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Nature fuels Hot Buttered Rum's unique brand of bluegrass music

Kentucky Fried Chicken or Chinese takeout, the boys on the bus are fine either way -- as long as there's fried food on the menu. Playing about 175 gigs a year in the United States, the Hot Buttered Rum bluegrass band is fueled by vegetable oil. So, why does the group's five wiry members still appear fit as a fiddle? Well, that's because the oil isn't for their consumption -- it's for the band's tour bus.

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Kentucky Fried Chicken or Chinese takeout, the boys on the bus are fine either way — as long as there’s fried food on the menu. Playing about 175 gigs a year in the United States, the Hot Buttered Rum bluegrass band is fueled by vegetable oil. So, why do the group’s five wiry members still appear fit as a fiddle? Well, that’s because the oil isn’t for their consumption — it’s for the band’s tour bus.

Hot Buttered Rum’s 40-foot coach bus runs on 240 gallons of vegetable oil, the same stuff the Colonel heats to fry a bucket of Extra Crispy. Rather than pull into a service station to fill up the tank, the band swings by restaurants, which are happy to get rid of their used cooking oil for no charge. Considering that the band logs about 6,000 miles a year, it’s saving a considerable amount of money on fuel. But its decision to use an alternative to gasoline is as much philosophical as it is economic. Like a music-industry version of Patagonia, Hot Buttered Rum has a core mission to be environmentally responsible and serve as ambassadors for alternative energy. Toward the end of the band’s tour this spring, gasoline at the pumps rose to nearly $3 a gallon, and alternative fuel bubbled up as a hot topic among the public and politicians. While Hot Buttered Rum’s environmental work is more salient than ever, the young band is also trying to propel a musical career that’s arcing upward.

Formed about four years ago, Bay Area-based Hot Buttered Rum includes Erik Yates (banjo, flute, accordion and clarinet), Bryan Horne (bass), Nat Keefe (guitar) and Zac Matthews (mandolin and fiddle). SNEWS® came to know them through their business manager Dan Braun, a long-time friend of the outdoor industry and owner of the Evergreen Lodge near Yosemite National Park. He sparked our interest with tales of the veggie-fuel bus, but we grew even more intrigued when we discovered how the character of the band and its history parallel many outdoor industry companies. Just like the SNEWS® crew — and probably like yourself — Hot Buttered Rum not only works to protect the planet, but the band was also born from a love of outdoor adventure.

A high altitude experience
In the summer of 1994, Zac Matthews sat in the Sierra Nevada watching a frog on the bank of the Eel River. With his mandolin in-hand, he gazed at the frog, listened to the rushing water and composed “River Song,” a tune that he and his band mates in Hot Buttered Rum play to this day.

Just as the Sierra served as the backdrop for “River Song,” those mountains played a key role in the formation of Hot Buttered Rum.

Matthews discovered backpacking in high school, and he continued exploring the outdoors while in college. He attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, and took a course in nature, philosophy and religion, which included a three-month backpacking trip through the Sierra. “That’s when I started playing mandolin,” he said. “I wanted a portable instrument to take along with me. We had to do a project, and I just wrote a bunch of songs. It was interesting to be forced into this instrument I wasn’t totally familiar with, and it was actually liberating.”

Four years later, he met Bryan Horne, Erik Yates and Nat Keefe through a mutual friend, and they embarked on a month-long backpacking trip through the eastern Sierra. Matthews carried his mandolin, while the others packed in Martin guitars. At campsites, or while resting along the trail, they struck up jam sessions, sometimes playing for passers-by. “It must have been strange for people to be walking along and suddenly see all these guys out in the middle of nowhere playing,” said Matthews.

But there in the middle of nowhere, they realized they’d discovered something special. Inspired by their surroundings and a fast friendship, they decided to form a band that would express the joy of traveling the mountains, and their shared desire to protect wild lands.

The band formed in 1999, and Redner joined in 2002. That year, Hot Buttered Rum released “Live at the Freight and Salvage” and in 2004 put out its first official studio album, “In These Parts.” Early this year, it released its second studio CD, “Well Oiled Machine.”

