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When I'm Free - A Hot Rize Interview with Tim O'Brien

By Mandolin Cafe
September 9, 2014 - 8:00 pm

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Hot Rize. L-R: Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O'Brien and Bryan Sutton. Hot Rize. L-R: Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O'Brien and Bryan Sutton.

Anyone that's driven the stretch of I-70 crossing western Kansas toward Colorado in the summer knows: it's long, it's hot, and it's really, really flat. Eastern Colorado is no better.

But as you approach the Front Range the air cools, the plains roll, tips of peaks reveal snow, and suddenly, all is well. You roll down the window, breathe deep and think, "I could get used to this!"

Hearing Hot Rize for the first time in the late 70s was like the end of that drive — a breath of very fresh air. As the band's new sound hit the airwaves and live appearances grew, a star was born. Along with the band's tight harmonies, this bluegrass had both a modern feel and a healthy respect for tradition. The time was right, their sound was fresh and the collective bluegrass community drank it in.

25 years after their last studio recording, Hot Rize, one of the most celebrated ensembles in bluegrass history is back with When I'm Free, set for release September 30. Visiting with Tim O'Brien it's clear he's fiercely proud of the band and their new recording, and for good reason. Bluegrass fans, buckle your seat belts and let's go for a drive. We'll spare you Kansas.

 — Scott Tichenor
     Mandolin Cafe

Mandolin Cafe: When I'm Free is the first Hot Rize studio recording in 25 years. The title is taken from a line of the opening cut Western Skies. What's the story behind that?

Tim O'Brien: When I'm Free is a reference to the Western vibe and the Colorado bluegrass scene and the freedom of the mountains and the fresh air that gave birth to the band. Pete, Nick, and I all moved west from darker, grayer climates, so it's sort of a story about us. We all decided to get out there where the air was clean, clear and we get the mountains and the sunshine over the open plain. When I'm free that's where I'll be. So the song is real Hot Rize material and dovetails with three of our stories.

Blue Is Fallin'

From the soon to be released Hot Rize recording When I'm Free, the band performs Blue Is Fallin', courtesy

Mandolin Cafe: It may sound funny to some but long-time fans will get it. The current band and the new material really sound like the Hot Rize we fell in love with long ago.

Tim O'Brien: Right. We wanted to sound as strong, confident and have the same identity. We wanted to make sure the material sounded like Hot Rize songs. We'd ask ourselves, "is it a good song?" If we agreed it was, then it was on the table. "Does it fit us?" That was another question. The good news is we got together and started hashing all this out a couple of years ago. So you end up going through songs and what we found out worked best was co-writing. We agreed we needed these kinds of songs but didn't have them.

Nick had the first song on the record and it wasn't completely formed. There was some rewriting I helped with. That happened with a tune Bryan wrote. We all worked together to help each other finish songs we thought worked for us. Nick and Pete wrote a song together just for the project. In the end we share and have ownership of the material as a group as opposed to someone complaining, "well, what about MY song?" Response: "I don't care about YOUR song, what about MINE!," (laughs). In the end I think the process of shared writing was an important contribution to the sound and identity we wanted to present.

Mandolin Cafe: The project really has a live feel to it. What was the recording configuration?

Tim O'Brien: We sat in a circle in Nick's eTown Studios in Boulder, Colorado without headphones, close enough we could hear each other, so it was like you'd play music with your friends. We did edit tracks a fair bit but most of the cuts were done in one take. With a few exceptions, lead vocals and all instrumental parts were tracked live as a group. As is commonly done these days with hard disc recording, we edited in various sections of whole takes where an instrumental part or lead vocal was better. Harmony vocals were left for later. While we did record the quartet vocal of I Am The Road live, we generally overdubbed harmony vocals. Dave Sinko who has worked with the new Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers was our recording engineer. We think he did a brilliant job.

Mandolin Cafe: What was the process like creating the recording from start to finish?

