Looking back to the first Hot Rize visit to France in 1980

This look back to the first time Hot Rize visited France in 1980 comes in three parts. First we have the recollections of Charley Sifaqui, a French journalist, banjo picker, and bluegrass lover who had the honor of accompanying the band on the tour. Next, Pete Wernick shares his memories of that experience, and lastly we have a gallery of photos Charley had taken back in 1980.

The band was new at the time, fresh off their debut self-titled album for Flying Fish Records. Still to come was their alter ego, Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers, and the huge success that Hot Rize would enjoy all over the world.

A lot has changed since 1980. Despite a reunion tour and album in 2014, Hot Rize has been largely absent from the contemporary bluegrass world, with Bryan Sutton filling the spot of the late Charles Sawtelle who left us in 1999 after a long struggle with leukemia. Nick Forster went on to found and host the popular radio show, town, with his wife, Helen, which has just celebrated its 30th year on the air. Pete has built a banjo instructional empire with his Dr Banjo camps and workshops, while Tim O’Brien has continued to write, record, and tour on his own.

Here’s Charley’s account…

I have a story for you and it goes back to the time when original Hot Rize members – Peter Wernick, Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, and Charles Sawtelle – first came to France. Forty-one years ago now…

The story takes place in the year 1980 during the French golden era of bluegrass music. At that time, Victor Woronov, an American citizen, had established himself as an import records and high quality instruments seller, on rue Saint-Jacques in Paris. This shop quickly became a strategic and social bluegrass music base in the French capital. It was the place to be when you were playing bluegrass music.

Victor was a nice pal and a pro (and a fine banjo picker too!). He knew each of us, our tastes in music, the bands we loved, etc. One day, he came to me while I was taking a look at the import discs he had just received. He had a new disc in hands. “Take this one, Charley,” he nearly whispered. “…and just have a listen.” These few words with a strange smile… And in his hands, the first Hot Rize record and on the cover, we all know, a photograph showing four pickers elegantly dressed. I recognized Dr. Banjo Peter Wernick, at once, being a banjo player myself. His companions were unknown to me. Not for long.

As I usually trusted Victor’s musical taste, I brought the record back home. And today I can say that I never felt sorry for having done this purchase. The first notes of Blue Night affected me and my home like a storm! I was not a beginner in the French bluegrass community at that time but Hot Rize, literally let me discover this music again. Unbelievable! The record didn’t leave my turntable and my car radio for weeks!

I was not isolated in my experience. Every friend/pal I had in this music had a similar experience. With this record, I even converted a couple of friends or two normally totally neophytes to bluegrass. Since then, the eruption of Hot Rize onto the bluegrass scene has often been described as a sudden and total earth quake. This is true. We had no word to tell how great was our pleasure listening to these four extremely talented and strong personalities. I deeply think myself that there is a before and an after Hot Rize in bluegrass music. Pete, Tim, Nick, and Charles changed our bluegrass perspectives.

With such a welcome from the French fans to Hot Rize’s first album, Victor Voronow imagined he could organize a tour for the band in France. For us, having such an American bluegrass band visiting us was an extremely big event. The dream came true and we soon learned that Hot Rize would cross over in the spring of 1980 for a limited number of dates throughout Europe.

A few days before Hot Rize’s arrival, I was in Victor’s shop, having a chat with him. Would I be glad to come with him to the airport and welcome the band the day of their arrival? What a question?! Yes, of course, and one morning in May I found myself with Victor in a small truck driving to Paris’ Charles-de-Gaulle Airport. When we entered the airport site, Victor began to look after the most convenient car-park, but he took the wrong path. He had to stop in order to consider the problem and find a solution. But it would take time and no question we would miss our visitors. So he asked me to play scout and go ahead to try to find the boys in time. What a responsibility! Could I refuse it? No way! I was on my way to Glory. I had the privilege to represent the French bluegrass community. No less. The community could trust me; I would live up to it! Everyone around me certainly noticed an angel smile on my face…

Once in the airport arrival hall, I consciously tried to locate our visitors. I could see the luggage delivery hall through the canopy. And I saw them! I mean, I saw Pete first. Wow! How fortunate I was ! By hand signs I made him notice my presence and he came immediately to me. The chat we got through the very thin space between two glass panels was short:

“Hi, I am Pete.”
“I’m Charley. Welcome.”

And I briefly informed the band Victor should not be long.

Despite the long flight, the band had big smiles on their faces. Victor joined up later on (the truck was safe eventually) and things were doing right. For Pete, Tim, Nick, and Charles, it was a the beginning of a stay in Europe which let them meet a lot of fans.

Hot Rize got their French first date a week after – May 10, 1980 – for the Traditional Music Festival of Ris-Orangis near Paris. A memorable concert. These guys were able to play their tunes with the same work quality and intensity as they had in the studio! Master artists! Then they played in Coulommiers some days later on May 12th. This small town not far from Paris too is internationally renowned for its quality cheese products. This time my bluegrass band mates and I had organized a bluegrass night with the big help of the city mayor. It was the second Hot Rize’s concert in Europe.

