Charles Sawtelle Memorial Bench gets a much needed tidying up

A local San Francisco Bay Area pickin’ buddy friend, Scott Dailey, from the Stoney Mountain Ramblers, reached out to me about a project he initiated to spruce up the Charles Sawtelle Memorial Bench in Boulder, Colorado. The original bench was a collaboration between Charles’ parents, the late Dan and Polly Sawtelle, and the Colorado Chautauqua Association. It was inscribed and dedicated with members of Hot Rize in 2012. Charles played guitar with Hot Rize from their early days in the late ’70s until his untimely passing in 1999. He also played bass as Slade with Hot Rize’s alter ego band, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. 

Charles, who came to be known as the Bluegrass Mystery, also published this instruction book, the Bluegrass Guitar Style of Charles Sawtelle.

Scott tells it this way… “One night in March, I happened to be walking my dog Stanley on the grounds of beautiful Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colorado when I discovered the Charles Sawtelle Memorial Bench. I was unaware of it but stoked as Hot Rize has been one of my all-time favorite bands. The bench was badly weathered and needed some TLC. I found this article about the dedication in 2012. I contacted Hot Rize banjo player Pete Wernick, who put me in touch with Hot Rize bass player Nick Forster, who was instrumental in having the bench created and placed at Chautauqua. Sadly, I never met Charles, but he has been influential in my life and many others. Charles had a style all his own. He was open-minded regarding genres while still deeply appreciating the details of the bluegrass sound. He put together the RockyGrass Academy songbook and CD, which was my bible for years.”

Nick told Scott that Charles had designated his ashes to be scattered at sea, whereas his parents really wanted a memorial on land and in Boulder. So Nick led a multi-year effort that raised $10K to have the bench built and installed. It was meant to be a place where people could gather, play music, and think about Charles Sawtelle.

The bench sits on a dedicated pedestal made of sandstone and concrete, with views of the iconic Flatirons and the greater Boulder Valley. Nick had brass guitar picks made and inlaid into the surface of the concrete. Scott noticed that some of the guitar picks are connected with lines, resembling a constellation. Nick said the concrete guy took some unplanned liberties with the design. He recalled the guy asking him, “what was Charles’ sign?” To which Nick replied, “Charles was a triple Virgo.” Nick knew this as Charles was fond of noting that there has been an uncanny number of bluegrass and country stars who are also Virgos, including Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, Hank Williams, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Gene Autry, Jimmie Rodgers and more! 

Scott being out of work had some time on his hands so he volunteered to restore the bench in Boulder’s historic Chautauqua Auditorium. With encouragement from Nick and Pete and the support of Jeff Medanich and his wonderful Chautauqua preservation team, they dragged the bench into the back of the auditorium and started sanding. Several picking buddies showed up to help, including Mike Wichmann, Garth Lewis, Gannon Kashiwa, Jay Genender, and Lindsay Meeks.

Scott said, “Of course, working in a historic music venue – which had hosted too many bands to count – including Hot Rize of course, we couldn’t help but play a few tunes on stage! We even got to play a few tunes with Nick, which was a real treat.”

Chautauqua Auditorium, which was built in 45 days for $6,700 and opened on July 4, 1898, was cold and windy inside, but it kept them and the bench dry. The bench is now looking good as new and back in its prime location, and ready for more gatherings and music. The bench will be rededicated on July 27th at noon. On hand to celebrate and remember will be Charles’ many friends and fans from his years as The Bluegrass Mystery and the puzzling “Slade,” including Charles’ Hot Rize bandmates, Nick, Tim O’Brien, and Pete.

His Hot Rize bandmates shared the following about Charles and the bench. 

Nick Forster says… “The bench was designed to be a place where people could gather and play music, and I know it has fulfilled its purpose many times. There will be another gathering on Tuesday, July 27th at noon, to remember Charles, celebrate his influence on the bluegrass community, and rededicate the Charles Sawtelle Memorial Bench to last another 20 years or more.”

Pete Wernick had this to say… “Charles Sawtelle earned the two titles he was most known by: The Bluegrass Mystery, and simply Expert — the only word on his business card. Charles hasn’t been seen in this century (he passed in March of 1999), but his memory burns strong for fans who saw him in the first 20 years of Hot Rize (1978-98), and remember his distinctive, expressive, and mysterious guitar playing. Charles’ loss was profound and stirred many tributes. The one lasting tangible memorial is the handsome bench that’s stood by the Chautauqua Auditorium for 20 years. The renewal of the bench is symbolic of how we’d like to remember Charles: solid, smooth, and artful. Charles took good care of his treasured possessions and I’m sure he’d be touched by a tribute like this. It’s a great time to gather in his memory, and Nick, Tim, and I will all be there to remember our fallen comrade.”

The back seat of the bench is inscribed with one of Charles’ favorite sayings, “Never Turn Anything All The Way Up.” His close friends know that he had a good many colorful aphorisms the he loved to recount, some unfit for family consumption. Scott says of the inscription, “Not particularly Rock & Roll, but it’s probably wise advice! Indeed, I joked with the guys ‘the heck with that – this sander is cranked to 11’ … and sadly, I melted the sanding head. Charles was right!”

If you are planning on come to the rededication event on July 27th, be sure to bring your instrument as there will be jamming afterward and lots of thinking about Charles.

All photographs by Scott Dailey.

Charles leading the fiddle tune Sally Ann with Hot Rize on the Lonesome Pine Specials.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website.