Hot Buttered Rum

A Pio-led band brings its unique sound to Africa.

The members of Hot Buttered Rum, a self-described “souped-up, Left Coast string band” weave together bluegrass, folk, jazz, and soul into a lively mix that’s “tough to describe” but “easy to love.”

For nearly 20 years, the five-member band, led by the songwriting talents of Erik Yates BA ’00 and Nat Keefe BA ’00, has toured nationally in support of its many albums and social causes.

Erik Yates BA ’00, Music and English Nat Keefe BA ’00, Music

Met in Platt-Howard. Keefe in his room playing tabla, a North Indian drum, eyes closed. Yates joins him on bass clarinet. When the music stops, they introduce themselves.

Hot Buttered Rum: weaves bluegrass, folk, jazz, and soul into riveting Americana. Influences: banjo aficionado Béla Fleck and bluegrass legends Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.

Their song “Right Between Your Eyes” gained national prominence when it was chosen as the theme for the PBS-TV show Cook’s Country From America’s Test Kitchen.

Hot Buttered Rum:
American Music Abroad:

One of their passions is taking their unique strain of Americana to new audiences abroad. At the end of February 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic, Yates, Keefe, and their bandmates packed up their instruments and headed to Kigali, Rwanda.

“The city was clean and crowded with swarms of motorcycle taxis weaving through traffic like noisy green-helmeted pinballs,” says Yates. “It reminded me of San Francisco at night, winking windows glimmering through the muggy fog.”

American Music Abroad (AMA) sponsored Hot Buttered Rum in Africa. Together with American Voices and the U.S. State Department, AMA shares America’s rich musical heritage abroad while fostering global communication and connections. “Our tour was very intense but well funded and organized,” says Yates, who learned of the opportunity from another band on their U.S. touring circuit.

Hot Buttered Rum played its first show outside of North America at a concert marking the end of Tour du Rwanda, a road cycling stage race. The crowd of nearly 5,000 people began shouting and throwing makeshift confetti. “By the end of our third song, we felt right at home,” says Yates.

Ten days later, they flew to Lusaka, Zambia, a larger, more metropolitan city than Kigali. COVID-19 restrictions kept them in the capital city for the last leg of their tour. They held workshops, played with local musicians, gave TV and radio interviews, and took in a lot of live local music. “We’re really good at explaining what we do as musicians and entrepreneurs,” says Yates. “That made us a perfect fit for the AMA program.”

Yates and Keefe have loved music since they were kids growing up in musical families. “As a baby, I napped under my mom’s harpsichord,” says Keefe. Recently, the alums have started touring again at select Western venues with Hot Buttered Rum, promoting their latest album, Something Beautiful (2020), along with older music. Yates plays banjo and dobro guitar—and sometimes flute or clarinet. Keefe sticks with his acoustic guitar. They both sing, write songs, and explore separate side projects.

“Over the years we’ve learned to support each other and never keep score—a very rare thing,” says Keefe. “Any successes we’ve enjoyed have sprung out of our collaboration.”

Nat Keefe BA '00 and Erik Yates BA '00 Nat Keefe BA ’00 and Erik Yates BA ’00

The duo met in the Platt-Howard residence hall at Lewis & Clark. One standout mentor they both remember is Aaron Beck, James W. Rogers Professor of Music and director of musicology. “Professor Beck was a huge influence, very much concerned with helping us find our own path and passions in music,” says Keefe.

After returning to the States from Africa last year, the band was paired up with musicians they met in Zambia to produce virtual content for AMA. A video of their collaborative music, titled Onani, is featured on AMA’s homepage. “Onani means ‘come and see,’” says Yates. “It’s a fitting invitation to our music.”

Hot Buttered Rum will soon begin working with AMA again on new content, including workshops and performances. The band is waiting to be paired up virtually with a new group of musicians. “We’re really excited to collaborate again on a deeper level and build on what we learned the first time around,” says Keefe.

—by Pattie Pace