Riding a well oiled machine
The title track on the new album obviously refers to the veggie bus, but it’s also a metaphor for Hot Buttered Rum’s growth as fine musicians and performers. Their songs often follow a bluegrass structure alternating group play with individual solos. In their collective and individual performances, these five musicians fire on all cylinders with precision timing.

This is partly due to rigorous training. As Yates pointed out to SNEWS®, Hot Buttered Rum is one of the few bands that will actually practice backstage prior to a performance. Plus, they built a tiny room at the back of their tour bus to serve as a practice room. If there was ever a lively debate among these good-natured guys, it was over dibs to the practice room. But you only have to look at their musical resumes to understand the foundation of their fine play.

For example, Matthews began playing classical violin when he was five years old, and Redner holds a master’s degree in violin performance from the New England Conservatory of Music. In February, Redner gave a recital that included old time fiddle music, swing numbers, and sonatas from Mozart and Brahms. In short, each member of Hot Buttered Rum has some serious chops. But one word in the new album’s title doesn’t quite jibe with their sound — the word “machine.”

While their play is tight, the group’s music doesn’t come across as stiff, and this stems partly from their diverse musical influences, including jazz, rock, pop and even West African drumming. With a sharp mandolin strum, they’ll blend a flute passage or jazzy bass solo, and each original recipe produces lively and unexpected flavors of music.

Hot Buttered Rum is part of a growing number of groups stepping beyond the traditional boundaries of American acoustic music to blend a wide array of sounds. The band members are in their late 20s and early 30s, so they belong to a generation that has grown up following The Grateful Dead, Phish and Widespread Panic. (Redner has a Grateful Dead tattoo on his back.) And musicians of this jam band generation are now drawing on the works from the forefathers of bluegrass and roots music, such Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe. Attend any of today’s spring music festivals and you’ll see the jam band scene and bluegrass crowd mingling.

Hot Buttered Rum and its peers may benefit from the fact that the genre has reached the mainstream with the success of the film “O Brother Where Art Thou,” and releases from country stars like Alison Krauss. Even this spring, Bruce Springsteen released a collection of folk tunes popularized by Pete Seeger. Call it Americana, roots music, bluegrass – whatever — the appeal of acoustic music is reaching a broader audience.

Listen to Hot Buttered Rum and you’ll get a sense of why the music is so appealing. It seems loose and organic, as if folks on a front porch were churning up stuff for the first time. American string music actually evolved from informal gatherings where friends and families met on the front stoop to play for their own enjoyment. And Hot Buttered Rum’s genesis was similar. When the guys were first getting to know each other, they played together while attending a festival at Evergreen Lodge.

“We had this cabin, and we’d get together on the porch and play,” said Redner. Of course, they also put on their backpacks and trekked to other “porches” — backcountry campsites and wide spots in the trail. The key to the whole thing is that the instruments of acoustic music are typically portable, so they can be played anywhere at any time, allowing a certain spontaneity.

Describing his Seeger Sessions album, Springsteen says, “There’s something about those instruments — you can go out and play ’em in the yard. Those true folk instruments, the ones that didn’t have to be plugged in, that were meant for travel, to be transient, to move in and out of peoples’ lives.”

That transience, that sense of movement — these are the things that shape Hot Buttered Rum. With their playing skills, the guys in the band could have plugged in and played any form of music, from rock to reggae, but they preferred instruments that they could strap to their backpacks. In this way, the outdoors steered the band down its current path and played architect to its off-the-cuff sound.

Nature and the environment also figure prominently in Hot Buttered Rum’s music, particularly its lyrics. Well Oiled Machine includes the bittersweet tune “Butch and Peggy” where the “cold, gray coals” of a dying campfire symbolize faded love. Environmental protection is a common theme, as well. “Poison Oak,” the fourth track on the new album, describes logging’s impact on California forests. Written by Nat Keefe, it includes the lyrics: So for every tree we cut, for every logging deal/Our sweet ally sister oak was saying/give the forest some time to heal.

When it comes to environmental issues, plenty of bands talk the talk. But Hot Buttered Rum not only voices its concerns, it also leads by example and does practical work to champion certain causes. During every performance, band members speak to audiences about alternative fuels, and they’ll even take a break during their set to go to their bus and explain how the veggie fuel system functions.

We watched the band in action during the Rites of Spring Festival in Tennessee this April.