Tim O'Brien: It seemed like it took a long time for us to work this recording out. I was thinking about it this morning. Had this been my solo record, anything I had confidence in, the sidemen would do. They wouldn't question it. Things flow faster. With Hot Rize there are a lot more checks and balances. It's not a solo gig and it's not a solo album. But it is my band. It took me a long time to figure that out. I'm the front man, I'm the singer, and I write a lot of the songs, but it's also a co-op and very much a consensus oriented organization. So it took a lot more work and maneuvering and I think as a result, like you said, it really does sound like a Hot Rize recording. If we hadn't done all of that I don't think it would have been nearly that way.

quoteIt's really daunting 25 years after our full-time activity as a group ended to reboot in the form of a recording project.quote

  — Tim O'Brien

It's really daunting 25 years after our full-time activity as a group ended to reboot in the form of a recording project. You forget that when you're doing this full time you probably would have been able to develop this material in 12-18 months.

I finally realized we really needed to do that work and weren't together all of the time like we used to be. The real lasting work that made a difference was while we were together. It didn't happen while we were apart talking about it. It was while the four of us were actually together. That's gold. It's hard to come back strong after all this time and I think that's what it took.

I feel really confident about the new material and about the band because until we had this new body of material we were kind of running out of steam. We would do reunion shows but we didn't have anything new to offer. But now because everyone has ownership of this new material we can all put our shoulder to the wheel and push this thing along in the same direction because we believe in it.

Mandolin Cafe: When the band made its last recording in 1990, CDs had just starting outselling LPs. With this recording digital sales have exceeded CDs for some time. Visiting with Pete Wernick about the project he said the band needed to figure out how to get it out there!

Tim O'Brien: He's absolutely right. It's a new game and we had to collectively figure out what would work best for us as a band. We looked at finding a label to distribute the project but decided it was best we formed our own.

Early Hot Rize. L-R: Charles Sawtelle, Nick Forster, Tim O'Brien, Pete Wernick Early Hot Rize. L-R: Charles Sawtelle, Nick Forster, Tim O'Brien, Pete Wernick

Nick knows all of these people in the business from eTown and told us he deals with managers and publicists on a regular basis. He came with informed opinions on some of the things we needed to address. Hot Rize has a unique identity that we wanted to keep alive. And of course anyone that has been in a band knows, it's sort of like a United Nations meeting. It can be pretty hard to reach a consensus (laughs).

It was a good, instructive process to get everyone on the same page. Bryan and I have been heavily involved in the distribution process and Nick has been dealing with the music scene on a national scale with his radio show eTown for a long time. Pete's really close to the bluegrass scene so we had to get all of those perspectives back together as a group.

Mandolin Cafe: Tell us about the tour in support of the recording.

Tim O'Brien: We have about 25 dates into the middle of December that are confirmed but may not be up on the web site this moment. A good part of the tour ends in the Northwest and the Bay area in December and we're already looking into 2015 for more dates. Personally, I've sort of made the next 12 months a priority for Hot Rize. It's always hard to fit things into my schedule which is complicated but the last 12 months which just ended this past Sunday (NOTE: referencing August 31 during the time of the interview) I dedicated to working with Darrell Scott. About a year ahead of that we planned our time around touring and promoting that project. And now two weeks later after that ended, I'm already in the middle of the same thing with Hot Rize!

L-R: Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, Tim O'Brien, Bryan Sutton.

Hot Rize live

Mandolin Cafe: Hot Rize really stood out when the band first came onto the scene, not just for the quality of the music, but the presentation, approach and original material.

Tim O'Brien: Hot Rize connected some dots along with other groups. We came up at a time when the progressive bluegrass of bands like New Grass Revival, David Grisman, and guys standing around in t-shirts playing and shaking their hair around had been the thing. There was a pendulum swing back to, "hey, let's play the traditional grooves, let's dress like the old bands did." Johnson Mountain Boys came along around the same time, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver were a little bit like that when they started so there was kind of a move back towards the tradition. We were just doing what we could do but it turned out it was a good response. People were ready for it.

When Hot Rize started, Pete wanted to go the progressive route. He had this solo record and a new kind of music he called Niwot music with phase shifter banjo and he wanted me to play mandolin with an Andy Statman vibe. As an ensemble we could never really play very well that way, so when Charles started playing with us after a few months — he had switched from bass to guitar — all of the sudden we went in direction of traditional grooves. I'm glad we found that because that was what enabled us to get a toe-hold in the business. It was something that was welcome. You do your best to find the intersection of what you like to do and what other people like so everyone is happy.

