Music News & Reviews

Hot Rize again: Acclaimed bluegrass quartet is back for a new era

The acclaimed bluegrass band Hot Rize will be on its first tour since the 1990s when they headline Friday night’s show at IBMA.
The acclaimed bluegrass band Hot Rize will be on its first tour since the 1990s when they headline Friday night’s show at IBMA.

Hot Rize became a critical and fan favorite in the late 1970s, making a name with tradition-based bluegrass at a time when many bands had ventured down a country or country-rock road.

This year, the band is enjoying a revival with a new CD and tour. And in a recent interview, Tim O'Brien drew a comparison between the band's original heyday and today.

"If you go back to when we started, digital recording was talked about," O'Brien said. "We had no Internet, no websites. What was happening then was that NPR was organized. Public Radio became a really good friend to roots music and bluegrass.

"Nowadays it's a different game. Everything is much more organized. Bluegrass has grown a lot since then."

Indeed. Hot Rize debuted the first video from its new album on Esquire's website and its first audio download at the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy page.

But long-time fans will realize that the cyber-promoted new "When I'm Free" CD retains the same strong picking, adventurous musicianship and intelligent song choice that won Hot Rize legions of followers in the day.

Hot Rize plays at Red Hat Amphitheater on Friday night as part of the Wide Open Bluegrass concert.

Among the members, O'Brien has a distinguished career as a great singer, fiddler, mandolin player and songwriter whose tunes have been recorded by Garth Brooks, Kathy Mattea and others.

Pete Wernick is a master picker whose expertise has earned him the name "Dr. Banjo." Tar Heel Bryan Sutton is a phenomenal guitarist who's taking a break from a busy session career to tour with Hot Rize. And Nick Forster provides powerful bass playing, harmony singing and songwriting.

A new generation of bands - as well as high-level admirers such as Steve Martin, Garrison Keillor and mandolin hotshot Chris Thile - kept the influence of Hot Rize out front even during the years when the band played only the occasional reunion.

"This is the next step," O'Brien said. "We didn't want to change our identity or our approach, but we had to work hard to get it to where it was as good as what we left with."

Chapel Hill musician Jim Watson, who's known the band for decades, said, "The thing to me that differentiated them was that they were a younger group, but they were still going for a straight-ahead bluegrass sound."

Another hallmark of the original Hot Rize, a performance by its country-western counterparts, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, will also be part of Friday's show.

O'Brien said he is glad the band took several years to record its first CD of new music in 23 years. Trying lots of different material, writing songs together, playing all at once in the studio instead of overdubbing - all this led to a new era for the band that he's proud to present.

"I'm really happy we're coming back to Raleigh to play, and to play through the IBMA's auspices," he said. "I'm looking forward to seeing everybody there."

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