The Coulommiers venue recovered something very special. The concert was held in a distinctly historical location: a middle ages resort of the Knights Templar called ‘Commanderie.’ Before the concert a reception was organized in the Templars chapel with the Commanderie’s top curator, where Pete, Tim, Nick, and Charles were given an art book about the Commanderie. Having grown up in Switzerland and speaking perfectly French, Nick was translating. I remember how much our visitors were impressed by the site. They did not stop shooting photographs! The concert was eventually a big success despite recurring problems caused by the uncertainties of the Commanderie electrical system.

Hot Rize came back several times to France since. One year, they arrived with Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers – nice guys and hot players too despite of their exuberance – especially for the 1984 Toulouse Bluegrass Festival. We all remember when a small incident disturbed the Traiblazers’ set. The first ‘O’ of Toulouse Bluegrass Festival, that was hanging on the curtain behind the band, came down suddenly with a small noise. But we remember across the stage Waldo Otto (aka Peter Wernick) stopped playing and solemny declared, ’You know, man, this ‘o’ is too loose!”

These four nice and talented persons made friends everywhere they stayed and, having experienced it, they forged a very special bond with their French audience. And one thing is sure – I am THE man who had the privilege to welcome Hot Rize in France when their first stay forty-one years ago from now, in may 1980! And you will never be able to change that!

And now Pete…

It’s 40 years ago now, but I still remember a lot. It was the first time in Europe for three of us (Nick had gone to school in Switzerland and could even speak French!). So it was quite a special thing for me and Charles and Tim, a dream come true. Though it was a very long trip from Colorado (4 hours just to get to New York, and then cross the ocean), we felt excited!

The Ris Orangis festival was wonderful (so much good music), and Coulommiers was very special to us. We had never been in such an old building in our lives, the old church where the concert was. I now remember the sound problems (as it says in the article), but also that the audience was very nice to us, and we were honored to receive a formal presentation in the site’s little chapel.

Another thing I remember well: a banjo workshop I did at Victor’s store, Anarchie des Accords. Though I had taken SEVEN years of French in school, I had never had a chance to converse with any actual French people, and I was very shy. Victor told me to just speak English and someone would translate. But it was taking so long, I started to try my French, and with some help (some new words for me: peau and entrainement), I made myself understood. There were 12 or more banjo pickers there, I think, and I had a good time though I was nervous. The wine helped!

We loved the hospitality we received. We had some wonderful meals, though after the tour we joked to each other about the one not-so-good meal, when we were taken to a Mexican restaurant in Paris. We were appreciative of the thoughtfulness (“Coloradans like Mexican food — of course!”), but it was not like what we were used to back home. But we were (and still are) BIG fans of French food, and in other places we dined (and wined) very well. I loved walking around Paris and observing the stylish French women — it seemed every female in France knew how to dress well and look good!

As you can see from the photos Charley took, I was playing steel guitar with the Hot Rize band sometimes (and Nick would play electric guitar) back in 1980, before we “discovered” Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers and had them play instead of us at our shows.

By the time of our return in 1984 to play the wonderful Toulouse Festival (thanks to Joel and Paula), Red and the boys were part of our show, and were even asked to play a gig at a music venue/bar in the countryside near Toulouse before the festival. When the band drove up to go to the venue that night, it was strange to see a huge number of cars creating a traffic jam. We wondered what the problem was — then found out that these were people coming to see Red & The Trailblazers! That was a shock. They were not that popular in the US, but this was France! That was a pretty crowded place that night, and a very fun time.

Our French fans still remember Charles’ performances. Charles was extremely concerned with clear and beautiful guitar tone, and was proud to play a Martin Herringbone D-28 from 1937 — his most special guitar, which made a sound “like a cannon” as he liked to say. Back then many guitarists tried to sound like Tony Rice or Doc Watson. Charles highly respected those players (and especially Clarence White) but could ONLY sound like himself. He had a style of his own, which included often taking chances by roaming into “uncharted territory,” and then saving himself at the last second. High drama! That and his strong but restrained rhythm playing was a big part of our sound.

As indicated above, we first started without Red & The Trailblazers, and would just do the old western music ourselves, as at Coulommiers. But it seemed wrong for us to be playing that music, so when we “discovered” Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers — in the little border town of Wyoming, Montana — it was better for us to leave the stage and have them come on instead. Their wild western outfits set them apart, but it was still strange when some people asked if “they” were really “us” in disguise! Of course we would laugh about that, since we would be relaxing backstage while Red and the boys entertained the crowd.

We have not heard about Victor for quite a long time. He was so helpful to us, and we considered him a friend. He even traveled with us to Holland, Sweden, and Denmark on our first tour, and brought us again in 1982, and on our third trip had us come to Normandy to a recording studio, where the Trailblazers cut their album, The French Way, in June 1984, during the 40-year celebration of D-Day (now 80 years ago — a great day in history!). The album is still available on CD from our website, www.hotrize.com.

I hope someone can tell us if Victor is still in communication. Last we heard, he was in Japan, but that was a long time ago. Victor made a lot of things possible for us. As did Rienk Janssen, and Joel and Paula in Toulouse. I think of all the places our band traveled to, France was our favorite. We met a lot of good musicians (spent a night in Holland all sleeping on the floor in one small room with members of Crazy Duck, with Philippe Bourgeois). A little funky back then but great memories!