Hot Rize Celebrates 40 Years Together

Karin McLaughlin
By Karin McLaughlin / November 16, 2018

​Hot Rize, a bluegrass band that now has 40 years under its belt, spent some time in Boulder over the summer playing three nights at the infamous Boulder Theater as well as recording an​ album to celebrate their decades together.  They head out on an anniversary tour with one of their stops right outside D.C in Vienna, VA.  Nick Forster, bass guitar player and also host of the hugely popular podcast, eTown, took some time to talk to DC Music Review about the memories, changes and ways of the bluegrass music scene.

​​Karin McLaughlin: Well, thank you for taking some time. We're excited to have you guys come to Wolf Trap ​and releasing this new special album that you guys put out in August. Why don't we, if you can, ​go over a brief history of the band for those who might not know already, because you guys have been around for quite some time ​so an overview of the history of the band and a timeline?

Nick Forster:  Sure - so we got together in 1978, ​which was a long time ago ​(laughs) and the idea really was at the time, ​we were just going to get together and play some gigs for the summer. T​hat ​really, truly was the sum total of our plan.  Pete (Wernick) and Tim (O'Brien)​ had already put out solo records. ​ The ideas was,​ let's get out and promote those records. Also, it was a ​band that started with a lot of commitment, we ​really were in all the way even though we were young and brand new, the four of us: Pete and Tim and ​Charles Sawtell and I. ​  We played our first gig, I think it was ​the first of May, in 1978, as a foursome.   Two weeks later, we played on Prairie Home Companion ​and a month after that we played at the ​Telluride Bluegrass Festival​ and so we were just off and running from the very beginning and pretty sure​ that shortly after that we had a ​record company that was interested.  We made a record for Flying Fish Records​ and hit it ​as hard as we possibly could!  ​We set a lot of really ambitious and lofty goals about playing on the Grand Ole Opry and​ at Austin City Limits​, traveling in Europe, and Asia and getting ​a bus - we had all ​these aspirations.  For ​twelve years, we really worked hard and chased all of those goals and in many ways, felt like we achieved them.  We really felt like a lot of the things we set ourselves up for, we ​were successful in​ attaining and that's why we took a break in 1990.  We just felt like, boy, we've sort of done it all.  Tim was flirting with a career ​as ​a solo country guy, he got signed to a major label, and there was a brief moment where that seemed like a real possibility​, so it just felt like a good time to take a break.  I went and joined Tim's band​ and we did that for, I guess, a year and a half or two years with Jerry Douglas and Mark Schatz and then Tim O'Brien and I had a little band and recorded for Sugar Hill too, but anyway, that was ​like hitting the pause button.   We continued to play occasional shows and it was ironic because ​the year that we broke up, we were awarded the first ever IBM (International Bluegrass Music) Entertainer of the Year award and were nominated for a Grammy, so we sort of went out on top, and that felt good.  We were able to play basically any​ festival we wanted to play​ and it was an amazing accomplishment. Tim and I were, and continue to be, younger than​ Pete and Charles by about nine or ten years, so I think they had a better perspective in terms of how hard it is to achieve what we'd achieved. They were more reluctant to​ take a pause thinking, 'Guys, you just don't understand, this is hard. What we achieved is really hard to do and it's rare and amazing​.  We should keep this going."  I think we (Tim and I) both thought that it was cool that we did it but, now what's next?  What else ​will we do? ​ In my case, I started this radio show called ​eTown.

KM: Yes, I'm familiar.

