Obituary: Charles Sawtelle

Paul Wadey
Sunday 28 March 1999 23:02

THE SELF-proclaimed "Greatest Show in Bluegrass", Hot Rize was for 12 dazzling years amongst the finest outfits in the genre, marrying superb musicianship with showmanship.

Bluegrass was developed by the great Bill Monroe in the 1930s and 1940s and is characterised by "high lonesome" vocals, driving rhythms and instrumental virtuosity played out on fiddle, mandolin, guitar and dobro. Born out of the mountain music of the rural South and the blues and field hollers Munroe heard as a youngster, it has transcended its origins to become a universal form.

The quartet of Tim O'Brien (mandolin, fiddle, vocals), Pete Wernick (banjo, harmony vocals), Charles Sawtelle (guitar, vocals) and Nick Forster (bass, vocals) came together as Hot Rize in 1978. O'Brien, Wernick and Sawtelle - a sometime steel guitarist from Austin, Texas - had been members of the Drifting Ramblers in 1976 and both Wernick and Sawtelle performed on O'Brien's Biscuit City album Guess Who's in Town. Working as a group seemed a natural progression, and with Forster on board in 1979 they cut an eponymous debut album for Flying Fish. In common with their later releases it expertly combined covers of standards with newer material, some of which has now entered the bluegrass/acoustic repertoire.

Like many other bluegrass musicians, Hot Rize feted those performers who had given the genre its initial impetus in the 1940s and 1950s. They were particularly drawn to the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and took their name from "hot rize", the "secret ingredient" in Martha White Self-Rising Flour, which, through its sponsorship of their segment on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, became indelibly associated with Flatt and Scruggs.

A sophomore effort, Radio Boogie was released to acclaim in 1981 and followed three years later with a fine live set, Hot Rize In Concert. In the meantime, they had unveiled their alter egos, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, a hot Fifties-style country swing band with a penchant for sunglasses and song titles like "Wigwam Wiggle". Sawtelle, masquerading as "Slade", contributed bass. Originally an amusing part of their live act, the Trailblazers took on a life of their own and cut two albums, Red Knuckles And The Trailblazers (1982) and Shades Of The Past (1988).

In 1985, Hot Rize jumped labels to Sugar Hill and recorded Traditional Ties with its excellent version of O'Brien's "Walk The Way The Wind Blows". Ninety eighty-seven saw the release of Untold Stories, by which time O'Brien's other projects were taking up more and more of his time. Take It Home (1990), perhaps the band's finest album, proved its swansong and that same year they split.

The band's members went on to enjoy varying degrees of success with O'Brien maturing into a top-flight singer-songwriter. Sawtelle - long enigmatically nicknamed "the Bluegrass Mystery" - formed the Colorado-based Charles Sawtelle and the Whippets and began an association with fellow musician Peter Rowan that saw him become a fixture of the bluegrass festival/concert circuit.

Paul Wadey

Charles Sawtelle, bluegrass guitarist: born Austin, Texas 1946; died Nashville, Tennessee 20 March 1999.

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