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Pete Wernick - Friend of the DFC

Pete Wernick has a lot of musical feathers in his cap. Not only is he a respected teacher, author and a founding member of the acclaimed bluegrass band Hot Rize, he’s also a Friend of the Denver Folklore Center.

In fact, his connection to the store goes way back to the early days. “I should have kept my original Swallow Hill membership card. That would have been special. The number on it was either 002 or 007, I'm not sure which, but I remember it started with two zeroes. I’ve been a member since they started, coming out of the ashes of the original Denver Folklore Center. Harry Tuft created a legacy for the whole community that makes Denver an important place on the map of folk music. And Swallow Hill is now responsible for a large share of that. How great!”

The Move to Colorado
Folk music is a large part of why Pete and his wife (Joan, a.k.a. Nondi, later of the Mother Folkers) moved to Colorado in the first place. He’s a native New Yorker who moved to Ithaca to get out of the city. Pete worked at Cornell and started a band which began his recording career. “My wife and I realized around the age of 30 that we didn’t want to live in Ithaca forever, so where do we want to move to live for the rest of our lives? Colorado sounded great, but I wasn’t sure there’d be enough in the music business and scene.

“So, in the summer of ’75, my band (Country Cooking) booked several gigs, including at the Oxford Hotel, the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival and in Aspen. I saw the Denver Folklore Center and Colfax Avenue, which used to be hippieville, and got to know Harry a little bit and all the people who worked at the Folklore Center. I thought, okay no problem, there’s a serious music scene going on around here. We ended up moving to Denver and then to Niwot in 1976.”

Pete met fellow Hot Rize bandmate Charles Sawtelle at the store too. “He was the stalwart behind the desk at the Denver Folklore Center. We started talking about how we’d like to have a real low ambition band that would play every week. So, we set up a gig which was advertised as every Tuesday night for the next twenty-five years at the Folklore Center, and we decided the name of the band would be flexible to indicate our general attitude about the whole thing. Most of the time we were either The Drifting Ramblers or The Rambling Drifters.

“At those Tuesday night gigs we’d have different people sit in, like Tim O’Brien, who was teaching lessons at the Folklore Center, and Nick Forster, who worked in the repair shop. The store at the time was a full supermarket for musicians that included a really good record store, you could buy instruments and have them fixed, buy books, and there was even a bead shop and a place where you could take lessons. It was incredible.”

The Rise of Hot Rize
Hot Rize formed in 1978 and some of their first gigs were at the Denver Folklore Center. “We opened for Doc Watson and the recording of that was our demo. We were hot to launch ourselves as a national act. Both Tim and I had records out and that’s how Hot Rize got launched. It grew out of the fertile soil of the Denver Folklore Center.

“When Swallow Hill emerged, it fulfilled some of the same functions of the Folklore Center - the concert hall, lessons were so important as a hub for musicians. And that’s how I got to know the people in the band. And the band lasted a long time. We’re not active now but we’re still in touch. And this community wasn’t thrown together, it grew out of something that is something deep and meaningful. And new people get to partake of this community, something that’s not available in the rest of the country.”

Roots in Music
Music has been a part of Pete’s life since his childhood. “The first record I ever bought when I was nine years old was Fats Domino. He was a roots musician, not just a rock and roll guy. Then I bought Elvis records. I wasn’t especially turned on to folk music, although I liked the sound of the banjo.”

But when he was introduced to one particular musician, his musical die was cast. “When I heard Earl Scruggs…I know exactly where I was. I was twelve, it was in the living room of my friend Jake’s house. I said ‘that’s one guy playing the banjo? Because he was playing about 10 notes a second!’ It was just the best sound, it was a miracle to me. Like if some god had come down from heaven and said, ‘should we play ping pong,’ I would have been just as amazed as I was to hear Earl Scruggs.

“Then Jake showed me a way of playing frailing-type banjo, the way Pete Seeger did. Pete was the godfather of the folk music boom in the ‘60s. He was big with The Weavers. They were huge. Then they were blacklisted for being ‘reds’ and their career was completely demolished overnight. Pete was living just north of New York City and raising kids. He got gigs all over the New York City area, wherever he could play for $50 and had to teach lessons for money. It might sound humble, but what he was doing was being the Johnny Appleseed of roots music.”

Our Pete began to learn banjo just to keep up with his friends who were playing instruments. And once he could play a little, “the memory of Earl Scruggs stood out strong.” For his fifteenth birthday, his sister gave him a few Flatt and Scruggs records – “I practiced my head off for the next two years. Earl Scruggs was my biggest influence.”

Bluegrass DJ
In college, Pete started a radio show (WKCR at Columbia University) and was heard all over New York City. He was the only bluegrass music DJ in the metropolitan area (1963-1970) and had a two-hour time slot. Studying those records was a big part of his musical education - “Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley brothers – they were my big influences on me. Even though I was getting an education at Columbia, I was really preparing for my career as a bluegrass musician.”

pete wernick and earl scruggsPete took his trusty tape recorder to the very first bluegrass festival and recorded interviews with the musicians - “all this got me bonding to bluegrass music before I was 20 years old.” He was even in the audience at the famous Flatt and Scruggs Carnegie Hall concert. “Some people I didn’t know at the time, but got to know, managed to get front row seats. 

They kept yelling for Martha White. No one in New York knew what Martha White was (it’s a brand of flour) Flatt and Scruggs were spokesmen for Martha White and sang the jingle. In the jingle they sang “Martha White self-rising flour’s got hot rize” and that landed on my head. I thought ‘Oh, hot rize, that’d be a good name for a band’. That name led to a lot of good things, including a relationship with the Martha White company who saw to it that we got on the Grand Ole Opry for a performance. We even got to meet the guy (
Cohen Williams) who enlisted Flatt and Scruggs.”

Bluegrass Camps & the Wernick Method
In 1980, Pete began hosting banjo camps, the first bluegrass camps ever. “Now camps have been part of my life for 40-plus years. My main job now, besides performing, is overseeing teachers for the Wernick Method and we teach people how to jam. There are classes all around the U.S. and the world, where people who have been practicing by themselves now get to play with other people. Jamming is fundamental to bluegrass, but it's rarely taught and not systematically or thoroughly.

pete wernick jam campIn the 1990s, some of his banjo students asked if he would do a camp for people who just wanted to learn how to jam. “If you’ve never done it, it’s filled with mystery. The Wernick Method starts with four chords: G C D A. That’s enough to play a lot of music. You can learn how to play and sing at the same time, to play solos.

“We teach those skills. Students come out being able to jam with other people. Almost anyone can learn how to do it. It doesn’t take a lot of talent, just practice and motivation.”

Returning to Live Music
Pete’s been doing some live gigs this year and says “it’s like taking a deep drink of water after you’ve been thirsty for a long time. There’s just something about performing. It’s one thing to jam and get together with people, but when you’ve got to deliver performance-worthy bluegrass…what a pleasure. It’s precious and unique. You can’t have that on Zoom, but we were lucky to have it. Now we’re especially lucky to do actual concerts and in-person lessons.”

While Pete says that bluegrass is his life, he has one issue with it. “There have been incredible black musicians who were influential to country music. In bluegrass there have historically been few black musicians involved, but that's changing. There’s an excellent young black banjo player, Tray Wellington from North Carolina, who’s been a sort of protégé of mine, Rhiannon Giddens and others."

Learn more about the Wernick Method, lessons, classes and more HERE. And visit Dr Banjo HERE for more information about Pete, including his upcoming gigs.