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Bryan Sutton talks Hot Rize

bryan sutton - hot rize

Hot Rize first hit the bluegrass scene in the late 1970s coming out of Boulder, Cororado. "I wasn't part of it then, I was 5 when they made their first record," says Bryan Sutton, who's been playing guitar for the legendary group for over 10 years now. 

The original lineup was Tim O'Brien on mandolin, Nick Forster on bass, Pete Wernick on banjo, and guitar player Charles Sawtelle. Throughout the 1980s, Hot Rize became as big as a band could get for bluegrass at that time. Then at the height of their success, they disbanded. They later enlisted Bryan Sutton to play guitar with them after the tragic loss of Charles Sawtelle. We spoke with Bryan when he was in our studio recording new guitar lessons for his students here at ArtistWorks, wanting to get his unique perspective having gone from being a fan to being in the band. 

"What they brought was a bit of a return to a tradition. It was the early 80s and you had a lot of very 80s type influence on bluegrass - things were getting a little louder, electric bass was being used. Hot Rize did have electric bass, but they also wore suits every time they did a show, and they sang around one mic which was really cool and retro at the time - nobody was doing that. Being from Colorado they kept poking at the Southeast, that was the big market to break for any bluegrass band, and being from Colorado they were sort of at an uphill battle.

old hot rize flyer

"But musically they were just top notch… They had Tim O'Brien and he was writing what are now bluegrass classics. Most of what he and the other guys wrote for Hot Rize are now standards. You hear them in jam sessions and every bluegrass band plays them. The band I was in when I was a kid, we played 4 or 5 Hot Rize songs. Their scope at the height of their energy was pretty massive. And for bluegrass it was about as big as it could get. They were on TV a lot, they had songs on the radio, and when IBMA first organized and had their first convention and award show, Hot Rize won the 'Entertainer of the Year.'

"The other thing that they brought was this incredible professional sense of entertainment. They were one of the first bands to take around a dedicated sound guy. They really brought a level of professionalism that we hadn't seen yet in bluegrass. It was a very polished and professional high-quality bluegrass performance… just to see that live, it was pretty amazing to see. There's this great balance in Hot Rize of songwriting, musicianship, and entertainment. They set a standard for what would become the big world of professional bluegrass - they really helped it grow.

hot rize with charles sawtelle

"The funny thing is that at the height of all that, they disbanded. They had spent the past 10-15 years with this energy and I think they were just ready to take a break... After Charles passed away in '99 from complications of leukemia, the band hadn't really been doing much, other than extremely rare reunion type performances here and there. They kept doing these reunion performances, and they gave me the call to go do these with them. Basically for the last 10 years I've been doing these shows as Hot Rize, with me on the guitar. So the energy has been growing the past 4 or 5 years too. We did a little more touring, played more dates, and it was decided that 'let's try to blast off one more time.' So we made a record last year in Colorado, which will be out at the end of September and there'll be a pretty extensive tour. It'll be a pretty intensive Hot Rize energy between now and this time next year. It's a good energy, it's good for bluegrass. They have a lot of dedicated, long time fans and the goal is to try to use a lot of that same energy to get some new fans.

"Part of the other cool thing about them is because they were based out of Colorado, a lot of these modern jam bands - String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band - groups like that looked to Hot Rize just as everyone else in bluegrass looked to folks like Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, the Stanley Brothers, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Hot Rize were the founding fathers of what would become the progressive bluegrass scene in Colorado. A lot of these bluegrass festivals like Telluride and RockyGrass, Hot Rize was a part of that initial spark and energy.

"As far as the new album goes, the Hot Rize template is good original material. The sound of the band is fairly unique because of the electric bass. Nick plays in a way that's not just standard, simple bluegrass bass. He plays in a very lyrical way so the music never really sits with the weight that you hear in a lot of modern bluegrass. Pete Wernick's banjo style is dedicated to melody and his tone is an important part of the blend. He also uses a phase shifter occasionally that really creates a neat effect with the traditional banjo roll. There's a real obvious Hot Rize sound to people - when you hear it you know what you'll be hearing later on down the road too. The new record embodies a lot of that.

hotrize when I'm free

click here to order the new Hot Rize album When I'm Free

"We all contributed to this record in one form or another, whether it's arranging or writing, so it really is a band record. No guests on the album, it's just us four. We broke it up a little bit, usually Hot Rize records were the four guys doing their four things - the four instruments. This record has a little bit of a break from that - we did one song that's just guitar and four vocals, one song where I play clawhammer banjo and Nick plays a mandocello. That's one of the goals of the band, is try to continue to explore different sounds that are already there. With me playing banjo, Nick being a good mandolin player, and Tim playing guitar - there are a lot of options we wanted to explore.

"I'm singing more with Tim now. Part of the Hot Rize sound was always Tim singing leads and the verses and then jumping up to tenor on the choruses. There's a lot of that on the record but there's also now the sound of me singing tenor above Tim with him maintaing the lead, which is kind of new for Hot Rize. It's a little inside if you're not aware, but it's still there.

"A lot of what I teach here is about the technical foundation that helps that bluegrass sound on the guitar, and I've learned to do some of those things vocally. One of the hardest things when you're singing is to understand what it feels like when air is in your head. We tend to pull and push too much from the throat, so knowing how to breathe in time, how to push air in time, and learn how to feel that consistently is really important. Your eyes ought to be buzzing most of the time. The way your head feels when you hum, when you feel that sort of buzz in front of your face, that's more in line with what proper singing ought to do.

"It's a pretty entertaining show, when you go to a Hot Rize show it's one of those 'I don't like bluegrass but I like what these guys do' kind of show.

hot rize - red knuckles set

"Tim O'Brien's mandolin playing is not quite as traditional. Usually mandolin playing in bluegrass, from a comp, or rhythm perspective, is a little more sparingly chopped. Tim plays mandolin kind of like a rhythm guitar player. As part of the original Hot Rize sound - Charles Sawtelle was a very sparse guitar player. Sometimes he would lay out for a bit and then come in with these powerful bass runs which made a real statement. His playing helped create a very musical sense of dynamics. I've tried to adopt some of that.

"Part of the challenge with this band is knowing that not only did Charles have a very specific sound, the band also has a specific sound. They also have a lot of very dedicated fans and followers. I got some sideways looks at first, because I was coming in as this 'hot shot lot of notes' guy and Charles wasn't that, so it took people a while to understand that I was really trying to make the band sound like the band they had always loved. I don't want to just copy of all of Charles' notes and play the way he played, but I do recognize that what he did helped Hot Rize sound like Hot Rize. I love being in this band and consider it an honor to bring this music to the fans."

- Bryan Sutton

bryan sutton with hot rize


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