Hot Rize has marked over 30 years in the bluegrass history book. Following the untimely passing of guitarist Charles Sawtelle in 1999, the band reorganized in 2002 with Bryan Sutton on guitar and has continued to play several shows each year, delivering its high-energy, soulful, and unique sound to fans old and new. Though many years from its full-time touring period of 1978–1990, Hot Rize has kept its legend growing by delivering first-class music and entertainment as only it can.
The traditional-yet-progressive Colorado band started its 12 years of full-time performing in January, 1978. The group named itself after the secret ingredient of Martha White "self-rising" flour, the product Flatt & Scruggs promoted in the '50s and '60s.
Original band members were Tim O'Brien on lead and harmony vocals, mandolin, and fiddle; Pete Wernick on banjo and harmony vocals; Charles Sawtelle on guitar, harmonies, and lead vocals. Mike Scap, the group's original guitarist, departed after three months and was replaced by Nick Forster on bass, with Sawtelle switching from bass to guitar. Forster also became the group's emcee and main harmony singer. Hot Rize recorded its self-titled debut album, a blend of traditional and new material, in 1979. Their second album, Radio Boogie, came out in 1981.
On the strength of their first records and national touring, Hot Rize rose to prominence in the early '80s, appearing frequently on such national broadcasts as NPR's A Prairie Home Companion and The Nashville Network's Ralph Emery Show. Their stage show gained renown, featuring their strong and soulful bluegrass combined with their wacky but musically deft "alter-ego" country swing band, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. The group performed in almost every state, as well as Europe, Japan, and Australia.
In 1984, Hot Rize released a concert album featuring the Trailblazers and in 1985 released Traditional Ties. Untold Stories and Take It Home came out in 1987 and 1990 respectively. Many songs from these records, such as "Walk the Way the Wind Blows," "Colleen Malone," and "Just Like You," reached #1 positions on national bluegrass airplay charts. After 12 years of full-time year-round performing and recording, the group disbanded amicably, all members subsequently pursuing solo careers.
The 1990s saw Hot Rize reunite several times each year, mostly at bluegrass festivals, with occasional short tours through 1998. Live recorded cuts appeared on various festival albums. Toward the end of 1990, Hot Rize received the Entertainer of the Year award from International Bluegrass Music Association at the organization's first annual Awards Show. In 2009, the band was selected to co-host the 20th annual IBMA Awards Show. Hot Rize also picked up a Grammy nomination in 1991 and won IBMA Song of the Year from the IBMA. In 1994 Sawtelle was diagnosed with leukemia, eventually dying in 1999 from complications of a bone marrow transplant. The classic group's span as the same four musicians had lasted 21 years. Its performing commitments in 1999 were fulfilled as Charles Sawtelle memorials, with Peter Rowan or Jeff White filling the guitar slot.
A live concert recording from 1996, So Long of a Journey, was issued in 2002, the first Hot Rize album in over a decade. Also in 2002, the group started performing again, with several shows each year. Bryan Sutton, a superpicker and one of Nashville's leading session players, was added on guitar. Hot Rize has remained one of the top attractions in bluegrass, well into its fourth decade.