Alibi V.24 No.19 • May 7-13, 2015 

Dirt City Archives

Hey, Joe

The Big River Band

The Big River
The Big River
Courtesy of artist

It’s 1978. I’m 20 years old, living in a log cabin in the East Mountains. A few miles away on South 14 stands The Blarney Stone, a bar frequented by bikers, dope growers and general ne’er do wells—a real local joint. I hitched a ride over ’cause a bluegrass band was playing that weekend.

This was when bluegrass music had begun to drift away from its Appalachian, Celtic and gospel roots. In the past few years, I had seen Young Turk bands disregarded or even booed for hauling drums and electric bass guitars onstage. Truth to tell, I’m still sort of appalled. Give me the ol’ acoustic guitar/banjo/fiddle/mandolin/bass lineup any day, especially when it’s joined by the keening high harmonies that Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys made de rigueur back in the 1940s. At festivals like Adams County near Denver and Galax, Va., and even Telluride (back when it actually was a bluegrass festival), we kinda dug seeing guys that looked like us—long-haired freaks—playing the music we loved. But ee-lectric guitars? Nah. This was the Mother Earth News, back-to-the-land era.

How did a kid like me, raised in the New Jersey suburbs 20 minutes from Manhattan, have an inkling of what traditional bluegrass was about? Blame it on my junior high buddy Mike. Or more accurately, Mike’s big brother Bill who brought home an acoustic guitar one day that we all thought was cool—not least of all because it resembled the one on the cover of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Mike bought a banjo, and before long our entire group of friends was sitting on suburban porches wearing flannel shirts and picking various Guild and Gibson knockoffs and thumping washtub basses. We often went to “The City” to hear authentic pickers like Ralph Stanley (back when he was just in his fifties), Jim and Jesse & the Virginia Boys and The Country Gentlemen. A few years later, on the bum in New Mexico, I was thrilled to hear Big River was playing the local watering hole even though I wasn’t yet old enough to drink. Not that that really mattered. I mean, the Blarney’s rival bar down the road was owned by a guy who got his liquor license before he turned 21.

How did a kid like me, raised in the New Jersey suburbs 20 minutes from Manhattan, have an inkling of what traditional bluegrass was about?

What struck me about Big River wasn’t locally renowned banjo guy Wayne Shrubsall—playing the new and exciting chromatic “Keith Style” rather than the arpeggio-based “Scruggs Style”—nor the clean, flatpicked guitar of Hans Kayser nor the bass of Lance Quadri or Don Cooke’s fiddle. Truth to tell, though, these guys’ vocals weren’t even that hot ... except when a charismatic mandolin picker named Joe De Mar stepped up to the mic. Good lord, he couldn’t have been more than five or six years older than me, but De Mar’s picking was sweet and clean. Most impressive, he could sing like an angel. He got it. Unlike most of the other “newgrass” guys back then (and the sadly lacking Americana kids nowadays), he knew that those nasal vocals—based on old-timey gospel—were vital to bluegrass. De Mar had that proverbial high, lonesome sound.

Too soon, the afternoon parking lot gig was over, and the band retired inside the bar. Too young to get in, I walked the few miles back to my hermit abode without meeting them. I never saw them again but made sure to remember Joe’s name.

Nigh on 30 years later, I was reviewing The Porter Draw. Josh Gingerich and Russell Pyle got it. They got those sweet bluegrass harmonies I hadn’t heard live for many a year. I mentioned Joe De Mar in an article, happy to drop a shout-out I thought no one would hear. But I was wrong. It just so happened I had been generally carousing with a bunch of ladies that, unbeknownst to me, included De Mar’s daughter [Michelle]! I was pleased as pie when Michelle read it and told me who her dad was—and that he had an LP, a copy of which was mine if I wanted. If I wanted! Are you kidding?

Live At The T House is pretty decent bluegrass, if typical of the era and not quite up to par with other young’n outfits like Bottle Hill from New Jersey (!) or City Limits from Colorado. A few standards, a clever cover or three, competent and enjoyable. For my money the solid standout in the band is Joe De Mar and his voice. Hearing it again is always a real treat. Full circle and all that, I can now die a happy boy.

As they say, Joe, thanks for the memories.