Charles Sawtelle: Music from Rancho DeVille

When charles Sawtelle died on March 20, 1999, at age 52, after a five-year battle with leukemia, he wasn’t the best known musician in bluegrass, but he was one of the best loved. An original member of the widely traveled Hot Rize (and its humorous hard-country alter ego, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers), the Texas-born Sawtelle was an impeccable guitar picker, an engaging singer, and a reputedly shy stickler for detail who produced many an album for his friends.

In turn, one of those friends, Northern California fiddler and singer extraordinaire Laurie Lewis, finished recording and produced the 16 tracks that comprise this rare and posthumous Charles Sawtelle solo album. Named for his home recording studio in Boulder, Colorado, Music from Rancho DeVille features Sawtelle’s sweetly rough-hewn singing and the big, warm sound of his acoustic guitar in the company of Lewis and fellow fiddlers Michael Doucet and Vassar Clements, bassist Todd Phillips, accordionist Flaco Jimenez, guitarists Jerry Douglas and Norman Blake, mandolinists David Grisman, Sam Bush, and Tom Rozum, and notable others, including Hot Rize bandmates Nick Forster, Pete Wernick, and Tim O’Brien.

Don’t come to this eloquent recording expecting a lot of high-speed deedly-dee bluegrass; there is a wonderful version of the Stanley Brothers’ “Gonna Paint the Town,” with Peter Rowan on lead vocal, but of the tunes Sawtelle didn’t compose or cowrite, most come from country music or folk music (three from the Carter Family songbook, one each from Lefty Frizzell and Woody Guthrie, another from Si Kahn). And throughout, even when friends take the lead vocals (or supply a choir of harmonies, as on the heart-rending final track, “Angel Band”), the emphasis is on the subtle and gentle instrumental mix, with Sawtelle’s clean and expressive guitar tone glowing like an eternal flame.