NOTE: The original Hot Rize consisted of Tim O'Brien on lead and harmony vocals, mandolin and fiddle; Pete Wernick on banjo and harmony vocals; Charles Sawtelle on bass, harmonies and lead vocals; and Mike Scap on guitar. Scap, the original guitarist departed after three months and was replaced by Nick Forster on bass, with Sawtelle switching from bass to guitar. Sawtelle died from complications of Leukemia in 1999. Bryan Sutton came on board as full time guitarist in 2002.

L-R: Pete Wernick, Tim O'Brien, Nick Forster, Bryan Sutton.

Hot Rize

When I'm Free

Tracks and composers for all songs from Hot Rize's When I'm Free.

Tim's notes on the songs

Western Skies - This is Nick's piece tweaked a bit for the project but it's his story. He moved from New York to Colorado to work at the Denver Folklore Center where he met Charles Sawtelle and eventually Pete and me. That was the beginnings of Hot Rize. Well, it's not an absolutely true tale, but it's pretty much his story (laughs), all of us leaving the gray East for the Western skies and clean Colorado air.

Blue Is Fallin' - I wrote this song and anyone with depression will identify with it right away! I don't see myself as suffering from depression but maybe I do (laughs)! It's about that feeling that just swoops down on you when you least expect it. I produced David Bromberg's version of this song on his 2011 project Use Me. He had all these different songwriters provide a song for him to record and also produce the track.

Come Away - Written by Nick and Pete, and I really love the chord progression and the story that relates to a moment where we wonder what is missing that we had at one point in a relationship. Let's find it. Come away and lets get back to our real love for one another. I love this song.

Sky Rider - This is one of Pete's instrumental tunes we've been playing several years now. We're proud of Pete and his banjo-ness and he always writes a great melody that has a fresh feel. It's like a Scruggs instrumental for the banjo but it's one of ours.

You Were on My Mind this Morning - Another song I wrote a long time ago and never used but somehow kept coming back to. I almost recorded it a couple of times. When Darrell Scott and I were putting together our last project it was on our list but I thought maybe this would be better as a bluegrass tune. That's the hard thing. I have a lot of songs over the years that could have been Hot Rize songs but ended up being treated another way so leading up to this project I took some of my tunes and put them off in their own corral for Hot Rize.

Doggone - One of Nick's songs. When he brought it to us it wasn't completely formed but we all thought "man, this is really good." It's lighthearted. It's a story that's like admitting, "OK, even if you try to make me do something I'm probably not going to do it!" I just thought it was a fun song, sort of a kiss-off. Some of the Mumford & Sons songs have a lot of this attitude. Maybe this is good for that.

A Cowboy's Life - A traditional piece that comes from Jeff Davis, a great performer of old folk songs. I've never heard anyone else sing it. I think it's from an old field recording. Sounds like an Irish melody. He sings it a cappella without any sort of tempo. I started learning it and thought it could have a groove. I tried it out at the Berklee College of Music where I was doing some guest lecturing and teaching. I had students in a band class sing it and play it and made a little demo of it and thought "maybe Hot Rize could do this."

I Never Met a One Like You - I recorded this Mark Knopfler original with him a couple of years ago for his double CD Privateering. It came out really well but wasn't included in the project. He told me, "you know, I think this piece really needs a bluegrass band. You might want to do it." I told him I'd like to sing that song so I brought it to the guys and we tried it. I really like the way it came out. It's a lot like the old Grandpa Jones song I've Been All Around This World but it's Mark's take on it and has its own twist so you can tell it's modern.

Burn It Down - This one comes from Los Lobos. It's one Nick liked to sing and sounds like a Hot Rize song. Slightly different progression and maybe a bit abstract in the lyrics. It's not as concrete as a lot of bluegrass songs but I think it works really well for us.

Glory in the Meeting House - I've been playing this traditional tune for years and also studying the original version by Luther Strong as recorded by Alan Lomax back in the 1940s I think. I wanted to get something on the fiddle for this project and this song and A Cowboy's Life fit the bill.

I Am the Road - That's Bryan's original and having him sing lead was great. It's good to have another voice in the band. When Charles was with us he'd always get a feature and since he's gone we've missed that. It's good to get Bryan forward and it comes at a good time. On Into My Own, his latest project that just came out, he wrote some of his own songs and started coming forward as a full-fledged convincing singer.

