Hot Rize

INDUCTED: July 31, 2022

Hot Rize is a supergroup in reverse

Most bands upon which this title is bequeathed consist of performers who come together in a new configuration after gaining fame in other contexts — the musical equivalent of “Avengers, assemble!” In contrast, Hot Rize’s members largely rose to prominence in the group before leaving, scoring successes outside it, then returning to the fold as conquering heroes.

Pete Wernick, whose nickname, Dr. Banjo, is both cheeky and accurate, is the central figure behind Hot Rize’s creation mythology. In the 1960s, long before penning the seminal guidebook Bluegrass Banjo, he earned a Ph.D in sociology at Columbia University while playing in local combos and hosting greater New York’s only bluegrass radio show of the era.

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Hot Rize on New Country, Nashville Network 1985

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After forming Country Cooking, an early practitioner of progressive bluegrass, Wernick moved to Colorado…

…and in 1977, he recorded Dr. Banjo Steps Out with a little help from singer, fiddler and mandolinist Tim O’Brien. The next year, the twosome formed the quartet dubbed Hot Rize, teaming with blues guitarist Charles Sawtelle and Nick Forster on electric bass and as band emcee.

The moniker referenced the top-secret leavening agent hyped by Grand Ole Opry sponsor Martha White flour. The company gave the instrumentalists permission to use the name Hot Rize so long as they pledged to “keep the show clean.”

They did much more than that.

The band dressed in vintage suits and ties, often traveling in a 1969 Cadillac sedan. Their music was similarly sleek and stylish, updating bluegrass with a modern sensibility that appealed to contemporary listeners even as it paid tribute to the genre’s heritage. These qualities and more infused 1979’s Hot Rize, 1981’s Radio Boogie, 1986’s Traditional Ties and other standout albums.

Yet, they also donned alter-egos known as Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, an authentically costumed western-swing group that just happened to consist of the four Hot Rizers, making “special appearances” during the band’s shows. These appearances contained a surplus of good-natured humor, but also serious chops, as demonstrated by Red Knuckles platters such as 1988’s Shades of the Past.

As the 80s came to a close, having played over 1,200 shows throughout the U.S., Europe, Japan and Australia, Hot Rize’s members made the amicable decision to disband. But the band bid farewell with a flourish: 1990’s Take It Home was nominated for a Grammy, and its lead single, “Colleen Malone,” took the top song prize from the International Bluegrass Music Association, which bestowed its first-ever Entertainer of the Year award on the group that same year.

O’Brien and Wernick went on to achieve plenty of success as performers and tunesmiths.

Forster, along with his wife Helen, co-founded eTown, another Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee, a nationally syndicated, live, music- and environmentally-based radio program out of Boulder, Colorado. For his part, Sawtelle poured his energy into musical projects alongside the likes of Peter Rowan and shepherded a recording studio, Rancho deVille, before being diagnosed with leukemia. In 1996, three years before his death, he was able to contribute to So Long of a Journey: Live at the Boulder Theater, a Hot Rize reunion.

Photo credit: Mike Froke

Sawtelle’s passing didn’t spell the end for Hot Rize.

In 2002, following the long-delayed arrival of Journey, the band reformed for selected shows with a new member: Bryan Sutton, a multi-instrumentalist who’d flat-picked his way to notoriety alongside Ricky Skaggs. With Sutton on board, Hot Rize added to its astonishing legacy with 2014’s When I’m Free and 2018’s Hot Rize 40th Anniversary Bash.

By then, Hot Rize, known as the partriarchs of Colorado’s modern progressive bluegrass movement, had long since established its supergroup status. Its sterling reputation continues to grow.

By Michael Roberts

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