Getting down and dirty
Hot Buttered Rum’s set was short that warm spring afternoon in Nashville. Just 30 minutes — barely enough time to get the well-oiled performance running at full speed. But band members still paused in their set to tell the crowd of college students about the bus and the benefits of veggie fuel. The message struck a cord and met with loud applause.

After the gig, Matthews crouched at the back of the bus and opened a low panel door, revealing metal barrels, coils and a clear tube filled with liquid the color of dark honey. He was explaining to three or four festival-goers how he uses a tube to extract oil from large drums that sit in restaurant dumpsters. Granted, the fresh-faced musician in a striped summer shirt appeared out of place squatting next to the grimy bowels of the bus. We kept thinking that his cord-like fingers, covered with stained latex gloves, should be sliding across the neck of a mandolin, not slipping along a greasy rubber tube.

But the life of a young traveling band is sweaty and dirty, especially for Hot Buttered Rum. Matthews holds up the hose and describes how just that morning the band stood behind a Chinese restaurant siphoning gallons of peanut oil. But time spent in the back alley trash bin is as important to him as time spent in the cramped practice room.

In the band’s early days, they realized it was essential to blend their shared social and environmental values with their work as musicians. “It’s one thing to sing about the mountains, but it’s another thing to actually be more proactive,” said Braun. “To really walk the talk, the band wanted to integrate its belief into its touring.”

A new set of wheels
In 2005, the band’s touring van died in the desert Southwest, and Matthews and bass player Horne began looking for a vehicle they could run on alternative fuel. While browsing Ebay, Matthews found an auction for a bio-diesel school bus that students from Middlebury College had driven across the country to promote alternative fuel. With only five hours left on the auction, Matthews placed his bid and won the bus, buying it for about $2,000.

Braun described their experience on the bus as, “A lot of bumps, noises and smells, symbolic of a young touring band — whatever it takes to make it.” Touring the United States several times a year, the band would take time during music festivals and other concerts to highlight their curious bus, doing interviews, playing shows for bio-fuel organizations — anything to get out their message.

In February 2005, Hot Buttered Rum gave up the converted school bus for a more roomy 40-foot coach and converted the fuel system to run on oil. Inside, the vehicle looks like a gypsy wagon fused to the hull of a submarine. Past a small square table and couch in the front lounge, wooden sleeping platforms line each side of a narrow corridor. The platforms are piled with sleeping bags, books, clothes — the few possessions a mariner might take on a long sea voyage.

The tight quarters don’t seem to phase the band, and it strikes us that the cabin is not too different from a backcountry shelter. Maybe for Hot Buttered Rum, life on the bus resembles one long camping trip. But it’s not that simple. A band trying to establish itself must tour relentlessly, and life on the road means monotonous hours on long stretches of highway. Plus, the band is doing other work, launching a website that discusses alternative fuels and how people can convert their own vehicles. ( Because many people don’t want the trouble of retrofitting their cars, there’s been a growing demand for bio-diesel — oil already converted to fuel which can be put straight into a gas tank — and Hot Buttered Rum wants to play some role in the distribution of this fuel.

Over the past two years, several music celebrities have launched campaigns to support and promote the use of alternative fuels. Since 2004, Neil Young has toured with buses and vans that run on bio-diesel, and Jack Johnson toured with bio-diesel busses and trucks in 2005. This year, Willie Nelson even launched his own brand of bio-diesel, called Biowillie. At its Environmental Awards Ceremony in April, the Environmental Protection Agency honored Nelson for his work to promote cleaner burning fuel.

The national dialogue concerning alternative fuels will only grow, and Hot Buttered Rum will face the challenge of balancing its musical and environmental missions. After all, it’s tough enough just trying to make it in the music business.

A band, like any business, faces the possibility of failure and must find some wellspring from which to draw hope and inspiration. Like many outdoor companies, Hot Buttered Rum’s wellspring lies in the outdoors, and the band still sets aside time to hike together. Toward the end of its latest road trip, the group held the Sierra in its heart when it penned a new song, “California Snow and Sun.” It’s about missing home, and returning to the people and places you love. That’s a nice thought, especially for a mandolin player who’s hunched in the dumpster of the Chinese Buffet, pumping oil through a slick rubber hose.