Randy Demmon is coming home.
Now an Ottawa resident, Demmon says his heart has always been in the Shuswap, a feeling the musician has expressed in much of the music he has composed and will perform Saturday, May 21 at the SAGA Public Art Gallery.
“My grandparents were homesteaders on “the Limit” (now known as North Broadview) at the turn of the last century,” he says, noting he was born in Kamloops but summers and holidays were always spent in Salmon Arm, and he attended school here from Grade 8 to 13. “I still consider Salmon Arm to be home, and if anything, not living there has intensified and added to my affection for the place and its surroundings. To varying degrees it’s constantly in my mind.”
Demmon has a clear memory of old landmarks such as the Montebello Hotel, passenger trains with steam engines that made a regular stop at the train station, and carp at the mouth of the Salmon River “so plentiful in the early spring that the folks from the reserve would be catching them with pitchforks.”
Another cherished memory is riding with his grandfather on a buckboard wagon down Lakeshore Road to pick up seed and feed at the old Farmer’s Exchange.
“The exchange was a meeting place and a children’s delight with its maze of stairs and ramps, people hustling here and there, as well as amazing aromas from the plants, food and merchandise,” he recalls. “Wonderful!”
Demmon says it seems quite natural to him to name pieces after places, and in some cases to compose music, which is intended to be evocative of his surroundings.
There’s Larch Hills, Salmon River Samba, Sunnybrae, Monashee and Turtle Valley.
“The title of the last piece predates Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s novel, but I found it interesting that a somewhat obscure place can be fitting as the title of both a book and a song. Why not?” he asks. “The historical bent of the pieces is perhaps most evident in Hairpin Blues.”
Demmon says “the hairpin” was a unique and interesting road that wound steeply through an orchard off North Broadview down toward Lakeshore Road.
“It was aptly named – virtually impassible in winter and dangerous to tackle on a rainy day,” he says. “It has been straightened and the grade has been modified to make it quite an unremarkable street that runs beside the high school.”
Music runs deep in Demmon’s soul and always has. As a teenager in Salmon Arm he belonged to a band called the Hi-Fives along with Steve Mennie and Garry Rolin.
“We were a hot item, especially when we donned those rose-coloured tuxedo jackets,” he laughs.
After graduating from high school, Demmon worked at a smelter in Trail, a job that convinced him he would be better off going back to school.
He studied oboe and musical composition at UBC and with a need to replenish funds, upon graduation, took a teaching job in Yellowknife.
“The money was good and they were looking for someone to initiate music programs in their school system,” he says. “While I was there, I continued looking for an oboe position in the south.”
But teaching didn’t leave the time or energy to follow his oboe-playing goal and, he points out, there were limited opportunities for a long-distance oboist.
When the RCMP Dance Band visited Yellowknife, sans oboist, to play for the commissioner’s ball, someone mentioned Demmon’s ability.
The RCMP band-master looked him up and asked him to play. As a result, he ended up in Ottawa, where conditions were a lot better than he had expected, including a salary on par with most of the leading Canadian orchestras.
“After I had been there for a time, I started to enjoy it, especially when I switched to playing piano and leading my own band,” Demmon says. “I formed a smaller group called Bison. It was a versatile and portable group so it ended up getting the bulk of touring outside the country.”
The band travelled extensively with External Affairs, representing Canada on the world scene. When the RCMP folded the band in the early 1990s Demmon says he just kept on doing what he had always done.
“I played piano, picked up the double bass for orchestral work and continued to compose and arrange,” he says. “That’s a pretty good description of my current routine as well. I remain active and it’s a good life.”
Demmon will share his love of music and the Shuswap in a wide range of musical styles from pop, jazz and waltzes, to sambas, Celtic melodies and lively jigs.
He’ll be playing piano and will be joined by Bill Lockie on double bass and Denis Letourneau on violin.
Sandy Cameron was to have been the third, but he broke his wrist.
“It’s too bad in a way. I met Sandy when we both attended the music faculty at UBC,” he says.
“I heard him play several times but never had a chance to play with him. I’ve been looking forward to doing so for years and thought this would be the right opportunity.”
Demmon’s concert takes place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 21 at the SAGA Public Art Gallery. There will be a $5 cover charge at the door.