Colorado is well known for its folksy bluegrass scene. Bands like Leftover Salmon, The String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band sell out shows all along the Front Range, and Colorado is also home to the yearly, highly-successful RockyGrass festival that brings together musicians from all over the states.
But it’s the well-established banjo-pickin’ members of Hot Rize who helped give Colorado its reputation as one of the biggest states for bluegrass in the nation. Started in 1978, Hot Rize — Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Bryan Sutton and Nick Forster — paved the way for Boulder’s music scene as they struggled to find venues at which to play.
Forster, who plays electric bass, lap-steel pedal, mandolin and banjo and provides vocals for the band, says he and his bandmates had to help create a bluegrass music scene in Boulder.
“Ultimately we had to break a lot of new ground,” Forster says. “Frankly, there were not a lot of opportunities for bluegrass bands to perform in and around Boulder when we started. So it was an interesting period of time where we had a hard time getting local bars to sort of trust that bluegrass music would be something that could be popular. For example, we went up to Niwot and rented the Grange Hall and put on some shows ourselves in a venue that we rented ourselves, which created an opportunity for us to just have shows. So we are in some ways, I guess, pioneers of that scene.”
Hot Rize gets its name from an ingredient found in Martha White flour and cornbread mix. Forster says bandmate Wernick decided on the name.
“Pete Wernick had been in a band called Country Cookin back in New York and was very conscious and very aware of the bluegrass music world and also very sensitive to marketing ideas,” Forster says. “He was also the only guy I knew who always carried a pen and a pad, so he always had some way to capture whatever ideas came to him.”
Forster says the idea came from the strong influence that Martha White flour had on bluegrass music of the day, after the famous bluegrass band, Flat and Scruggs, performed the theme song and endorsed the down-home country cooking of Martha White flour products.
“So that was his inspiration and luckily he had the pad handy and he wrote it down and it all worked,” Forster says.
Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers, alter ego of Hot Rize | BENKO
After years of successful records and touring, Hot Rize disbanded in 1990 as the members pursued solo careers. But when member Charles Sawtelle was tragically diagnosed with leukemia, Forster says the band decided to reunite in support of not only their band member, but close friend.
“As Charles was going through his treatment and all of the care involved in treating that disease, we realized it was a big morale booster for him to occasionally have Hot Rize shows for him to play, and so we started playing more of those just to make sure he always had something on his calendar to look forward to,” he says.
Forster says he remembers a reunion show at the Boulder Theater that Sawtelle got to play — one of his last shows.
“He just played his ass off,” he recalls.
Sawtelle passed away at the age of 52 during an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant. Forster says the loss of Sawtelle inspired the band to continue playing together.
“Once Charles died we were asked to put some tribute shows together honoring Charles’ memory, and that was the reason for another batch of reunion shows,” he says. “Since that time, we have now for 10 years, been asked to perform more, and we were interested in performing more, so we did.”
As Hot Rize gets ready to return to Boulder, Forster waxes nostalgic about his old stomping grounds.
“What’s so exciting for us is that it’s very rare for us to play in Boulder, and Boulder is really where the band took shape and we have such a deep history here,” he says. “This is the only time we’re playing in Boulder this year and we’re back at the Boulder Theater, which feels like home for us.”
Forster adds that a new album could be in the works soon.
“To tell you the truth, we’re spending a couple of days later this week looking at some new material and exploring our options with the goal of recording a new record in mind,” he says. “It’s sort of the natural expansion of us having a good time playing music together.”
With so much history to Hot Rize, Forster says the most important thing to him and the members of the band are enjoying the company of friends and fans.
“The opportunity to play music with other people is really just about having a conversation,” he says. “I’m lucky enough to play lots of instruments, but I do them all in service to the song and the circumstance. Everybody who plays music is after the same thing: That moment of magic where you’re all playing together and you’re able to elevate the song to this higher level, and that’s why we do it.”