The "Cheap-seat" Chef (Tim O'Brien & Hot Rize)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic



The "Cheap-seat" Chef

The kid in the balcony who saved recipes 
he would one day cook up with Hot Rize


To many of the Jamboree USA audience members, it was just another enjoyable show…but not for the toe-tapping teenager in the balcony. As the entertainers filled the Wheeling Island Exhibition Hall with country and bluegrass music in the late 1960's, they filled thirteen-year-old Tim O'Brien with recipes for future musical dishes. Every Saturday, he would ask his parents to drop him off at the theater, And week after week, his new-found heroes would send their songs sailing up to the cheap seats where young Tim would grab them and save them in his growing "musical cook book."

Jimmy Martin, The Country Gentlemen, Merle Haggard, Roger Miller and all the rest, took turns flinging their tunes up to the balcony. After a while, simply listening to his new WWVA friends wasn't enough, Tim wanted to make his own music. His girlfriend's father was a doctor, and one of his patients. Roger Bland, had been a member of Lester Flatt's band.  When approached by the eager teenager, Bland was happy to teach him how to play the banjo.

While Tim was soaking up the banjo lessons, he restrung his father's old mandolin and taught himself how to play that as well. Week by week, young Tim O'Brien was gathering the ingredients he would one day mix in with those of the other super-talented members of Hot Rize. He spent a year at Colby College in Maine, then drifted west to fulfill his musical dreams. After bouncing around Wyoming, he ended up in Boulder, Colorado.

While O'Brien was gathering musical knowledge in the late 1960's, Pete Wernick was gathering academic knowledge in Columbia University. As he obtained his doctorate in sociology, he played in local bands around New York City. He also hosted the city's only bluegrass radio show. Taking on the nickname, Doctor Banjo, Wernick formed the contemporary bluegrass band, Country Cooking. In 1976, he also moved to the Boulder, Colorado area.

Meanwhile, Austin-born Charles Sawtelle had turned his teenage years toward mastering the steel guitar and began playing in area country bands. Austin was also beginning to vibrate with the contemporary bluegrass sound, so Sawtelle took up the acoustic guitar and joined in that scene as well. Sporting a large variety of musical Influences ranging from Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers to Leadbelly and Blind Willie Johnson, Sawtelle took to the road. After traveling around the western states and Canada, he too settled in Boulder in the mid-1970's.

The remaining Hot Rize member-to-be, Nick Forester, was the son of a State Department associate stationed in Beirut, Lebanon. Years later, he would inform Hot Rize crowds that he was, "the only man in the world who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, was bitten by a weasel and has played on the Grand Ole Opry." After spending his early years in New York's Hudson River Valley area, Forester headed to Colorado where he took a job as a guitar repairman at the Denver Folklore Center.

As the magnetic pull of the vibrant Boulder, Colorado bluegrass scene drew the four musicians closer, fate was clearing a path for them to follow. O'Brien worked in a music store in Boulder and played gigs with an acoustic swing band called the Ophelia String Band. In the close-knit Boulder music scene, he ran across Wernick and Sawtelle. After finding out they hit it off both musically and personally, the three musicians decided to form a bluegrass-oriented band they named the Drifting Ramblers. From time to time, they switched the words and billed themselves as the Rambling Drifters.

They recruited bass player, Mike Scap, who left the group after a few months and was replaced by Forester. Gig-by-gig, they began to realize they had combined an ideal mix of talents and personalities. Renaming the group after the secret ingredient in long-time bluegrass and Opry sponsor, Martha White flour, they christened themselves "Hot Rize." As they perfected their style and their stage presence over the next twelve years, they evolved into one of the most popular groups in bluegrass history.

Hot Rize was accepted by the whole range of bluegrass fans. They never strayed too far from the traditional sound to alienate the bluegrass purists but always seasoned their songs with a contemporary twist to keep the sound fresh and innovative. Soon, they were featured on the programs of major festivals across the country. Their contagious music and dynamic performances soon spread outside the country. As they toured Japan, Australia and Europe, they helped expand the boundaries of bluegrass to new audiences and cultures.

As an added attraction, part way into their show, they would introduce another "band." The western swing band, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, they informed their audiences, rode with them "in the back of the bus." They left the stage and returned, sporting sunglasses and gaudy western outfits. Their alter-ego band served up a tasty variety of lively swing versions of 1940's and 50's country songs. With O'Brien as Red Knuckles, Wernick as Waldo Otto, Sawtelle as Slade and Forester as Wendell Mercantile, they added another popular feature to their live shows. In fact, the "other" band became so popular that they cut two successful albums of their own.

Their live shows and subsequent albums introduced now-classic songs like "Just Like You," "Radio Boogie," "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," "Walk the Way the Wind Blows" and "Colleen Malone." As the bluegrass community around the world tasted Hot Rize's new menu selections, they gave their rave reviews in the form of honoring them as the very first IBMA "Entertainer of the Year" in 1990.Ironically, Hot Rize broke up that year and the members turned toward their individual projects and goals. The break-up, however, was amicable and they have reunited several times since. One of these occasions was for the '91 IBMA awards, when they won "Song of the Year" for "Coleen Malone." Apparently, like Martha White flour, that "cheap-seat chef and his Hot Rize friends had indeed discovered the secret recipe.


Submitted: October 09, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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