It’s like fitting the square block into the round hole. A saxophone isn’t a bluegrass instrument by any means, but Pagosa Springs-based saxophone player Bob Hemenger has played his with many a bluegrass band and then some.
If you’ve knocked around Telluride Bluegrass Festival or the two Pagosa Springs festivals, you’ve seen him. If you’ve chatted with him, you know there’s more to the dude than just playing sax. He’s also a teacher, an avid naturalist and outdoorsman, having taught at Pagosa Springs High School for nearly 20 years, as well as being both student and instructor at Tom Brown’s Tracker School in New Jersey and Victor Wooten’s Center for Music and Nature in Tennessee. More than an instrument, his saxophone is a tool to connect with nature, boost confidence and raise self-awareness.
He’s a heck of a player for someone who never studied music, instead earning a degree in biology. Had it not been for a stubborn music instructor Hemenger encountered in sixth grade, he could have ended up a drummer.
“I was so frustrated with the kid that was playing drums because he couldn’t keep a straight beat,” Hemenger said. “I said, ‘I want to play the drums,’ and the band director said, ‘Sit down, you’re playing the saxophone.’ So I just gravitated to that. That’s the thing I express with.”
After college, he landed in Pagosa Springs, with festival culture grooming him into the musician who can sit in with anyone – a laid-back cat with an easy-going drawl and attitude that carries over to the music. When he’s on stage, he’s not gauging or sweating out a plan, instead letting the music dictate the plan.
“I really see it as that universal language. Once you can speak fluently and understand that language, the rest is just picking up the dialect of different styles,” he said. “It’s been fun to figure out ways for it to fit. If I’m up on stage, a lot of times, I don’t even know the songs or anything, and I let the music take over. I get out of the way and the music comes through me and it sounds better than if I should figure out what I should do.”
The list of people he’s sat in with is long and getting longer: Darrell Scott, The Infamous Stringdusters, DJ Logic and Zac Brown is a start, with Brown putting that “play with anyone at the last minute” ability to the test. Brown was performing at Fiddler’s Green in Denver and Hemenger was in the audience. One of Brown’s band members shot Hemenger a text, asking if he had his horn. Minutes later, Hemenger was on stage playing in front of 17,000 people without knowledge of the set list or songs – just winging it.
“Somehow, these things happen, I don’t know how, and I’m guessing if I tried to plan them all it wouldn’t be nearly as good,” he said. “I just let it take me where I go, and luckily, I’ve been gifted with an ear that can jump up in any situation. It all works.”
Yet you can tell when conversing with him that the passion lies in teaching. For the last 11 years, he’s been leading The Americana Project at Pagosa Springs High School, where the students study music, but ultimately learn performance. It’s an investment in securing a future music scene.
“All I do is create a safe place, throw some lessons here and there, and hold it for them to do their thing. I tell these kids, ‘You’re going to gain things by standing in front of your peers and rocking the place. You’re going gain this self-confidence in who you are, and the ability to self-express and sing your song. And no matter what you do the rest of your life, that carries on whether you play or don’t play,’” Hemenger said. “Those skills are paramount to success. We approach it that way, and by golly, it’s amazing what these kids do.”
Currently, Hemenger and bass player Victor Wooten are recording a duet album of peaceful and meditation music, with plans for its release late in the year.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.