Bob Hemenger didn’t come to Pagosa Country to further his music career, even though he had first visited following an invitation from Dan Fogelberg’s girlfriend.
Hemenger came to Pagosa by way of teaching at a survival school in New Jersey.
“I kept getting all these really cool people, and they said they were from Pagosa Springs,” Hemenger recalled. Finally, he found out that it was Anastasia, Fogelberg’s girlfriend at the time, who was recommending his survival course to many people from Pagosa.
“They knew I was a musician, so they invited me to fly out, stay, bring my sax, go skiing, soak in the springs,” Hemenger said. So, of course, he accepted that offer.
That was in 1990.
“I fell in love with this little town,” he said.
Two years later, he moved.
“I have two loves: music and the outdoors,” Hemenger said.
Hemenger grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He loved the outdoors, and in fifth grade, he found that he loved playing the saxophone as well.
“I owe my early growth as a musician to the public school system,” Hemenger said. It was his middle school music teacher, Bill Walters, who taught him how to play the saxophone. By the time he got into high school, along with spending time in the outdoors, Hemenger had entered the band circuit.
“I paid for my college by playing music. I was gigging all the time,” Hemenger said.
The idea of becoming a full-time, professional musician, of course came into his mind. But Hemenger had other loves. He loved the outdoors, and he loved teaching people about the outdoors.
When Hemenger first came to Pagosa, he took a job as a science and special education teacher at Dulce High School. After a few years there, he worked at an alternative high school in Pagosa, then he taught at Ignacio High School. For the last eight years, he’s taught everything from science to special education to survival skills and the Americana Project at Pagosa High School.
Yet, while doing all this teaching, he has still been playing, and in the past six years, he’s been playing a lot more.
“I gotta play music for me, for my soul,” Hemenger said. “I’ve got to play.”
And he says he’s been lucky.
“I don’t know how I score big gigs living in one of the prettiest places in the world. The music is finding me,” Hemenger said.
Lately, Hemenger has been spending more and more of his summer touring as well as doing session recording in Nashville. He’s recorded and shared the stage with such musicians as Victor Wooten, Darrel Scott, Tim O’Brien, the Infamous Stringdusters, Bella Fleck, Band of Heathens, the Hot Strings, John Nemeth and more.
In addition to recording and performing in Nashville, Hemenger is also teaching at Victor Wooten’s Center for Music and Nature. Hemenger spends seven weeks a year there.
“I get to teach how music and nature connect,” Hemenger said. A lot of the people who come to the school, Hemenger says, are big city musicians. When they go to the camp, they disconnect from that rush of life and turn on to the outdoors.
“We tell them to slow down and listen,” Hemenger said, adding, “The camp is based on the concept that a great musician doesn’t play the music, the music plays them. They let the creative take over.”
There are times when Hemenger is asked to perform with a band without knowing the music all that well. When he does this, he knows exactly what to do – let the music play him.
“It’s not about what I want to play, but what the music says through me,” Hemenger said.
That music has been playing Hemenger for a while now, and lately, that music has reached more and more audiences.
With so many technological advances, Hemenger can record at home and send the audio track out. If the musician likes it, they buy it and use it on their record.
“I think I’m at a tipping point now,” Hemenger said. Should he become a full-time musician or keep to teaching and playing music on the side?
Hemenger said that if it fell in his lap, and all the circumstances allowed him to be a full-time musician, he would go for it. However, if that doesn’t happen, he’s not going out to chase it. He has two kids and a wife, and he doesn’t want to miss their lives.
“To be a full-time musician and make enough money to support my family and pay the bills, I’d need to be on the road all the time. That means I’d miss my kids, and plays and birthdays,” Hemenger said. That’s not what he wants.
Right now, Hemenger is happy with the balance of teaching, playing music and enjoying the outdoors.
“I’m riding the wave, and I’ll see where it goes,” Hemenger said, adding, “There have been some amazing highlights in the past 20 years.”
One of those was playing the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and sharing the stage with great musicians.
Hemenger can be heard playing his saxophone at various venues and occasions around town. To get a chance to listen to him live and to view his schedule, see his website, bobhemenger.com.