NF: Yeah and so that's been 27 years that I've been doing that. ​ Tim, of course, launched his career as a solo artist, and Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter doing all the things that he does.  Pete continued his trajectory as a banjo advocate and a bluegrass champion and educator​.  He'd written I think​, what was arguably the most successful bluegrass banjo instruction book ever.  He had a great reputation ​as an instructor and as a teacher, so he continued in that vein.  Then shortly thereafter, Charles ​Sawtelle, our original guitar player, was diagnosed with cancer, so that kind of changed our perspective a little bit.   We realized that there were things that we could do that would both infuse some ​cash into Charles's world, but also give him something positive to look forward to, as he's going through this process.  It was​ a devastating and ultimately fatal diagnosis.  He went through a bone marrow transplant and lots of things, but it made us think differently about ​Hot Rize reunions and so​ we kind of poked our heads up again and went out and played some more shows and played some more festivals.  What we found, which was, I guess surprising, was that even though we were all doing other things, when we come together to play, it sounds like Hot Rize and nothing else really sounds like how we sound.  Even if some other combination of any one of us played those same songs, it just wasn't the same.  So we have a unique sound and we had a really healthy body of material and a lot of songs that people really appreciated, so when we got out there and played, it was gratifying to see that, yeah, we haven't lost a step, we're all still​ musically involved and engaged. ​ Then when Charles died​, we had a few shows on the books already, and we decided to​ keep them and not cancel them.   So, what that meant is, we did some shows with Pete​ Roland and we did shows with Jeff White​, Jim Hurst played one I think, and we started exploring the possibility of havin​g other guitar players.  The reality was that it continued to feel​ not the same, but it felt so gratifying and we were able to play all the material.  Shortly thereafter, we had the opportunity to do something with Bryan Sutton, and it was like, 'Oh, my God, Bryan's the best!'  He's not only great musician, and a great guy, but he's a great fit, because he grew up listening to Hot Rize.  His parents were fans and he had met us when he was a teenager at a festival in North Carolina.  So Bryan became our guy and that infused some new energy into the band.  ​After about ten years with Bryan playing sporadic shows, I was certainly a vocal advocate for doing some new recording and basically just saying, "Look, guys, we have to not just play the same songs that we've always played, we have​ to add to it.  If we're going to be out there playing shows, l​et's not be characterized as a cover band, let's be a real band!" That meant rehearsing and writing and recording and infusing this with some great creative energy.  

Hot Rize

With eTown, we've got a facility called The Town Hall, our own recording studio and that made it even easier.  So we got together, we wrote songs, we co-wrote songs, we came up with what we needed to do and we sat in the recording studio and made the record When I'm Free, which came out I think, four years ago.   Then, with a new record, the rationale was, 'Well, now we're going to tour.'  I think, in the twelve months after ​When I'm Free came out, we did maybe ninety shows or something like that.  We went back to Europe and did a bunch of things and that was a big push and it kind of opened the level of interest and range of possibilities for us again.   ​We sort of didn't even have a real plan, but all of a sudden, it's like, 'You know what, our 40th anniversary is coming up, why don't we have a party ​to celebrate it?   Why don't we recognize that milestone?'  We decided to come to Boulder, where it all kind of got started and we invited some friends - Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush and Stuart Duncan and they came out and used the ​eTown facility sort of as a place to stage the whole thing and rehearse a little bit.  Then we did three nights at the Boulder Theater, and they were all sold out and they were all joyous and raucous and really fun and it was logical just to use the space, we used the Boulder Theater for all our eTown shows. We just used our recording crew and rig and recorded the shows and used eTown's video crew and just made a weekend of it.  ​We gave it a rest for a moment and then we went back and dove in and just sort of saw what we had created and found that there were some remarkable moments and remarkable performances and we found enough of them, more than enough actually, to make a double LP and a CD and put out a lot of videos. So ​our 40th anniversary celebration which is called ​The 40th Anniversary Bash was in some ways a bit of a greatest hits because it includes a lot of the old songs and some of the songs from the When I'm Free record and then a feature for each one of our special guests. ​ It was a very, very natural ​ summation ​of our time together. ​ What's also really interesting, to me at least, is that in some ways I think we are all ​ better musicians than we were when we started.  We've been busy and active and expanding o​ur music footprint in our own ways and so ​in some ways we have even more to bring to the party this time around.

KM:  Well, you kind of it you answered one of my questions which was going to be why Boulder Theater.  I knew the tie of eTown to Boulder, but I didn't know that you guys had such a draw to Boulder as a group.  My next question is how do you, when you guys get together and you have these special guests like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan, and you guys are playing a 40th anniversary show, how do you decide what songs you're going to play?