Clary Mae - I wrote this with Harley Allen about 25 years ago and put it away and never got back to it. It tells the story of Harley's parents. Clary Mae is his mother's name and of course his father was bluegrass legend Red Allen. Red took Clary Mae to live in the city and she thought the city lights were the prettiest thing she'd ever seen. It's typical Hot Rize in that it takes the nostalgia thing and puts it on its end! Bluegrass songs tend to be nostalgic about the farm and the cabin and all that stuff you left behind to go to the city. This is about, "hey man, it's way better here in the city!" I loved Red Allen's music and I love Harley. Having this song on the project means a lot to me.

Mandolin Cafe: We should ask about Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. They were impossibly old 25 years ago. How old do you think they are, and will they join the band on tour?

Tim O'Brien: They are pretty darn old. You know we found them years ago while we were traveling around. We tried to play that music ourselves but they did it a lot better so we started bringing them along on our tours. Every time we do a gig we ask them if they're available and as it turns out, they are! I don't know how old they are. They just seem to keep going. And to tell you the truth, since they started touring with us I've never actually heard or seen them live because as you know, when they're playing we're back resting on the bus.

Mandolin Cafe: Any chance our readers might connect with Red or the other Trailblazer members on Facebook?

Tim O'Brien: Unfortunately, there's no internet access in Wyoming, Montana. Coaxial cable disintegrates in the alkali sand, and the inclement weather, cloud cover and mountains are such that satellite access isn't possible. It's a difficult place to live but it doesn't really matter because they don't know much about that stuff. But the band is slowly modernizing. I'm pretty sure about that.

Hot Rize Discography

Additional information

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Reader Comments

September 10, 2014 12:12 AM
I met Tim backstage at Winterhawk. He is a very nice guy. Never get tired of hearing him play the Nugget!
Ron McMillan
September 10, 2014 01:59 AM
A very fine interview with a guy who seems to command respect from everyone who ever dealt with him. Friends of mine, a New Zealand duo who play their own brand of Americana, were delighted when Tim agreed to produce their latest CD, How Red is the Blood, and they can't speak highly enough of the man.
September 10, 2014 05:54 AM
Back in the late 70's when I believe Hot Rize was somewhat a local band they would play a little coffee house/restaurant on Pearl St. in Denver, CO. I lived two blocks away and would walk down and listen to these guys. The performance area wasn't much bigger than a residential living room, and so they were up close. I was captivated then by their "new" sound. Never did I realize I was in the company of such a soon to be famous group. Last winter I saw Tim in a solo concert and my memories went back to those good old days in the 70's.
September 10, 2014 06:28 AM
Wonderful news, eagerly await the new recording. I saw them at the Old Tucson Bluegrass Festival in 1978, I don't even think the first record was out yet.
September 10, 2014 07:34 AM
I've been waiting a long time to hear this band again. So excited .... three thumbs up !!Thanks for the vid and taste of what's to come. 9/30 can't come soon enough. Thanks guys .....glad you're back..... I look forward to hearing some more of Red and the boys too..... R/
Benjamin T
September 10, 2014 09:22 AM
In what formats is the new recording going to released?
September 10, 2014 09:42 AM
Been a Hot Rize fan since the early 80's and love Tim O'Brien's solo work. Great to see them back together and with some new songs. Enjoyed the interview!
September 15, 2014 07:58 AM
I have become a big fan of Tim in the last couple of years. I attended a song workshop at Chautauqua in Boulder last spring that was part of the Lomax Project, and saw the concert they put on afterward, and I saw him a few weeks ago there with Darryl Scott. I have learned to play a number of songs from his CDs, mostly traditional tunes, but I love his arrangements. and he sings in my voice range. I am really looking forward to picking up this new album. His versatility and virtuosity on multiple instruments is just amazing. It's quite an inspiration for me to develop my own skills.
Will Patton
September 23, 2014 05:35 PM
Great interview, Scott, with a well-known great guy (and soulful musician). Always did love Hot Rize and couldn't be happier to see they're back at it.
October 05, 2014 02:03 PM
Love Tim's recollection in an interview of his visit to Doc Watson's house, and Doc going down to his basement to retrieve a specific guitar...........and the one Doc came back up with.
Alan Epstein
October 12, 2014 06:16 AM
Great interview Scott. I heard Hot Rize at IBMA in Raleigh a week ago and they sounded as good or maybe even better than ever.
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