Hot Rize plays the Aladdin and Viking Twang, plus a tribute to legendary DJ Ray Davis

Written by on December 9, 2014

On this week’s Viking Twang I’m featuring two great bluegrass artists: the band Hot Rize, and the legendary disc jockey Ray Davis.

Hot Rize is playing the Aladdin Theater Thursday in support of their first album since 2003, “When I’m Free.” Opening the show is Cahalen Morrison and Eli West. Plus, we’ll probably see a set from the band’s comedic alter egos, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. I’ll be playing tracks from some of their early albums and the new one.

Steve Martin calls them “the great modern bluegrass band. They’re the connective tissue that links the great founders of bluegrass with the modern tradition.”

The band started in 1979 and split up in 1990 so its members could pursue solo careers. But it still tours together every couple of years. The band is made up of mandolin player and front man Tim O’Brien, banjo player Pete Wernick, bassist Nick Forster, and guitar player Brian Sutton. Original guitar player Charles Sawtelle died of leukemia in 1999.

From the Aladdin’s website: “Colorado band Hot Rize formed in 1978 with a unique and exciting style of bluegrass. Named after the secret ingredient in Martha White Flour, a long-term sponsor of bluegrass music, the band started. Hot Rize was considered both a progressive bluegrass band and a traditional bluegrass band, taking the bluegrass world by storm with their fresh, contemporary approach to traditional music. Their dynamic stage show made them stars on the major festival circuit, and their powerful original songs constantly topped radio playlists.”

The band was among the first to embrace traditional bluegrass but also bring it to a new generation of players. Rolling Stone magazine says this: “Though Hot Rize became one of the most successful acts in the genre before stepping aside in 1990, O’Brien says they weren’t immediately accepted at first. ‘It was a little bit suspect. Our hair was a little too big. We wore suits and ties, but the ties were suspect. They weren’t matching suits. We had loud ties,’ O’Brien recalls with a laugh. ‘We played bluegrass, but we mixed it up a little bit. It took a while for people to accept us.’”

I’ll be playing Hot Rize songs ranging from their first album to the newest in the second set, along with an appearance by Red Knuckles.

This week’s final set will feature Ray Davis, a legendary bluegrass disc jockey. When I first started listening to WAMU’s Bluegrass Country seven or eight years ago, I loved listening to Ray from noon to 3 p.m. every day. He was kind of goofy and sentimental, but he knew everything about the music and played the most hard-core traditional music, the songs and bands that defined bluegrass.

Ray started at age 15 on an AM station in Dover, Delaware. He spent 38 years broadcasting from Johnny’s Used Cars in Baltimore. He started working on WAMU in 1985 and continued until just over a year ago, when his health began failing. He passed away from leukemia last Wednesday at age 81.

From Bluegrass Today: “Ray Davis is a legend in music broadcasting. He has helped define bluegrass music on-air since its earliest days as a discrete genre, and has placed a lasting imprint on it with his dedication to playing, promoting, and recording its musicians”, said Caryn G. Mathes, WAMU 88.5’s General Manager. “His booming, resonant voice is synonymous with the sound of bluegrass at WAMU, and his willingness to explore broadcasting on multiple new media platforms as radio evolves has been an inspiration to me.”

Ray was more than a broadcaster. He also promoted shows and master of ceremonies for festivals around the country. Maybe most importantly, in his basement studio he recorded thousands of hours from the great musicians of bluegrass, including the Stanley Brothers and Mac Wiseman, and put those recordings out on his own Wango label. He regularly played his basement tapes on his radio show.

I’ll start the show with his theme music, “American Medley” by Lloyd Douglas, then play a selection of his basement recordings in the show’s final set. I wish I could play a segment of one of his shows, but you will hear his voice in one of his “plum pitiful” recitations, “Orphan Joe.”

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