NF: Well, because these weren't just hot shot players, these are really good friends of ours and friends that we've had and maintained for all of the band's career, it was something that was as natural as anything could possibly be because they all know our songs cold, they know all of our repertoire.  We didn't stray very far from the Hot Rize songbook, you know, we played a lot of songs that were just songs that we recorded over the course of three nights.  We changed the setlist up every night because we really wanted to make sure we could dive deep into the catalog and cover some things that were either more obscure or perhaps wouldn't make it onto a onto a festival stage or something like that.  It was pretty easy.  But you know, when you've been a band, even in our first iteration, we probably made ten records or something like that and if each record has does fourteen or fifteen songs, that's 150 songs, there's a lot to draw from.

KM: ​So I was just at Festy Experience where you had the Almost eTown stage​ ​and it had a really great lineup of old and new.  I ​want to talk about - since you guys have been around for so long and your sound is more 'traditional bluegrass' ​- this new wave of​ bluegrass/jam grass music: Greensky, The Lil Smokies, Della Mae and how now bluegrass has changed ​over the years.​  What do you see as one of the main differences or​ what is your perception of the way that it's changed?  

NF: Well, I think the changes, you know, the change in evolution in bluegrass is sort of a constant, ​it's not that it's not that old of music form.  It started in the late 40's and everybody who was involved with bluegrass was in some way an innovator and a pioneer, whether it was Flat and Scruggs, or Bill Monroe, or the Stanley Brothers, ​Osborne Brothers, or The Seldom Scene, everybody pushed a little bit.  ​In the 70's, Hot Rize and New Grass Revival were the bands that were pushing.  We pushed in different ways, but we still pushed the boundaries and people appreciated that.  I think some people thought, "What the hell is going on with our music​?!" (laughs).  C​​ertainly The Seldom Scene, when they started recording popular songs.  New grass, set the tone in terms of having long, extended solos and plugging in and doing things that a lot of the bands today do.  I think that because we were Colorado band, we helped shape a thing that some people might refer to as a kind of a Colorado sound and those bands include Yonder Mountain String Band, and Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident​ and nowadays, the Stringdusters and the Greensky guys, a lot of them ​ here in Colorado.   ​I think there is a certain freedom and a certain appreciation on the fan side.  Some of that was shaped by the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, ​but all of those things contribute to an experience that uses bluegrass instruments to express something that fits a contemporary audience.  I think there's a line where it becomes less about bluegrass and more about the bluegrass instruments. In other words, I don't think anybody would call Leftover Salmon a bluegrass band, right? ​ But they kind of are because they have banjo and they have mandolin and they have guitar but then they have bass and drums and keyboards, so they're​ not​ technically a bluegrass band, neither is String Cheese Incident. ​ In some cases, ​the Greensky show is becoming as much about the light show as it is about the music.   ​The question is, what difference does it make what you call it?   ​I think​ the reality is, bluegrass is a challenging style of music to play well, and it's even harder to sing well, so I think to be a confident instrumentalist requires a huge amount of practice and a huge amount of dedication.   Then, to get beyond competence to excellence and preeminence, you have to really make your own sound and your own style so you're recognizable.  What's interesting, I think, is that we have a recognizable sound​ - Hot Rize sounds like Hot Rize, and it doesn't sound like anybody else.  A big part of that is Tim is just a really good bluegrass singer, he's a really good vocalist.  He's from West Virginia and he has  a credible bluegrass voice that really helped us sound legit​ when we were starting out.  Over time,  we developed ​and he and I developed a great sort of duet harmony sound and our trios and quartets sounded like they were rooted in bluegrass and they were respectful, but they were our own songs and in a lot of cases, we wrote a lot of songs that have now become part of the Bluegrass repertoire.

KM:  It's interesting that you brought up the point about Greensky's light show, because ​a lot of my friends, who really aren't into bluegrass, I'll tell them, "Oh, just come for the light show, it's totally worth it!" (laughs)  You know, ​it does completely change it and draws a potential other crowd.  ​There's a lot of it, the Leftover Salmon and Greensky mainly now, they call that that genre​ jam grass, which is like a crossover, jam bands and bluegrass and you brought up the fact about Telluride and how much that shaped the bluegrass community and everything else. ​You've also got Delfest, which you guys played at last year, ​where you've got Del McCoury who's been around forever as well,  but you've got these older bands that now are inviting and having these newer kind of jam, grass bands come out to their festivals. What do you think that does? Or how have you seen the crowds change over the years because of that?

