Back in 1990, Hot Rize won the first-ever IBMA entertainer award — even though they had just broken up, amicably. For decades, the band would still play the occasional fundraiser or festival, but they managed to stay out of the studio. However, Hot Rize will soon rise again.
Next month, they’ll finally release a brand new album, When I’m Free. The project should satisfy longtime listeners — due to the band’s determination to honor their traditional roots — while keeping an emphasis on strong songwriting and obvious rapport. They’re also planning their most extensive tour since their 1980s heyday.
Check out the CMT Edge video premiere of “Blue Is Fallin’,” then read more about the upcoming project.
Tim O’Brien and Nick Forster fielded some questions by email about the new project, which will be released on Sept. 30, just in time for IBMA festivities in Raleigh, North Carolina.
CMT Edge: The video is beautifully shot. Where was it filmed?
O’Brien: It was filmed in Boulder, Colorado, which is where we formed Hot Rize back in 1978. The large venue is Macky Auditorium [on the University of Colorado campus] where we contributed to Pickin’ Up the Pieces, a bluegrass benefit for victims of last September’s flood. The other venues are the stage and the recording studio at eTown Hall. Lots of folks know about eTown, the radio show that our bassist Nick Forster launched back in 1990. Our soon-to-be-released CD, When I’m Free, was the first project to be recorded at the new eTown studio, and Nick and the eTown staff, along with our banjoist Pete Wernick, contributed greatly to the success of that benefit. Zack Littlefield, an eTown staffer, did the video.
This will be your first album in 24 years, and a lot has changed in the music world, obviously. But what has remained the same — in terms of your music and your camaraderie?
Forster: This was the most relaxed we’ve been in terms of making a record. We got together with a bunch of songs from each of us and decided which ones we wanted to pursue and try out, and we did it in a way that we had never tried before — siting in a circle, no headphones, looking at each other and cutting lead vocals live. This was our first real effort in the studio with Bryan Sutton, our guitar player for more than a decade, so that was also a new thing for us to discover and explore.
O’Brien: Hot Rize has its own way of playing traditional bluegrass, and after many years of letting that lie fallow, we did our best to continue in the same vein. We always put a premium on good new songs, and we’re proud of the material on this new recording. Pete’s banjo style is unique, as is Nick’s bass playing, and the vocal blend from the original three is still a comfortable feature. While Bryan has the scariest job of all — filling the shoes of the late and much-beloved Charles Sawtelle — he grew up listening to our records on the way to grade school, so he took special care to continue and extend that guitar sound.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there was a pendulum swing back to a more straightforward approach, and we were part of that, along with the Johnson Mountain Boys and Nashville Bluegrass Band, but we also had our own vocal and instrumental chemistry. Coming into the project, I was a little apprehensive about getting back to where we left things 24 years ago, and I’m happy to report that we got there.
As for the bond between us, it only takes a few hours before we start laughing about stuff only we know about. It’s a great thing, like a family reunion.
You guys always look spiffy when you take the stage. Why is that important to you?
O’Brien: The suits and loud ties echo the old ‘40s and ‘50s look of the Bluegrass Boys and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Like them, we all sing around a single mic. The choreography required for that, along with the stage clothes, kinda sets a tone and makes for more of a show. Really, we’re paying tribute to bluegrass’ first generation every time we play, even if we’ve updated the music in our sorta Rocky Mountain way. Any artist strives to stake out their own identity, and our look — plus our sound — helped us define that. Of course, our parents liked the suits, too! But the care we give to all aspects of our live show is really about respecting our audience.
Forster: We started wearing suits and ties when we were a young band from Colorado as a sign of respect for the bluegrass founders and as a way to set ourselves apart from our contemporaries who were dressed more casually. We also had thrift store suits and vintage ties, so even our friends knew we weren’t taking ourselves too seriously. These days, it’s become a part of what people expect when they go to a Hot Rize show. Charles Sawtelle, our guitar player who died in 1999, encouraged us to look sharp onstage, too. He loved the old pictures from the Opry and that informed his approach to performing and playing bluegrass. Gotta look sharp!