Nat Keefe tells of the mountains that made the men and their music

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  • Hot Buttered Rum jamming. Left to right, Zeb Horne, Nat Keefe, Erik Yates, and James Stratford on drums. (Photo by Dylan Langille)

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    Hot Buttered Rum band from left, Erik Yates (banjo, guitar, woodwinds and vocals, James Stratford (drums and percussion), Nat Keefe (guitar and vocals), Bryan Horne (double bass and vocals) and Zebulon Bowles (fiddle and vocals). (Photo Matt Sharkey)

  • Hot Buttered Rum jamming. Left to right, Zeb Horne, Nat Keefe, Erik Yates, and James Stratford on drums. (Photo by Dylan Langille)

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    Hot Buttered Rum band from left, Erik Yates (banjo, guitar, woodwinds and vocals, James Stratford (drums and percussion), Nat Keefe (guitar and vocals), Bryan Horne (double bass and vocals) and Zebulon Bowles (fiddle and vocals). (Photo Matt Sharkey)

Twenty years has gone by in no time for the band Hot Buttered Rum.

The five-man, San Francisco-based bluegrass/folk/rock and country band was born in the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada, said Nat Keefe, one of the founding members.

“This is our 20th year … I can’t believe it,” he said. “It all started on a two-week backpacking trip.”

Keefe and two of his college friends, Erik Yates and Bryan Horne, headed into the Sierra Nevada mountains, all carrying small versions of the musical instruments they played.

“There’s nothing like carrying a mandolin and an ice pick on your back,” Keefe said. “We were pretty badass.”

They’d play every night on the trail.

“We developed this vision and cocky spirit that together we would reinvent the high, lonesome sound on the West Coast.”

He said their story is typical of kids who grow up in the suburbs.

“Of course, for kids like us being able to get into mountain sports was a privilege,” he said. “I mean, we live in a machine society, which provides us with amazing, dazzling stuff — but at a spiritual and emotional price. We found our perspective in rock climbing, skiing and backpacking.”

The summer before his senior year in high school, when he was 17, Keefe hiked the John Muir Trail from Yosemite to Mount Whitney — a 211-mile hike.

“That trip completely changed the trajectory of my life,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to be a musician. Being in the mountains separated from humanity in the midst of creation has always given me perspective.”

Keefe described his early songwriting as being euphoric, panoramic, of feeling alive and striving to connect with himself and others.

“But as life goes, as you lose friends and family, you see how hard life is at times. My perspective now in songwriting is even in darkness, there’s hope.”

For a band that for years and years toured in a bus fueled by used vegetable oil given to them from the back of restaurants over tens of thousands of cross-country miles, Hot Buttered Rum has since re-shifted focus.

Keefe sits on the advisory board of, and the band supports, Conscious Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for hunger relief for Americans.

In past years band members visited and lent support to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, distributing food, participating in sweat lodges and playing their music.

“Pine Ridge is in the poorest county in the U.S.,” he said. “It feels more like a developing country.”

A multi-instrumentalist with a degree in ethnomusicology, Keefe has studied drums, bass and piano, taken three trips to Ghana, West Africa, to study drumming, xylophone and palmwine guitar, fundraised for the nonprofit Children in Need, and documented in film the native dances for the village archive, which he described as a singular experience for a young musician.

The collective musicianship of Hot Buttered Rum’s band members delivers a high energy, fun mix of West Coast bluegrass string music that dances across Americana, Appalachian and Indie folk platforms.

This will be Hot Buttered Rum’s third show at the Great Northern in Whitefish.

“Whitefish is a special place,” Keefe said. “Life thrives in a mountain town. People have been doing all kinds of outdoor activities all day and they come in for a good time. The crowd gets pretty rowdy.”

After 20 years, five studio albums and three live albums, the band chooses not to book six-week cross-country tours anymore, now keeping it to one to two weeks at a time. They’re also busy with their own projects.

“And that’s healthy,” Keefe said, “to do different music with different people.”

“At this point in my life I’m not doing gigs if I’m not going to enjoy them. I enjoy Whitefish. We’re here because we love it. We like the spirit of the room and we’re going to do our best to light it up.”

Entertainment Editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or thisweek@dailyinterlake.com.

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