NF: The hope is always that this becomes multigenerational, right? You don't want to be so stuck in a niche that you're only attracting the same people ​over your career, it's still the same people​.   You always ​want to reach out and make sure that you're connecting with something that resonates for a younger audience at the same time. It's​ kind of unattractive if you see a ​seventy-five year old guy wearing​ skinny jeans and a rapper t ​-shirt ​with his hat on backwards. (laughs) ​ ​We don't have any illusions about about Hot Rize being a jam band, or a jam grass band​.   We have the chops and we have the skills and we have the ability, if we wanted to play a song for twenty-five minutes, we could do that.  ​ The fact is, that's not that's not who we are as a band and our fans don't expect that. ​  What's ​really great and what's ​flattering in a lot of ways, is that ​if you were to ask the guys in all of those bands who their influences were, they would all say Hot Rize and they would all mention ​​us among the influences ​as they were coming up, so we feel like we helped give permission to up and coming musicians to write songs and to explore and to experiment and to create a sound of their own.   If we set a standard in terms of performance or writing or whatever it is that they aspire to aim towards when they were growing up, that's awesome -great! That doesn't mean we have to become that or we have to try emulate that. ​ There are ​all kinds of examples of bands that do adapt to the times, you know, ​certainly Elvis Presley was somebody who would be influenced by what was going on, even though he may not have changed his sound entirely, but cut a Bob Dylan song in the ​sixties and he thought about what was going on around him and used his voice to try to, sort of, reflect the contemporary scene. ​ Anyway, it's a it's a good question and it's a tough one to answer.  ​The​ other thing that is probably relevan​t, is think about what going out to hear ​live music means now.  In the days before​ digital media and​ all kinds of other innovations that have taken place over the last twenty-five years, there was ​a fair amount of attention being paid to​ the music. It was 'We're going to go and we're going to sit and we're going to listen, and we're going to get transported by whatever the band is that we're going to go see.  When you see the videos of Janis Joplin playing at the Fillmore West, people are in chair​s. They're sitting there listening to ​Jefferson Airplane or they're listening to the Rolling Stones or the Beatles in their chairs.   ​The idea is, that there's this presentation.  A lot of times, now people tell you, I'm going to go to Red Rocks​ or I'm going here, there's this EDM band that, it's a person​ with a laptop and a light show, right?   ​The experience is not about sitting and listening, it's about getting high with your friends and talking to each other during th​e performance, right?  So it's a social experience that's more about engaging ​people in the audience with each other.   ​So then, what's the ​transaction that's taking place, if the music becomes background music and the concert setting simply becomes a place to gather so you can hang out with your buddies and talk and drink and communicate and maybe do some dancing?  ​That doesn't appeal to me, either as a performer or an audience member, that's just my personal take.  I can hang out my friends anywhere I want, and I don't have to pay $50 to go to a place and hang out with my friends. If I'm going to pay $50 to see your band, I want to see what they've got, everything they're going to bring in.  Maybe I'm old fashioned, but my taste is such that I'm really curious about what artists in any genre have to present because whether you're a writer or a painter, or a musician, it's brave.  To stand up and present your best work, it's brave to say, "Here's the best I got, what do you think?"  That's an act of bravery​ and so I feel like​ I want to respect that and say, "Okay, ​I'm here to receive whatever it is, and I'm going to listen," rather than be distracted.  Now, having said that, I'm not against having a party, I'm not against having fun, but that's a shift, you asked me what's shifted.   I think that's a shift that's taking place in the recent times - that t​he experience of going to hear live music has changed.​   That doesn't mean that all of those sounds and all those opportunities to listen to what's available​ wasn't there before, but that experience has changed.

KM: ​Very interesting that you brought up the point of EDM.  I​t's not often that you go to a festival that incorporates a little bit of EDM and a little bit of jam bands, and a little bit of bluegrass, but that crowd ​diversity is very interesting when it does happen.

