Gunsmoke: It's all in the family

Gunsmoke is made up of Van Manakas, from left, Nick DeMaio III, Nick DeMaio Sr., Christina DeMaio, Jeff DeMaio, Nick DeMaio Jr., and Fooch Fischetti.
Gunsmoke is made up of Van Manakas, from left, Nick DeMaio III, Nick DeMaio Sr., Christina DeMaio, Jeff DeMaio, Nick DeMaio Jr., and Fooch Fischetti.Contributed Photo/Contributed

Three generations of DeMaio men stood outside the Darien High School auditorium talking about Nick DeMaio III's newest haircut: a faux hawk.

The men were waiting for Christina, Nick Jr.'s daughter, so they can all discuss Gunsmoke, their Nashville-recording country band.

"What a diva I am showing up late," Christina said as she hurried into the sound room in the back of the auditorium. Her family members moved inside, while still discussing Nick III's hair. Christina tried to find a seat in the small room filled with sound equipment and sound boards.

Nick Sr., Nick Jr., Jeff DeMaio -- Nick Jr.'s brother -- and Nick Jr.'s children Christina and Nick III are five of the seven members of the award-winning Gunsmoke. The band was formed in 1982 when Nick Jr. -- who is the Darien High School softball coach -- just graduated from the high school. Jeff -- who is the DHS auditorium manager -- learned the steel lap guitar from a man with whom Nick Sr., 82, played in a band, the Country Singin' Pals.

Together, the two brothers teamed up with friends and started playing some popular country covers.

"I was 16," Jeff said. "It wasn't even legal for me to be in the bars."

Their first show was at the former Entertainer's Lounge on Route 7 in Norwalk.

"From there, we started to get bookings and playing at clubs," Nick Jr., 55, said. "And it stayed that way for a while."

Then along came Nick Sr., otherwise known in the band as "The Ambassador of Country Music," in 1994.

"It's funny," Jeff, 49, said. "We never went in and said, `Let's be a family band.' The audience really keys in on it more than we do. We just think about the music."

When Christina, 22, and Nick III, 25, were growing up, they were constantly surrounded by the sounds of country music legends, such as Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline. Living in a house and being enveloped by the classical country music resulted in the youngest DeMaios being "purists" when it comes to country music.

"A lot of pop country has its way for a little while," Nick III said, but noted that he didn't think there is the same level of musical sophistication in Top 40 country music, which has stereotypical themes like trucks, alcohol and blue-eyed women.

"We're keeping the flame alive for this style of music," Jeff said.

"Pop pushed us out of the honky tonk," he added.

Nick Jr. said the band has started to incorporate some current country played on the radio, but Christina and Nick III have been "stubborn" about performing it.

"When I hear new country, all I hear is a guitar with distortion -- go play a rock concert," Nick III said. That being said, he and Christina are not against all current country and do like some of the modern music.

Christina and Nick III slowly made their way into a permanent role on the Gunsmoke stage.

"It's something I looked forward to for so long," Nick III said. As a child, he always was interested in music, and as young as 8 years old, he would play with Gunsmoke for a song or two while they were touring.

Christina would be invited on stage to sing songs by female artists.

"Last summer, I started getting more involved and became a permanent fixture," Christina said. Gunsmoke members also write their own music, which Christina will sing with her father Nick Jr.

Gunsmoke, a member of the New York and Connecticut Country Music Halls of Fame and six-time recipient of New York Metro Band of the Year, has been performing and recording classic country music for 25 years.

The band also has performed for former Presidents George H.W. Bush in 1994 and George W. Bush in 2002, which Nick Jr. said opened doors for them at Nashville venues. All of their music is recorded in Nashville.

Jeff and Nick Jr. agree that being in a band with family makes for better communication and provides a greater ease at expressing ideas.

"It really enables us to work at any time," Nick Jr. said. Christina and Nick III live at home. "Most nights we'll go over at least one song or something we want to do at the next rehearsal."

This summer, Gunsmoke, which is made whole with Van Manakas on guitar and Fooch Fischetti on the violin, will go on tour from June through August, playing music from their newest album, "Gunsmoke: Road to Nashville," at parks, restaurants and town greens. The band has recorded four albums.

Gunsmoke will play Friday, July 11, at the Darien Summer Concert Series on Grove Street, and at Darien Social Saturday, Aug. 30.; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews