own right and they are both long-standing members of the Niwot community.
Their son Will attended Niwot schools. Joan coached the Niwot Cougars soccer team for several years. They are members of and advocates for the Niwot Grange Hall.
On November 19 and 20, Pete and Joan Wernick, followed by Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five), will perform at the Niwot Grange Hall. The shows at the Grange will be a great opportunity to see and hear the Wernicks and Flexigrass in Niwot’s most intimate setting.
Joan has been singing with Flexigrass for over a year. The band has a new vibraphone player, Greg Harris. “If people haven’t seen us in a while, they’ll see something pretty different,” said Pete.
Pete and some variation of his bands have been playing a “November or fall homecoming show that dates back to the twentieth century,” he said. “It’s the place in the world I’ve played more than any other place. It was Joan’s idea in the first place that we start playing the Grange.”
“It’s just a nice scene, in a friendly, social setting where people can come and listen and have cookies and be with their neighbors,” said Joan.
Pete said he liked the idea of playing so close to home and bringing the music he’d been playing on the road back home. “And I like to do things to be a part of the community. The Grange, it’s the essence of the community. We’re doing something that must have happened at various times throughout its history.”
“We really honor, especially Mildred Seader, Barb Theobald and Dorinda Dembroski for their dedication to the Grange. A lot of people are pretty attached to it, including us,” said Joan.
The dynamic between Joan and Pete is uncomplicated. They laugh whole-heartedly at one another’s jokes. Each is genuinely interested in what the other has to say. They get each other. They complement each other. They are easy to talk to, regular folk.
Add to the dynamic the honesty in Joan’s voice and the straight-ahead sound of Pete’s banjo and you get a warm-hearted, soulful sound that is, well, uncomplicated.
Bluegrass found Pete as a boy in New York City, which was not as far–fetched as it sounds. All sorts of musical influences were converging in New York at the time. “There are sixteen million people in New York; everybody ends up there at some point. I just fell in love with that sound,” he said.
Pete recalled hearing Earl Scruggs for the first time. “It was the thing that broke through that New York state of mind. It was too good to be true. I remember thinking, ‘it’s so amazing the sound he makes with the banjo.’”
Pete’s band of international acclaim, Hot Rize, formed in 1978. They played steadily and built a loyal following over the next fifteen years. The band took a break in the mid-nineties when their guitar player, Charles Sawtelle, was diagnosed with Leukemia. Sawtelle died in 1999.
“At first, we didn’t want to think about playing for a while,” Pete said. The deep impact of their friendship and Sawtelle’s life is evident in the affection with which Pete speaks of him. Hot Rize has recently begun anew with guitarist Bryan Sutton.
While Hot Rize was on hold, Pete rekindled a duet with Joan. They performed together in earlier years in a band called Country Cookin’. Pete and Joan had not played together professionally in close to 20 years when they recorded “Windy Mountain” with Sawtelle during the last years of his life, at his studio in Boulder.
The liner notes of the CD thanked Sawtelle for his “expertise and involvement…at a time of physical and mental stress, (it) made it an even greater gift of friendship.”
On February 27, 2004, Pete and Joan’s song “There’s a Big Rock in the Road” was transmitted from Houston to “wake up” the Mars Rover. When the Wernicks found out, they were blown away by the thought of bluegrass being played on another planet.
Pete said that Mars had captivated Joan the summer before. It was very close to the earth and Joan had observed it daily. To be told about their song being played on Mars, “blasting out into deep space,” as Joan put it, was something. “Celestial bodies are really a big thing to me. It’s really amazing.”
Contemplating her thirty-year marriage and the revival of a musical duet with her husband, Joan said, “We are really fortunate that we get to play this kind of music, bluegrass music. We are fortunate we are able to do those things together, and that we work well together and people have told us that we seem to really enjoy what we’re doing.”
Their love for the music they play is evident. “The music is itself because it’s real; it is not pretentious. There are no psychological feather boas to get beyond. It’s just real nice people who like this type of music,” Joan said.
Pete described the nature of bluegrass as down to earth with a spirit connected to wild natural elements. “Bluegrass is cool that way, there is a feel for the wild and the free,” he said, describing how people sing and dance to bluegrass from within.
Pete said that true enjoyment of bluegrass music lacks affectation. “Music doesn’t have to be unreal to be compelling. You don’t have to distract people with the latest dance moves. We just try to be ourselves and be real.”
For information on the Grange or tickets in November, call the Grange at 303-444-4640.