Twenty-four years ago, Hot Rize was one of the hottest bands in bluegrass, winning the first International Bluegrass Music Award for entertainer of the year in 1990.
Then the group retired.
The members regrouped sporadically until guitarist Charles Sawtelle’s death in 1999; in 2002, they recruited Nashville guitar whiz Bryan Sutton for occasional shows. Earlier this month, Hot Rize released “When I’m Free” – its first new studio album in nearly a quarter of a century.
Hot Rize is now a full-time gig, and its current tour brings the group to Wingate’s Austin Auditorium Saturday with the Del McCoury Band.
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All four members have busy careers apart from Hot Rize: Pete Wernick conducts banjo workshops; Sutton and vocalist/mandolin player Tim O’Brien are in-demand musicians and songwriters; and bassist Nick Forster hosts the radio show “eTown.”
But they found time to make the album the old-fashioned way – as a team – since they had no interest in making “When I’m Free” by trading files digitally from a distance.
“That wasn’t going to work for us,” O’Brien says. “We had to make time for pre-production, as opposed to when we were riding around on a bus together. We didn’t have that time. We grabbed a week here or a couple days after a little run of gigs.”
Hot Rize was founded in 1978 in Colorado and named after the self-rising ingredient in Martha White Flour (which sponsored Flatt & Scruggs in the old days). It released nine albums and received a Grammy nomination for 1990’s “Take It Home.”
Although the band was a bluegrass sensation, bluegrass was a fringe genre in the 1980s. Today, as Grammy-winning acts have brought bluegrass elements to mainstream pop, the genre garners a lot more respect.
“The music itself is healthier than ever,” O’Brien says. “There’s so many more offshoots. The roots are really strong with people like Del McCoury. Then there’s the Punch Brothers leaning into the classical direction. Yonder Mountain and the jam scene. When you say the word ‘bluegrass,’ more people will go ahead and say, ‘I like bluegrass.’ It used to be an underground thing.”
And thanks to their day jobs, the four members bring diverse perspectives to Hot Rize.
“Pete has lived in the traditional festival mode, and he tends to work (with) people that want to learn to play it,” he says. “Nick has been in the music business for the last 25 years, but he’s been a radio host ... he’s not playing bluegrass much at all. Bryan and I work in the bluegrass game, but flirt with country and Americana.”
“We can gather our knowledge and pool it,” he says. “All our different areas of knowledge are paying off.”