BY MARY HOULIHAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Back in the late ’70s, contemporary bluegrass music was a mixed bag. Taking the genre in new directions were bands like New Grass Revival and the David Grisman Quintet. Mostly outfitted in T-shirts, jeans and long hair, and inspired by outside influences like rock and jazz, these bands were a far cry from the traditionalists in suits, ties and short hair, playing music that went back generations.
And then there was Hot Rize, a quartet of young players, then out of Colorado, who swung the pendulum back toward a traditional groove and style while also trying to put their own mark on bluegrass. (The band was named after the secret ingredient in Martha White flour, a product promoted by bluegrass and country musicians in the ’50s and ’60s.)
“We were trying to honor the first generation of masters (Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley) who sang around one microphone and wore suits,” Hot Rize band member Tim O’Brien recalls. “It’s funny because you never know what’s going to happen with a group of people in a band. You can put it on paper, but when you get together, that’s when the judgment happens. We found that intersection of what we liked and what other people liked, so it worked.”
Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 23
Where: City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph
Info: Visit citywinery.com
More than 20 years after its last studio recording, the now legendary Hot Rize is back touring behind the new release, “When I’m Free” which features originals, traditional tunes and covers of songs by Los Lobos and Mark Knopfler.
Hot Rize has been called “the Lamborghini of bluegrass” by Garrison Keillor, and “the connective tissue that links the great founders of bluegrass with the modern tradition” by Steve Martin. The quartet has influenced many other bands, including The String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band.
Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins says she has known the Hot Rize band members since she was a teen. “Hopefully I was subtle about my stalking when I was younger,” she says, laughing. “Hot Rize has always been an important band full of individual, virtuosic players. They create a sound that others try to shoot for.”
In the early ’90s, Hot Rize disbanded because the players had other projects they wanted to pursue. Tim O’Brien (mandolin, fiddle) and Pete Wernick (banjo) went on to successful solo careers. Nick Forster (bass) created the radio variety show “Etown.” (Charles Sawtelle passed away in 1999; guitarist Bryan Sutton joined the group in 2002.)
Fans were happy when the band members continued to perform a show together here and there. “It was fun and people always remembered,” O’Brien says. “Plus it was easy to fall back into the repertoire which was ingrained into our DNA.”
But those reunions began to take on a nostalgic air and the quartet felt they needed to do something new with the music. So about four years ago, the busy musicians began to budget time to get together and work on new songs. “We had to create something new or this was just eventually going to die out,” O’Brien notes. “The new material gives us a reason to get out there and play.
Also along for the ride is Hot Rize’s alter ego the comic country swing band Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers. Dressed in ten-gallon hats, fringed shirts and pants tucked into cowboy boots, they “live in the back of the tour bus,” O’Brien says with a laugh. “Actually, in all the years we’ve been touring together, I’ve never seen them play … we’re in the back resting while they’re on stage.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer