Unafraid of Getting Greasy

Hot Buttered Rum runs on bluegrass fusion and recycled vegetable oil

Although he wasn't a member at the time, Hot Buttered Rum's Aaron Redner says the bluegrass-fusion band, for which he plays fiddle and mandolin, burst into existence on a camping trip.

"The big bang of this group was a backpacking trip that took place several years ago," says Redner, who joined the group around 2002. "People just brought their instruments and went backpacking and hiking together for about a month in the high Sierra mountains. They'd just stop along the way and play for hikers who were passing by."

The music of Hot Buttered Rum "was meant from the beginning to be totally music from and for the heart, and music inspired by nature," Redner says by phone from his home in the San Francisco area.

Hot Buttered Rum will play Tuesday night, Dec. 6, at Plush. Redner says he and his bandmates have enjoyed playing in Tempe and Flagstaff on a few occasions, but this will mark their first visit to Southern Arizona.

Based in the Bay area, the all-acoustic quintet plays what is ostensibly bluegrass but includes threads of rock, jazz, blues, old-time folk, country, Western, swing and Celtic music, among other styles.

"People who don't really know music think of us just as a bluegrass or a country folk band. We play instruments that are often associated with bluegrass, but we're a band that plays music that blurs the lines."

In addition to Redner, Hot Buttered Rum includes double bassist Bryan Horne; Erik Yates on banjo, flute, clarinet and accordion; guitarist Nat Keefe; and Zac Matthews on mandolin and fiddle. They range in age from 27 to 34.

Among the band members' other listening interests are traditional Indian music, Western classical music, West African drumming, art rock and new wave of the '80s and the Grateful Dead.

"Roots music is not just from this country, but from the roots of every country," says Redner. "When I get home myself, I find myself channel surfing the more poppy stations so I can keep up on what's going on in popular music and Top 40, too."

Catholic tastes feed the band's hunger for new sounds.

"There are so many other kinds of music that we enjoy, and everybody sings, and everyone contributes to the writing process. So when you bring a song to the table, it's so exciting to see it develop through the different lenses."

The songs run the gamut, including tributes to nature ("Idaho Pines"), romantic ruminations ("Summertime Gal"), warm portraits of family ("Jack Mormon Mom") and whimsical odes to near beer ("Three Point Two") and chewing tobacco ("Copenhagen"), not to mention topical and potentially controversial musings such as "John Walker Lindh."

"Most of our music is original," Redner notes. "But we're all children of the '70s and '80s, so our sets always have a few choice covers."

Some of those have included The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," Paul Simon's "Gumboots," Leo Sayer's "You Make Me Feel Like Dancin'" and the themes from the TV shows The Brady Bunch and The Dukes of Hazzard. Another popular cover is "Lochs of Dread," Béla Fleck's funky-reggae take on Scottish folk music.

Of course, with its influences, Hot Buttered Rum can't help but play old-time breakdowns and jazzy jams, such as the traditional set centerpiece "Evolution," which often extends past the 10-minute mark.

"The fact is that Hot Buttered Rum plays a very nonoffensive music and (is) very danceable. We already are attracting people of all ages at our shows. I grew up in the jam-band scene, and there was too much consistency in the age of the audiences. At our shows, you can see grandparents bringing their grandchildren."

This year has been good to Hot Buttered Rum. The band has performed at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Newport Folk Festival and the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference.

In keeping with its jam band heritage, Hot Buttered Rum encourages the taping of concerts and the trading of its music. In fact, many of its full sets are available in streaming audio or for download from the Internet.

Because the band isn't a platinum-selling act on a major label, tapers and tape traders aren't a threat. Says Redner, "The fans appreciate it, and you'll notice that a lot of the tapers are distributing the music, so they all work together to get the music out there."

To date, Hot Buttered Rum has released two official CDs: Live at the Freight and Salvage in 2002, and In These Parts in 2004.

Recording just finished on a third. Produced by "new grass" mandolin player Mike Marshall and featuring guest appearances by fiddler Darol Anger and guitarist-singer Peter Rowan, it'll be released soon after the first of the year, according to Redner.

The new album's title will be Well Oiled Machine, which not only refers to the efficacy of the band, but to its vegetable-oil-powered tour bus. Playing some 175 dates a year, the band spends a lot of time on the road, much of it spent running its diesel bus on veggie oil.

"If we drive more than 6,000 miles a year, at least half of that is on veggie oil. We get the used oil from restaurant Dumpsters. When we're on the road, we check out the oil quality at the restaurants we hit. And if the management says it's OK, we have these two 120-gallon drums that we fill right up."

This saves the band tens of thousands of dollars a year in fuel bills, Redner reports.

He says that notable kings of the road such as Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and Jack Johnson all ride in tour buses that use some combination of diesel and veggie oil.

He adds that sometimes it seems as if the band is becoming as popular for its promotion of the use of alternate fuels as it is for its music. "Literally, we have dozens of bands come up to us on the road, asking, 'How can we do this?'"

No big deal, says the fiddler. With a few slight modifications in regards to filtration and heating, any diesel engine can run on recycled veggie oil.

"It's still a little bit in the development stages. You need to be willing to get a little greasy. We're trying to get around the idea that it is just some sort of hippie alternative trip, and bring it to the masses."