When asked how their band, the Poison River Boys, got its name, all eyes turn to mandolin player Bruce Neckar.
“Well,” he said, chuckling slightly, “I guess it goes back to the fact that I’ve always lived on the river even when I was at Ball State. It’s that and also the importance of not dumping junk in the river!”
Neckard’s comments are greeted with laughter and nods of approval from guitarist Roger Bedwell and banjo player Jon Coleman. The environmentally-conscious group are all members of the Friends of White River and also are serious about their other passion: bluegrass music.
“I really wasn’t raised on it,” Coleman said. “I had no idea what bluegrass was until I heard it on a radio program called ‘Chow Time.’ Then, I had a college roommate who was into it.”
“My dad played professionally in old time country bands,” Bedwell said. “And I played professionally in various rock and roll bands for three years. I spent some time in the backing band for a female lounge singer. We toured the Midwest, mainly Central Indiana, Ohio, Illinois.”
Just as the love of bluegrass music was the common ground on which the group members landed, perhaps the foundation that binds the group is the 35-year relationship between Neckard and Coleman.
“Bruce and I met at the Bean Blossom Festival,” Coleman said. “We were introduced by a third party. That was around 1974 or ’75. We hung around together, played together. Nine years ago, we started jamming in Bruce’s studio, and that’s when we formed the band.”
Bedwell’s entry into the band happened by chance. On a visit to Barnes and Noble, Bedwell struck up a conversation with Neckard regarding music.
“We started talking music, mainly guitars,” Neckard said. “Roger mentioned that he was a guitarist. Our guitarist had just left the band, and I invited Roger to sit in with us.”
For Bedwell, bluegrass was a welcome respite from some of rock music’s histrionics.
“In rock, you have these guys trying to see how fast they can go, how fast they can play. With bluegrass, it’s different. We like it because it’s geared toward melody,” Bedwell said.
“There are several other features too. There is an emphasis on instrumental virtuosity, on how everything fits together. There’s also a lot of emphasis on practice,” Coleman said.
Bass player Bill Haines rounds out the quartet of Hamilton County residents. Haines, a veteran of bluegrass bands, brings with him an impressive list of credentials, having played with bluegrass legends such as Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.
“Bill Haines is the rudder to this ship. He’s a fantastic player,” Neckard said.
In performance, this camaraderie could not be more evident. Throughout their sets, the four members joke with another, share stories and history with the audience, and take a very informal approach to their shows. In fact, sharing the history of the music is a major part of the experience.
“John has a vast knowledge of song history,” Bedwell said. “If we have fun, then the audience has fun.”
Fun and an appreciation of the music are the driving forces behind the Poison River Boys. One might suppose that such gifted and seasoned musicians would seek a larger audience. However, for this band, the reward lies in the music and the fellowship.
“We play private parties, libraries,” Coleman said. “We play quite a bit at the Nickel Plate Arts and that really suits us. We don’t play bars or tour.”
“We don’t want it to be a job,” Bedwell said. “We just want to enjoy practicing and playing together. We’re just four old guys doing something we love to do and having fun doing it!”