Hot Rize in concert. From left to right, Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O'Brien, and Bryan Sutton.

(Photo: Courtesy of Hot Rize)

Hot Rize, the beloved Colorado bluegrass band, has returned. That isn't to say that they entirely went away. The group formed in Denver in 1978, but since 1990, they’ve performed only occasionally and recorded even less. Then came last year when the members of the band — Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, and Bryan Sutton — convened at eTown studio in Boulder. The result: their first album in 24 years, which is entitled, “When I’m Free.”
For years, the band has pulled from its deep catalog of material for concerts. “But we were getting a little antsy and a little ashamed of ourselves that we didn’t have brand-new output like we always did in our full-time years," Wernick says.
They decided to dedicate themselves to the task of hatching new material for an album and then hitting the road for an extensive tour, even if it meant putting their solo careers on hold for a bit. Wernick, who lives in Niwot, teaches banjo and performs in several bands. Forster is host and co-executive producer of eTown, the syndicated radio program based in Boulder. O’Brien, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, has his own career as a songwriter and a solo performer. Sutton, who joined Hot Rize in 2002 (after original guitarist Charles Sawtelle died of leukemia in 1999), is in demand as a studio musician in Nashville.
“This was a high enough priority for each of us that we [agreed we] could take those many other enterprises we’re all involved in and reduce them enough to allow for a big, robust revisit to Hot Rize,” Wernick says.

Hot Rize recording "When I'm Free" at eTown studio.

(Photo by Tobin Voggesser, courtesy of Hot Rize)

Hot Rize recorded the new album in a very old-fashioned way: sitting around a circle in the studio, without headphones, and playing and singing live into several microphones. “It just kind of made the music more organic and more immediate,” Forster says. “You get the sound and the ambience of the room, and the songs move — they speed up, and they slow down.”
The band will kick off a fall tour in Durango on Sept. 24, followed by shows in Aspen, Boulder, and Denver. Then, they’ll hit the road for concerts around the country, including stops in New York, Philadelphia, Nashville, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Seattle.
As usual, they’ll look stylish onstage, in suits, white shirts, and colorful ties.
“This goes back to Charles Sawtelle, who was a huge influence on a lot of what Hot Rize did,” Wernick says. “One of the things he used to say was, ‘You look sharp, you are sharp.’ He actually owned good clothes. The rest of us were hippies, and if we wanted a suit, that was a three-dollar proposition at Goodwill.”
Sawtelle also insisted that the band members wear not only cowboy boots, but polished cowboy boots.
“As soon as we started wearing suits onstage,” Wernick says, “people looked at us differently, and we looked at ourselves differently. It wasn’t just about being young and free. It was also about respecting the tradition of people like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers. We’re standing on their shoulders. They gave us this great platform.”
No wonder Steve Martin, the actor and banjo player, once called Hot Rize “the great modern bluegrass band.”
“They’re the connective tissue that links the great founders of bluegrass with the modern tradition.”
Below: the video for “Blue is Fallin’,” from the new album by Hot Rize, “When I’m Free.”