Riding the school bus on the way to grade school, Pete Wernick read the dictionary. He enrolled at Columbia University at 16, and soon started a bluegrass radio show on that college’s station. He earned his Ph.D. in Sociology, and while working a day job in that field at Cornell, he wrote a banjo instruction book that went on to sell over 200 thousand copies, organized the groundbreaking Country Cooking band, and started a life partnership with the band’s singer, Joan Leonard. His Cornell boss suggested he might be happier following the music, and lucky for us he took that advice. If we had known then that there would be a Bluegrass organization that bestowed Lifetime Achievement Awards, we could have predicted that Pete would earn one. Solo records, Hot Rize, more books, an ongoing series of music camps, and a remarkable tenure as the newly formed IBMA’s-president followed. As Russ Barenberg says, “Pete gets things done” and he’s done an awful lot for the music and made quite a home for himself here.
Pete sees a healthy Bluegrass world as the foundation of a well-rounded lifestyle, and he exists to serve this community that has given him so much meaning and friendship. His life has been a long crusade in which his Sociological, organizational, and creative skills have brought the music to more and more people. It’s important to remember that at age 64, Pete’s still busy writing songs, performing, and recording in various combinations – with his wife Joan, with Flexigrass, and more recently Long Road Home. He’s persuaded Hot Rize to be much more active this year than any time since Charles Sawtelle died in 1999.
Doctor Banjo is one of the most considerate and ethically minded people you’ll ever meet. Our Hot Rize business meetings went into great detail because he was determined to get things right. He was always thinking of the other guy, the long term, and the greater good. While Pete certainly enjoyed personal fame and fortune with Hot Rize, he always made sure our efforts were equally rewarded, and that we had consensus – common goals. I learned an awful lot about partnership from him.
As an artist, Pete has certainly endured. His artful banjo playing always rests on the bedrock of tradition. Pete’s innovations — from Country Cooking’s twin banjo sound, to the phase shifted explorations, to his blending of vibes and clarinet with Scruggs style banjo in Flexigrass — always start from a solid musical idea. As he’s said, “If it’s good, it doesn’t need a lot of other stuff.” His instrumentals, “Pow Wow The Indian Boy”, “Huckling The Berries”, and “Frank’s Blues”, always sound both fresh and unforced, and songs like “Just Like You”, “Ruthie”, and “Old Box of Memories” are heartfelt, true, and classic. His playing and writing are cornerstones of Hot Rize.
When you first meet Pete, he seems so serious,– all business. And it’s true that he’s got his priorities. But I’m here to tell you he’s a very funny and fun loving guy. His character Waldo Otto — equal parts Cousin Jody and Art Carney — is ample evidence of his lighter side. I once watched him wildly dance to a blues band while wearing a long blonde hair wig. Another time on the Oregon coast, he adopted a pet sea kelp that he named Sandy. Sandy was green and about eighteen feet long, and started to smell up the Hot Rize bus after a few days. The other Hot Rizers made him leave Sandy by the curb outside Laurie Lewis’ house. I could “roast” him some more with details of his getting locked in a restaurant in Langley, Oklahoma, or being left behind by the Hot Rize bus in a truck stop in Kansas, but I’d rather tell another Pete Wernick story.
In July of 1989, Pete and his wife Joan and son Will survived a plane crash. Their United flight went down in an Iowa cornfield, and they incredibly walked away from the flaming wreckage and missed seeing the carnage of those less lucky. He had left in advance of the rest of Hot Rize on his way to the Winterhawk festival, and knowing that Pete and his family were on that flight, we all sat on pins and needles waiting for word. I was at Keith Case’s office when Pete called. He told Keith, “Nondi and Will and I were in a plane crash, but we’re all right. I can make the gig, but I don’t know where my banjo and steel are. Tell Frank to get the spare banjo and steel from my house. I’m on a pay phone and a lot of other people want to use it so I’ll call you later.”
I’m so happy he called that day, and I’m so proud to know this man who has had such an integral role in the wide world of Bluegrass. It is my great honor to present IBMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award to my friend and mentor, Pete Wernick.