For more than two decades, Hot Rize existed as a bluegrass band in limbo.
An acclaimed Colorado quartet that served as a conduit between string music tradition and the progressive variations that began to take hold of bluegrass in the late 1970s, the quartet — Tim O'Brien, Pete Wernick, Charles Sawtelle and Nick Forster — amicably disbanded at the dawn of the 1990s.
But Hot Rize didn't fully vanish.
Sporadic reunion shows affirmed the band's legacy as its members pursued disparate solo careers. Even Sawtelle's death from leukemia in 1996 didn't end the Hot Rize saga.
But in 2014, things shifted. Hot Rize committed to cutting its first album of new songs in 24 years — its first recording, in fact, to feature all-star guitarist Bryan Sutton — an avid fan of the band as a kid — as a recruit.
"We've overcome the biggest obstacle that we all felt," Forster says. "And that was, 'Can we make a new Hot Rize record? Can we do something without Charles, given the passage of time, given all the things we're doing now, and make it feel like Hot Rize?' And we proved to ourselves that we can. The fans are responding, and I think the record sounds like a Hot Rize record. That's kind of a load off for us, a nice milestone."
Next up was the prospect of performance. To support the resulting record When I'm Free, the fully reconstituted Hot Rize committed to several extended runs of touring, which will include its first Lexington performance since an appearance at the Festival of the Bluegrass nearly three decades ago.
"Once you get in to a more refined sense of connection and communication with each other, you go beyond just thinking about remembering the songs or remembering the parts or trying to recreate something," Forster says. "Having lots of opportunities to play music together, especially with a whole bunch of new songs, really made for a very different experience. It was really the first time we were able to have that experience with Bryan in the band.
"Perhaps it's just super subtle and it's the kind of thing only I would notice. But it's palpable. It really felt like we were really digging into a slightly deeper level of what it means to be in Hot Rize."
For Forster, the 24 years between the decommission of Hot Rize from full-time duty and the release of When I'm Free was spent in eTown, a public radio music and interview program he organized and continues to host out of Colorado. In fact, Hot Rize used eTown's Boulder studio to record When I'm Free.
"I think eTown has really helped me understand the arc of a show and how to present it, how to connect it and how to engage an audience. I've always been the emcee in Hot Rize, too. That's one of the reasons eTown exists."
Forster isn't sure what the future will hold for Hot Rize. The band agreed to a one-year commitment for the making, promoting and touring of When I'm Free. That period will conclude this fall.
"I think we're all a little overcommitted and starting to feel the pressure of maintaining multiple careers at the same time, so I think there will be a happy respite when we're done. But I also think we've grown closer in a way, so my guess is there will be more recording, whether it's another Hot Rize record or in some other configuration. It's just really nice to be out playing music together again, especially with new material that's fresh for us and fresh for our audience.
"It just makes it real again for us as a band. Whether we know it or are even acknowledging it, we're infusing some really creative energy into this particular foursome."