By Carly Stingl, from Emmie Magazine, Vol X Issue 2, Winter 2008
“When I was 14 all my friends made fun of me, ’cause I wore kickers [sic] instead of jeans just like Huck Finn.” Andru Bemis’ twangy folk voice croons these words on his 2002 album, Plays Past His Bedtime, from the song “Huck Finn,” written about his childhood idol. The astoundingly simple lyrics of Bemis’ most popular folk song were inspired by a pair of green knickers he found at a garage sale at age eight and insisted on wearing to emulate the young Mississippi River rascal.
Growing up in South Haven, Michigan, Bemis would sit and listen to a bluegrass show every Sunday with his family and neighbors, each on their respective car radios with the doors open. These experiences influenced him musically, along with his family’s music collection. “At home we had a lot of classical records, and kids’ music, there were these records that were like stories for kids, old folk songs,” Bemis recalls. “Part of my music is definitely influenced by those simple melodies and simple themes.”
Bemis’ success stems from the human contact as a result of his wandering tendency. While many musicians have tour buses or planes, Bemis uses the railroads, buses and his thumb to get all over the country. He channels his experiences into his songs. “My biggest inspiration is definitely traveling and the idea of travel,” Bemis says. “Just the idea of journey. Our souls, or spirits, our lives are centered around journey.”
His movement around the United States makes him appreciate the people he encounters and the kindness he’s been shown. In a period when hitchhiking is taboo and considered dangerous, Bemis says he’s encountered nothing but reasons to trust people more. “I’m an idealistic person in a lot of ways and one of my ideas is that I like to trust people and I like to give other people a chance,” he says, adding that he has rarely been burned.
This same feeling is reciprocated by the audiences at his concerts who have to trust him as a performer. Bemis modestly expresses disbelief at how well listeners receive him, and is even more awed that he can actually make a living with his music. He recognizes that the audience just wants to have fun and his repertoire of songs with instruments like the guitar, banjo and ukulele offer spirit and variety. In the past year he has been traveling less, however, and has poured most of his time into building a community center in his hometown as well as working on his fourth album Worn Hearts and Old Souls, which he plans on finishing in January or February.
Critically acclaimed, Bemis is modest about his place on the folk music circuit. He readily admits that many of his friends and acquaintances know far about it than he does, chuckling, however, that if “there is a folk scene in South Haven, I’m probably it.”
Although most often likened to Ralph Stanley, a legendary bluegrass musician from the 1940’s to present, Bemis himself prefers to think of himself like the people who used to sit around on porches in mountain country houses and entertain each other with impromptu musical performances.
Part of a musical family, his parents both played the clarinet. Around age three, Bemis became enchanted with the string bass, admiring its stature and grandeur, but mistakenly thought it was called the violin. When he requested lessons, he disappointedly yielded to the higher-pitched petite fiddle. This strong musical background from is [sic] childhood contributed greatly to his national success.
Bemis floats around the U.S., occasionally making it to Canada. He doesn’t worry about money. He likes to live simply, saying what he loves most is people, playing music and hearing music. Bemis’ calm demeanor and uncomplicated attitude is seen in his folksy lyrics: “I just wanna go down the river, go down the river with you forever, babe.”