Back in 1998, during the late summer or maybe the early fall, I was on my way to see Hot Rize—Colorado’s own bluegrass band—at my personal oasis: the Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder.
As I hurried toward the auditorium, I recognized a lone figure sitting on the semi-circle, concrete bench just outside the north entrance doors. I told the folks I was with that I saw someone I knew and that I needed to go sit with him for a minute … I missed the concert.
See, I met Charles Sawtelle in 1975 when he was a banjo player in The Skiffle Band with Mary Flower and Geoff Withers. After one of their gigs, I told Flower that Sawtelle was the best banjo player I’d ever heard. She took me by the arm and led me away, then told me not to truly admire Sawtelle’s banjo picking because, “he’s really a guitar player.” What an understatement.
Before Sawtelle’s “best-guitar-player-in-the-world” days with Hot Rize, he worked in the Folklore Center at 17th and Pearl. I was a staff shooter at The Denver Post and, on my way to work I’d stop to see Sawtelle, as well as the owner of the Folklore Center, Harry Tuft. Sawtelle sold me my first Martin guitar. It was a D–76, number 939 out of 1,976. And, for a wedding present, my wife, Terri, bought me another Martin from Sawtelle. Then, I began taking lessons at the Folklore Center, three years before Sawtelle co–founded Hot Rize with banjo player, Pete Wernick, bassist Nick Forester and mandolin player, Tim O’Brien.
Sawtelle and I would always make time to see each other when he came home from the road. His house was a cool place in Boulder with a bit of land and his prized studio, Rancho DeVille. We played guitar there together, him at 78 bpm and me a slow 33 1/3 (yeah, it’s a vinyl thing). Then, we’d head to Juanita’s for chili rellenos on the Pearl Street Mall.
Sitting on the bench that night with Sawtelle at Chautauqua our conversation wandered back and forth over the 24 years we had known each other. He wasn’t playing that night with Hot Rize because his battle with leukemia had become a raging war. And yet, this night, I could see defeat in him for the first time. Not from the cancer but because he wasn’t on stage. As the band played from the distant auditorium, we both knew this was his last concert. So we sat and listened to it together, to our own concert of laughs, tears and memories of how things once were. He died six months later on March 20, 1999.
Ultimately, to hear the mystery and magic of Charles Sawtelle’s guitar playing, check out a song like “Frank’s Blues,” from Hot Rize’s 1986 album, Traditional Ties.
As a novice guitar player, as well as an associate professor of photojournalism at Metro, Kenn Bisio is special to the Metropolitan.