Hot Rize for Public Consumption

By Pete Wernick - November 2009 column, Banjo Newsletter (PDF)

I am lucky to have had some neat opportunities in music these days. Along with three banjo camps and six or seven jam camps a year, I've gotten to perform with a number of cool groups in a variety of places (Ryman Auditorium and Carnegie Hall in just the last week, yow!). Lately, I even did some recording for a "real record label"—that endangered species that manages to hang on despite the current plight of the record business.

Brand new on Sugar Hill Records are two cuts by Hot Rize, part of Bryan Sutton's splendid album "Almost Live." These are the band's first studio recordings since 1990, and the cuts are two numbers we'd never played until Bryan asked us to. We were all pleased with the way they came out, and one, the Norman Blake song Church Street Blues has started climbing the national bluegrass chart.

The recording process was a first for Hot Rize. Due to scheduling complications, we couldn't record at the same time. Bryan and Tim O'Brien laid down the guitar, mandolin, and vocal parts in Nashville, then Nick Forster and I added bass and banjo in Boulder. This is not my favorite way to record, though it can get convincing results. Hot Rize is a band in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the synergy is hopefully part of what gets recorded.

One great advantage though, was that I had an unpressured recording situation with just an engineer in a small home studio, and the freedom to take whatever time necessary to get the desired result.

Another factor in this recording was the rarity of the opportunity, Hot Rize's first recording of the millennium (wow, just that word sounds momentous), and our first ever with Bryan, who's played eight years with us now. Because Hot Rize had and has a lot of fans, I imagined our cuts would be listened to closely, so I resolved to do my part not just passably, but to give the listener my best, and something new.

Church Street Blues is a medium tempo song in E. It's a wry portrayal of a broke musician in Nashville: "Get myself a rockin' chair and see if I can lose, these thin dimes hard times, hell on Church Street Blues." When tackling a new song, I always ponder the feeling it gives off, to guide my musical contribution. This song has a nice understated lilt, a country boy down on his luck but with a wink in his eye.

The first job as always: scope out the chords and melody. The song does not call for any big flourishes. I decided to just play the tune, with maybe a few nice subtleties to personalize it a bit. As I often explain the process to my banjo campers, I start by trying every way I can to play the melody, in hopes of finding some sounds I especially like. The chords change pretty fast, and I found that trying to finger all of them as they whizzed by was constricting.

After much experimentation I wound up deciding that the other instruments would take care of the chords and I would play the melody mostly in a sort of raga-style, moving up and down the 2nd string at first and then on the 4th string, with compatible tones on the 1st and 5th strings droning away in a smooth even roll. With the capo on the 2nd fret and 5th string tuned up to B, I had the root note of the key (E) and also the fifth scale note (B) sounding throughout, if I kept hitting the 1st and the 5th string. It's interesting that in G tuning, the root note and the fifth are also heard as drones a lot, on those same two strings—but in G, the root note is on the 5th (G) and the fifth (D) is on the 1st string, the reverse of how it is in the D format.

A great challenge, with payoff as "listenability," is to phrase the melody just the same as a singer would sing it. That means putting the melody notes in very certain places, and filling the spaces between with good sounding notes that allow a smooth roll. With enough trial and error, and using the index for melody notes, it worked out. To me this level of detail is the gold standard of creating banjo breaks. We always have the choice to approximate the melody and not worry about every note and its placement. But the "playing the words" tradition championed by my heroes Earl Scruggs and John Hartford keeps the bar high, and I don't want to slack on the gold standard.

The IBMA Awards Show

At this writing, the show is a very special and very recent memory. By the time you read it, you may have heard it on one of the 300 radio outlets, including Sirius XM Radio. Just guessing, but it might have been the most-heard bluegrass broadcast in history. It was certainly exciting to be a co-host and play three songs with Hot Rize, especially backing the two Hall of Fame inductees, the Dillards and the three surviving members of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers: Bobby Osborne, Melvin Goins and Paul Williams. Yes, it's on YouTube.

I take some pleasure in having been the one to dream of having these two groups perform at the show, despite the longstanding tradition that Hall of Fame members don't play on the night they're inducted. I guessed (correctly it turned out) that all the inductees would be glad to participate. They are lifelong performers, after all! In particular, the Lonesome Pine guys are all (though in their 70s) in top form, and showed us some inspired singing, each taking a verse of Pain in My Heart and nailing the trio besides. What an honor to play behind those guys! Backstage I suggested to Bobby and Paul that they try to twin a solo on harmony mandolins, and they obliged with a very tuneful duet. Being on stage with the four original Dillards (whom I first saw in 1964) was also a special moment, singing their classic Old Home Place.

The one Hot Rize number we got to do was a band standard Untold Stories, selected because our co-host, Kathy Mattea, just happened to have a major country hit with it a few years after our bluegrass-scale hit. Only one little problem. We do it in F and she does it in A.

A modulation from F to A would be pretty weird. We decided to lower our section by a half step, F down to E. Now the modulation would be a pretty common one, E to A... right in the middle of the first full break! It's the one I start, and then the instant I'm done with a big E note, Bryan jumps in in the key of A. Kathy sings, the harmony is now a trio with Nick singing the third part, and we finish in A. It sounds good and is easy enough to say, but for me there's a block when altering a Hot Rize song so dramatically. I've probably played Untold Stories 500 or so times. And so I probably put in about three hours of practice over two days just on that song, to make sure to undo some of my muscle and sonic memory of how the song goes.

And the happy ending is: I did fine. So glad to represent us banjo players in some fashion on the year's most listened-to bluegrass program, heard worldwide!

Thanks to Brian Ford for the tab of Church Street Blues.