A couple of years ago, singer and guitarist Nat Keefe, of Hot Buttered Rum, gathered a group of American musicians to join him on a trip to Ghana.
“I took over 12 American musicians and produced a 10-day trip with all of us — with workshops, jam sessions, lessons, lectures — and it culminated in a recording session,” Keefe said. “And that’s where the album ‘Girl Thursday’ came from.”
It was Keefe’s third trip to Ghana and his second recording project there. He was joined by some well-known bluegrass talent, including Bonnie Paine, of Elephant Revival, Big Light’s Jeff Coleman and Erik Yates and Lucas Carlton, of Hot Buttered Rum.
“It was one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever done,” he said. “Just trying to make anything happen in West Africa takes a lot of patience, but we had some really good guides over there and a lot of great help.”
Though “Girl Thursday” was a side project for Keefe and not a Hot Buttered Rum album, the band had an influence on the music in Ghana, just as the music created in West Africa has impacted the band.
“Hot Buttered Rum is based in American string band music,” Keefe said. “We came together over a love of Ralph Stanley and Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe and a lot of the newer school guys like Strength in Numbers, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck. My projects in Ghana aim to mix together West African elements with American string band music. Hot Buttered Rum is more focused on the string band side of things.”
Despite the different approaches, the two styles of music have a common thread.
“One of the angles that we always come at with Hot Buttered Rum is to focus on the rhythm,” Keefe said. “And we try to make sure each instrument plays a supportive rhythmic role. One way that we do that is that we’ve learned a bunch of West African rhythms, where each instrument, each drum, has an ostinato of repeating parts.”
An ostinato, an Italian term for “stubborn,” is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats.
“All of these ostinatos fit in together to create this deeply grooving, awesome tapestry of sound,” Keefe said. “That’s a similar thing that we try to do in Hot Buttered Rum, and a lot of what we do in West Africa informs what we do on the stage with Hot Buttered Rum.”
Keefe said the band isn’t too overt about incorporating these rhythms, so as not to be lumped into the world music category, as that’s not the style the musicians are going for. But incorporating these rhythms, giving each instrument and band member a distinctive voice, creates a more cohesive musical message.
“I love that Hot Buttered Rum is a place where the five members all shine completely,” he said. “I think that there are a lot of bands where there’s a really strong spearhead, a strong leader to the band. In Hot Buttered Rum, we’re all kind of leaders.”
The democratic approach can be frustrating at times, Keefe said, but in the end, the band’s greatest asset is that it doesn’t fall in line behind a heavy-handed bandleader.
“Everybody shines brightly and has a lot of space to do what they can do,” he said. “And really, the band is based on this friendship that we’ve cultivated for years and years. We’ve been together longer than any of us has been with our wives or girlfriends, and it’s been a relationship that’s endured. And we drive each other crazy sometimes like brothers, but we value the quality of our relationship a lot, and that’s where our best music comes from.”
In the studio, on tour
Hot Buttered Rum is set to release a new studio album soon and is in talks to sign a record contract, which Keeve said is exciting, but he’s really looking forward to the late summer and fall touring schedule that’s before them.
“We have a lot of great shows lined up; I couldn’t really be happier,” he said. “I love looking down the list of shows on our website, 40 or 50 of them, and thinking about how each show is going to be, and it’s almost like having a cupboard full of food. I know I’m going to be OK because I’ve got these shows lined up.”
Keefe said the metaphor is an emotional one, not financial.
“If I don’t perform for more than seven or eight days, I start going crazy,” he said. “I absolutely have to play. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t perform. I’d be a total mess. I’d probably turn to hard drugs and robbery.”
Getting a fix means getting on the road, and returning to Colorado is always high on Hot Buttered Rum’s priority list.
“Colorado is one of the first places that Hot Buttered Rum toured outside California, and we’ve been coming there for a decade how,” Keefe said. “It’s where we found a lot of our soul mate music fans and had some of our best times ever. … We love playing in the mountain towns. We always make a point of trying to get out and about before or after our shows, going for a run or a hike. We always bring our fly rods and try to get some fly-fishing in.”
Hot Buttered Rum’s live show is a big party, Keefe said, aiming to make music that’s built for good times.
“Playing live: That’s where our art form takes place,” he said. “We love making records, too, but we don’t get to that too much. It’s one record a year versus 120 shows a year. Live music is where it’s at. The music really happens when it mixes with people, and that’s what it’s all about for us.”