NF: Yeah.​ What's funny is that, you know, we're friends with all the guys in the jam grass scene, all of them have been on ​eTown and I sit in with them if I'm at a festival and it's great, it's fun to be on that side of it.  ​And don't get me wrong, there are dedicated fans really appreciate Leftover Salmon and they go there to hear their music and hear their songs, so it's not like everybody's just going there to to be a distracted person​. ​It's just a change, something that's evolved.

KM: Now that you bring up eTown again and we kind of talked a little bit about it before ​- you had the Almost eTown stage at ​Festy and you've been doing ​that for quite a while. ​ It must be completely different to be on ​that side as opposed to the other -at Festy, you were doing the interviewing, and here now, you're getting interviewed.  ​What's the biggest thing you've taken away from getting to be able to do both sides of it?  Or is there anything you appreciate now more from one side as opposed to the other?

NF:  ​I think that people appreciate context. ​  When you go to hear someone, a lot is left to the imagination about why that song sounds - the way it sits with us, where those words came from, or what inspired that particular song.   I think that's great, but sometimes if you have a little deeper insight into what this particular songwriter or performers life was like, or what ​the context was that​ created this particular moment of self expression, you can have a deeper experience of it and you can get in a little deeper.   That's all I think my role on e​Town and with Almost e​Town was - just simply to help the audience gain a little insight so that when they hear the music they can get in a little deeper and also to give the artists an opportunity to say things.  Obviously, when you're putting on a show, you're putting on a show and you don't always ​want to be preachy or you don't want to necessarily distract from the momentum of a performance, but so it's nice for the artist have an opportunity and a platform to say, "Yeah, here's some things ​that are on my mind these days," "Here are some things I'm concerned about," or, "Here's some things that I love," "Here's some things that I'm scared of," or, "Here are the things that have inspired me."  I mean hearing Billy Strings - his story about the guitar that his grandfather had, the prison guitar, it's incredible!  So those are ​the things that help his fans ​get a deeper understanding of who he is and that allows them to get into the music a little more deeply.

KM: And even gain him more fans perhaps, if they really ​appreciate that story. ​ Say, you know, somebody was at​ Festy to see ​​a certain band, and​ didn't have a knowledge or appreciation for Billy Strings and they hear, especially that particular story, it kind of gives them a deeper understanding, like you said and maybe​ more of an appreciation for him and his music.

NF: How do you think it worked?

KM: I mean, personally, I've gotten to interview Billy, I've heard the guitar story - I loved it. I think the eTown stage at ​Festy was absolutely amazing.  A great opportunity, especially that being such a small, intimate festival as well. ​ Definitely gave people an even deeper connection to the artists I feel like, which is something a real music fan is going to take away and really value, because they not only appreciate the music, but they appreciate the artists behind the music.  What you were doing with the Almost eTown Stage, really gave a higher level of connection​,  just the amount of people that they had at the festival, you get to get as close as possible to ​a band onstage, but you get another connection,​ to a band if you see them that close. ​ Then you also get to see them again, ​maybe the next day talking about something as intimate as ​their grandfather and the fact that he was in prison and has this guitar than he made. ​It's just something that real music fans really value and I think that everyone really appreciated it. Especially Festy.  ​

NF: Yeah, it seemed like it worked really well.  It's funny, because I don't know that - I mean, I know this will sound self congratulatory slightly, but there's not a lot of people who could pull it off, but partly because I just know everybody, right? ​I have history with all these people, and I can play music with them all.​  ​

KM: Right, it's like they're sitting down with a friend and they're more open to tell more detail or ​be more intimate, you know,​ because they're talking to you, ​they're not thinking about talking to the thousands of people that are listening.

NF: Yeah and almost all of them ​have been in my house, right? ​ We've jammed in the basement, you know, with Billy Strings and all of them. ​It's an interesting thing and I think ​it also is just as a product of having done ​eTown for so long, but I think we'll probably try to do that a little more next year at some other festivals.  

KM: ​I think that would be a great idea. ​How about at Delfest?  I think that would be a great thing to have a Delfest.

