On The Grange With Pete And Joan Wernick
By Claire Chase
Looking out at the mountains in autumns afternoon
sun from his modest porch with the million-dollar view, Pete Wernick said,
"Its so gorgeous to sit here. In my mind, theres no better
place to live."
He recalled playing a show in Colorado in August 1975 and said, "I
remember thinking Id be a happy guy if I could live around here,
and one year later I was here. I feel fortunate." Almost 28 years
later, the Left Hand Valley is richer for having the Wernicks call it
"For a lot of
people, Colorado is a magical place blue sky, clean air. It is
special in peoples minds. Niwot is a great combination of all the
best parts of Colorado. Anybody who lives in the Left Hand Valley knows
what Im talking about.
Thanks to Hot Rize and other bluegrass bands, in a small way, I have been
able to represent Colorado. I feel proud to do that," said Pete.
Pete Wernick is Niwots most accomplished bluegrass musician. Joan
Wernick is an accomplished musician in her own right and they are both
long-standing members of the Niwot community.
Their son Will attended Niwot schools. Joan coached the Niwot Cougars
soccer team for several years. They are members of and advocates for the
Niwot Grange Hall.
On November 19 and
20, Pete and Joan Wernick, followed by Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five),
will perform at the Niwot Grange Hall. The shows at the Grange will be
a great opportunity to see and hear the Wernicks and Flexigrass in Niwots
most intimate setting.
Joan has been singing with Flexigrass for over a year. The band has a
new vibraphone player, Greg Harris. "If people havent seen
us in a while, theyll see something pretty different," said
Pete and some variation
of his bands have been playing a "November or fall homecoming show
that dates back to the twentieth century," he said. "Its
the place in the world Ive played more than any other place. It
was Joans idea in the first place that we start playing the Grange."
a nice scene, in a friendly, social setting where people can come and
listen and have cookies and be with their neighbors," said Joan.
Pete said he liked the idea of playing so close to home and bringing the
music hed been playing on the road back home. "And I like to
do things to be a part of the community. The Grange, its the essence
of the community. Were doing something that must have happened at
various times throughout its history."
"We really honor, especially Mildred Seader, Barb Theobald and Dorinda
Dembroski for their dedication to the Grange. A lot of people are pretty
attached to it, including us," said Joan.
The dynamic between
Joan and Pete is uncomplicated. They laugh whole-heartedly at one anothers
jokes. Each is genuinely interested in what the other has to say. They
get each other. They complement each other. They are easy to talk to,
Add to the dynamic the honesty in Joans voice and the straight-ahead
sound of Petes banjo and you get a warm-hearted, soulful sound that
is, well, uncomplicated.
Bluegrass found Pete as a boy in New York City, which was not as farfetched
as it sounds. All sorts of musical influences were converging in New York
at the time. "There are sixteen million people in New York; everybody
ends up there at some point. I just fell in love with that sound,"
Pete recalled hearing
Earl Scruggs for the first time. "It was the thing that broke through
that New York state of mind. It was too good to be true. I remember thinking,
its so amazing the sound he makes with the banjo."
Petes band of international acclaim, Hot Rize, formed in 1978. They
played steadily and built a loyal following over the next fifteen years.
The band took a break in the mid-nineties when their guitar player, Charles
Sawtelle, was diagnosed with Leukemia. Sawtelle died in 1999.
"At first, we
didnt want to think about playing for a while," Pete said.
The deep impact of their friendship and Sawtelles life is evident
in the affection with which Pete speaks of him. Hot Rize has recently
begun anew with guitarist Bryan Sutton.
While Hot Rize was on hold, Pete rekindled a duet with Joan. They performed
together in earlier years in a band called Country Cookin. Pete
and Joan had not played together professionally in close to 20 years when
they recorded "Windy Mountain" with Sawtelle during the last
years of his life, at his studio in Boulder.
The liner notes of the CD thanked Sawtelle for his "expertise and
at a time of physical and mental stress, (it) made it
an even greater gift of friendship."
On February 27, 2004,
Pete and Joans song "Theres a Big Rock in the Road"
was transmitted from Houston to "wake up" the Mars Rover. When
the Wernicks found out, they were blown away by the thought of bluegrass
being played on another planet.
Pete said that Mars had captivated Joan the summer before. It was very
close to the earth and Joan had observed it daily. To be told about their
song being played on Mars, "blasting out into deep space," as
Joan put it, was something. "Celestial bodies are really a big thing
to me. Its really amazing."
thirty-year marriage and the revival of a musical duet with her husband,
Joan said, "We are really fortunate that we get to play this kind
of music, bluegrass music. We are fortunate we are able to do those things
together, and that we work well together and people have told us that
we seem to really enjoy what were doing."
Their love for the music they play is evident. "The music is itself
because its real; it is not pretentious. There are no psychological
feather boas to get beyond. Its just real nice people who like this
type of music," Joan said.
Pete described the nature of bluegrass as down to earth with a spirit
connected to wild natural elements. "Bluegrass is cool that way,
there is a feel for the wild and the free," he said, describing how
people sing and dance to bluegrass from within.
Pete said that true enjoyment of bluegrass music lacks affectation. "Music
doesnt have to be unreal to be compelling. You dont have to
distract people with the latest dance moves. We just try to be ourselves
and be real."
For information on the Grange or tickets in November, call the Grange
RETURN TO PETE IN THE PRESS