Way back in 2006, I profiled Hot Buttered Rum here in Blue Ridge Outdoors upon the release of their record Well Oiled Machine.
The band had taken up in a big bus run on used veggie oil – hence the title of the record – and, in the vein of bands like Yonder Mountain String Band and Railroad Earth, were redefining the parameters of bluegrass based acoustic music.
Fast forward nearly a decade and Hot Buttered Rum has returned to my radar.
Last month, the band released The Kite & The Key: Part 1, produced by Railroad Earth fiddle player and long time friend Tim Carbone, the first installment of a planned three EP project. Each EP will feature six songs, a distinct sonic flavor, and a different producer. Noted bluegrass producer Sally Van Meter and Kyle Hollingsworth, of String Cheese Incident, have already signed on for the second and third EPs.
I recently caught up with Hot Buttered Rum’s guitarist and singer, Nat Keefe, to chat about their old well-oiled machine and this ambitious EP project.
BRO – It’s been too long since I featured you guys here. Are you still cruising around on veggie oil?
NK – We retired the Well-Oiled Machine a few years ago. Those were some greasy fun years! Alas, the world of alley way used veggie oil has changed a lot since we started doing it. We used to be able to go from coast to coast and fill up on free, quality used oil from restaurant grease dumpsters. Now the oil is recognized as an asset and places keep the dumpsters closed. That’s a good thing, I suppose, but the point is that we were using an underused resource. And now you can buy biodiesel and ethanol in so many gas stations. Energy production is a long and politically wrought topic, but I think things have changed for the positive a little bit since the 2000s.
BRO – Three EPs and three producers. Why this approach instead of just recording a long player?
NK – We’re seeking a challenge and entertainment for ourselves. Each six song EP is focused on a different part of our game: dark and earthy tuneful songs, traditional bluegrass, and late night party raging. Each producer brought a different perspective and skill set to the table. I was entertained! And it’s fun to give our people a lot to listen to. I think this is a cool way to present music, in smaller, more focused chunks, compared to a full length album. There are so few ten or twelve song albums that really come across as a whole piece. We figured we’d try to make a six song collection a cohesive piece . . . and make a few of them!
BRO – How did you go about choosing the producers for each EP?
NK – We’ve known Tim and Kyle for years and have shared some big moments on stage with each of them. Tim has produced so many records, even before his Railroad Earth days. He has a no nonsense way about him that lent itself to this first collection of dark, earthy songs. Kyle plays for one of the best jam bands in the world, so he had something to offer for our late night music. And Sally has helped so many bluegrass bands find their voice. She helped us refine our “brothers” two and three part harmony singing and helped us remember how to play as a string band.
BRO – We are featuring “Weary Ways” on this month’s Trail Mix. What’s the story behind the song?
NK – Erik and I wrote that one together. The opening lines are, “I came up in the company of flatterers and fools/I suffered in their ranks and I’ve suffered by their rules/I found myself saying things with which I don’t agree/If you’ve got a light to shine, let it shine down on me.” We actually worried for a second that it might be too harsh a song for Hot Buttered Rum. But I think it’s truthful and real and has a place on this album. This song comes from looking back at our years of playing music. It’s easy for your intentions to become consumed by the people around you – fans, managers, etc. We’re very community minded and involved with the people who like our music. But your solitary pursuit of the music has to be the primary focus. Other things can come from that, but if you forget the magic of playing three chords in your bedroom, you can lose something special.
BRO -Do you already have an idea of what tunes will end up on the second and third installments? Can you give us a tease?
NK – Fans of the early days of Hot Buttered Rum will be pleased to know that we did the second EP as a string band – no drums, just mandolin. We dug through hundreds of Ralph Stanley recordings and picked a handful that we love. We read books about the Stanley Brothers, we did a workshop with Laurie Lewis, and we did our best to honor this music. We’re a wacko, left coast band that plays for dancing hippies and hipsters, but so much of what we do is influenced by what these guys from Virginia did in the 1950s. We learned a lot that’s influencing how we play now, and I hope this EP brings Ralph Stanley’s music to some new ears. The late night EP is the most like our live show these days. Out of the gates, high energy, big thick tones, moments of elation, despair, mystery, and gratitude. Kyle plays keys on a couple tracks. We’re not done with this one yet, so I look forward to seeing how it comes together.
Hot Buttered Rum will be celebrating the end of 2015 with shows in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, tonight and a big New Year’s Eve bash with Head For The Hills in Salt Lake City, Utah, tomorrow night.
You can stayed tuned to the band’s website for more information on how the EP project is progressing. The first installment, The Kite & The Key: Part 1, is out now. The second and third installments are soon upcoming.