NF: Could be, yeah,

KM: I mean, ​there you get​ the intimacy of the late nights, where it's a very small venue and you're having ​Yonder and Stringdusters and Greensky, Travelin' McCoury's and of course, Del himself​ and there's only a couple hundred people they can fit in that little​ - I don't even know what they call that ​airplane hangar type space, but you know, anything like that, I think would be really, really great at a place like Delfest. ​Speaking of festivals, you mentioned this when you said, you know that you guys came in and you came out hot, and you kind of knocked everything off the list real early in the game. ​ You've done almost everything out there as far as festivals, is there anything you guys haven't been able to hit now that you're going on the anniversary bash tour, or maybe in the next year?   ​Next festival season, is that you guys have mentioned or talked about maybe being able to finally cross off a list?

NF: I really don't think so​ to tell you the truth.  I think we've explored and experimented, we've done all the all the stuff right.  The real goal anytime we get on a stage is to connect with an audience ​and so that can happen anywhere and frankly, some of the things like playing ​at Bonaroo​, it's harder to do there than it is to do almost anywhere else.  There's so many distractions during other stages and it's so hot and dusty and​ we did it but don't need to do that again.

KM:  Yeah well let's let's say this then, has there been a favorite festival you guys have done that you want to go to again maybe?

NF:  There were always a few favorites.  We love playing Strawberry when was up in Yosemite, we love Telluride and Rocky Grass, Gray Fox ​and Delfest. There's ​always a few that are that are high on the list.  Old Settlers down in Texas is fun, but the ​setting is only a part of it because the reality is, it isn't about the setting, it's about the moment.  It's about, can you connect with an audience and can you get that ​thing going where they're feeling something and you're feeling something and you can have that shared experience?   That can happen anywhere.  

KM:  Is there anything on this leg of the tour that you guys have coming up that you're especially excited about that you maybe haven't been back to ​in a while or haven't gotten to play at? 

NF:  Well, man, ​I can't remember the last time we played ​The Barns at Wolftrap, but I suspect it was probably like ​thirty years ago or something.

KM: I'm excited. I've never seen it. I've been to Wolf Trap, I mean, that was where I saw my first concert with the Beach Boys way back in like '88 or something, but I've never seen a show at The Barns. But you guys will be the first I'm excited about that, too.

NF: Yeah, ​I mean, there's obviously ​such a such a deep ​bluegrass connection in the DC area in general that goes back generations, when Del McCoury was playing bars up in Maryland - Baltimore, stuff like that, in the 50's and early 60's. We've always had a great time and we have a lot of friends in the neighborhood, and so it'll be nice to​ come back. ​ I think we maybe played the main stage of ​Wolftrap once ​and then I think we played the barn, I think also only ​once as I recall.

KM: Well, if you haven't been back here in a while, you'll be amazed at how much it's changed around here.

NF: Oh, really? Just in terms of development?

KM: Oh, my goodness. Yeah, I work in Tysons which​ you know, isn't far from Wolf Trap and we've got I think, six new buildings around us and there's construction going on it for about that many more.  It's just blown up, it's its own world out here now. ​

NF: Wild. Well, thanks for helping spread the word. I think that somebody told me the other day that they​ had a hard time looking for tickets and they had to get them ​in the back of the room or something like that.

KM: ​Wow, that's a good thing for you guys, not for them necessarily. ​ I thank you so much for taking the time to do some interviews and like I said, you know, really enjoy you guys and especially you personally at ​eTown - great, great stuff and ​at Festy and all that. So really looking forward to the show and thank you very much for taking some time.

​NF: Okay. Have a good day. Thanks.​

​Hot Rize

​Celebrating 40 Years

Performance Details



​Saturday, November 17, 2018

Doors: ​6:30PM

Show: ​8:00PM

​The Barns at Wolftrap

​1635 Trap Road

​Vienna, VA 22182

(​Google Maps Link)

About the author
Karin McLaughlin

Karin McLaughlin

Karin has been a live music junkie all her life, however is a fairly new fan in the world of jam bands and bluegrass. She grew up on hip hop, classic soul, motown and classic rock but has found a new home in the festival world and that is what, in part, had brought her to DC Music Review. Karin produces and hosts a weekly radio show in the area called Karin's Calendar, where she talks all about 'Where to be in the DMV'. She is very excited to be starting down a semi-new road with us and hopes to use her interview skills and write ups of shows to contribute even more to DC Music Review.