Hot Rize reaches 40 years of age

January 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of Hot Rize’s first gigs, in Boulder, Colorado back in 1978.  

Often called America’s Bluegrass Band, Hot Rize has always balanced innovation with tradition to create their own style of bluegrass music. Perhaps the most consistently entertaining aspect of their live shows has been their alter egos, Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers, a western swing band that also appeared on stage, made up of the Hot Rice members in different costumes. Thought the four decades they have kept up the ruse that it is, in fact, two separate sets of musicians.

To mark the anniversary, Hot Rize will celebrate with a very special three-night stand January 12-14 (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) at the Boulder Theater, featuring special guests Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan participating on all three evenings. Additionally, Del McCoury will be performing on the Friday and Saturday. 

In addition to those publicly named artists (above), others including Joan Wernick, Helen Forster (Pete’s and Nick’s wives respectively); Mollie O’Brien (Tim’s sister); and Jan Fabricius (Tim’s partner) will all make appearances. 

More guests are expected to be announced soon. 

Hot Rize was formed in January 1978 with Tim O’Brien (mandolin and vocals), Pete Wernick (banjo), the late Mike Scap (guitar), and Charles Sawtelle (bass) forming the original quartet. 

Scap left the group in April of that same year to be replaced by Nick Forster, who came onboard, playing electric bass while Sawtelle switched to playing the guitar. 

That quartet remained together until August 1998 when Sawtelle left the band.  

Bryan Sutton was recruited in 2007 as Hot Rize became more active after a brief hiatus. 

No band could go for 40 years without experiencing some humorous interludes. How would they exist otherwise? 

Pete Wernick reminded us – I think that it’s well-known story – of one humorous anecdote involving the Father of Bluegrass Music …

“Once we opened up at a big auditorium in Boulder for Bill Monroe. Bill had poor eyesight and wasn’t too familiar with our act that involved Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers, as well as us playing bluegrass. At the end of his show, as was his custom, Bill invited Hot Rize to come out and play some songs with him. Once we were out there, Bill called out, ‘What about that other band, let’s have them come out too.’ The audience quietly gasped to realize that Bill was not party to a general unspoken understanding concerning Red Knuckles.

Nick resolved the situation by telling Bill, ‘Oh they had to leave.’ Bill was satisfied and the show continued!”

Wernick shared three little-known(?) facts about Hot Rize also ……

“1. The band’s motto is ‘Ten in hand, shake it off twelve.’ It’s something Tim said in his sleep during the first year of the band.

2. To maximize our impact our original iteration (Jan. 1978- April 1978) the band featured a very impressive flatpicking guitarist, the late Mike Scap. He quit after three months and Charles moved to guitar and we brought Nick in. Charles’ last gig with Hot Rize was in August, 1998, just over 20 years after he helped found the band, and a year before his death at age 52.

3. Nick’s first gig with us was May 1, 1978, and from that point on, he, Charles, Tim and I were full time as Hot Rize for the next 12 years… right to the day. Our last gig ending our full-time run was April 30, 1990 at the third MerleFest.”

When Hot Rize re-united in 2007 Bryan Sutton filled the guitar slot. He has this to say about how he viewed Hot Rize as an ‘outsider’, so to speak …….. 

“I was a big fan of the band from the first time I heard them. My parents were fans as well. I first saw Hot Rize in 1989 at age 16 at Doyle Lawson’s festival in Denton, North Carolina. The band I was in did Hot Rize covers. Hot Rize was a big deal to us. I loved the traditionally charged and professional manner in which they presented themselves, but then had some good fun inviting Red Knuckles and The Trailblazers to the stage. I was aware, even as a teenager, that they played a lot of strong original material, and that those songs helped give the band a real identity.”

Making Sutton a member of Hot Rize was a no-brainer!

We asked what his thoughts were today as the band, with him on guitar, approaches its 40th anniversary?

“I’m proud to be a part of the Hot Rize story. I feel honored to play songs that had such an impact on me as a young fan, and be involved in the new material. My goal is that old and new fans alike who come to the shows have the same experience I had. Even though I’m not an original member, I’m very aware of what Hot Rize means to the fans. All of us who play bluegrass are trying to keep a certain tradition alive and well and I feel a similar opportunity in my role with Hot Rize.”

Additionally, and for those who haven’t got tickets for the shows at the Boulder Theater, there is a live eTown Radio Show taping concert at Etown Hall in Boulder on January 11.

Wernick explains, “There’ll be music and interviews over the course of about two hours and then it’s edited to one hour for radio”. 

Hot Rize played their first show at The Hungry Farmer in Boulder, Colorado, on January 18, 1978. 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics.

A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe.

He wrote the annotated series I’m On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.