RFD Boys celebrating 40 years as bluegrass mainstays, performing Riverside benefit
On Saturday, the RFD Boys will celebrate a milestone by doing a sold-out, 40th anniversary/CD release show at The Ark. Then, on Sunday, the group will perform at the Riverside Arts Center’s Oktoberfest fall fundraiser at the Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti.
The RFD Boys can hardly believe that four decades have passed since they first formed — or that the group has lasted so long.
Listen to The RFD Boys "Boston" (MP3).
“When we had our first gig, at Mr. Flood’s Party in 1969, I really didn’t have much performing experience. I hadn’t been in a band in high school or college,” says Charlie Roehrig, the RFD Boys’ lead singer and guitarist. “So when we found we could actually play a bit, and that people would pay to hear us, that was a big deal. But if someone would have told me then that we’d still be together 40 years later, that would have just blown my mind.”
In addition to Roehrig, the RFD Boys include Paul Shapiro on upright bass and high harmonies; Dick Dieterle on fiddle and bass vocals (and lead vocals on the hymns and sacred songs) and Will Spencer on banjo, Dobro and baritone vocals.
Longtime fans know that group is not a full-time endeavor for its members, though: Two of the Boys are/were doctors. Dieterle is a recently retired pathologist, and Shapiro is a physical medicine/rehabilitation specialist. Roehrig is a health-care economist, with a Ph.D., and Spencer was the founder and co-owner of the Solid Sound recording studio — but about 10 years ago, he moved to Little Rock, where he teaches audio-visual arts at the University of Arkansas. He flies up to Michigan for gigs, but on those occasions when he can’t make it, the group recruits Lee Kaufmann to sit in on banjo, or David Mosher to play mandolin and fiddle.
The Boys have been the “house bluegrass band” at The Ark, Ann Arbor's prestigious acoustic-and-more music club, playing monthly or bi-monthly gigs since 1985. Prior to that, they played at the Pretzel Bell four nights a week for about a dozen years. “In the summer, we play more often, like festivals, and we go up to the Traverse City area and do a little mini-tour of the spots up there — we have some fans up there from the old days, and some of ‘em show up wearing their old Pretzel Bell T-shirts,” Roehrig says with a laugh.
"The RFD Boys are a terrific asset to the region's music community," says Marianne James, The Ark's executive director. "Long before bluegrass enjoyed its recent revival, the RFD Boys were keepers of the flame. They understand the roots of the music, and know how to have a great time playing it From Pretzel Bell to The Ark, in 40 years their popularity has never waned. It’s an honor and privilege to consider them part of The Ark family. Plus, they’re just darn nice guys."
Ten years ago, the group released an album with the tongue-in-cheek title “Live & Unrehearsed.” The new disc, which will be on sale at the Ark gig, follows up with that same wry tone: It’s titled “Still Alive and Unrehearsed.”
In addition to bluegrass standards by the likes of Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and the Country Gentlemen, the RFD Boys also perform some of their own compositions, as well as covers of songs by non-bluegrass artists like Bob Dylan and Hank Williams — two of Roehrig’s favorite artists. “But we don’t ‘adapt’ them by adding bluegrass arrangements,” he says. “We play them the way the original artist did ‘em, except on acoustic bluegrass instruments.”
When asked to cite a memory from the group’s 40-year history that stands out, Roehrig recalls a night when the group was playing the Pretzel Bell, the same night that bluegrass/newgrass fiddler Vassar Clements was opening for the great songwriter Steve Goodman - both now deceased - at the Power Center.
“So after Vassar’s set, he came over and joined us, and later, Goodman showed up,” remembers Roehrig. “Pretty soon, we look up and see John Prine, who flew in from Chicago to see Steve. Then (former Ark leader) Dave and Linda Siglin showed up with Michael Cooney. I remember all these people rushing to the phones, calling their friends and telling them, ‘You gotta get down here. You should see who all is here.’”
Rocking at Riverside The RFD Boys are not only “regulars” at The Ark, but the group is also becoming an institution of sorts for the Riverside Arts Center.
“They’ve played about four or five of these fundraisers for us,” says Barry LaRue, Riverside’s chairman of the board. “They’re real friends of ours, and it’s cool that they donate their time to us for free for this event.”
Roehrig says that “so many of these arts groups are always in need of support, especially now, and we like doing something for the Ypsilanti side of town. It’s always a fun show to do. Plus, two of my kids were in theater, so I have sort of a soft spot for theater groups.”
Theater is one of the many cultural activities sponsored by Riverside.
“We see our mission as twofold,” says LaRue. “One, to provide an outlet for arts and culture in the greater Ypsilanti area, and also to provide economic development for downtown Ypsilanti.” The Center is on Huron Street, one block north of Michigan Avenue.
Riverside is host to various local theater groups — “like PTD Productions, Michigan Classical Repertory Theater, Redbud Productions, the MorrisCo Art Theater, Emergent Arts,” says LaRue. There’s also a handsome art gallery that’s open year-round “except for August and a couple of weeks in December. Every month, we change the exhibit, and have a nice reception.”
John Carlos CantÃº, who covers art for AnnArbor.com, has written that the Riverside’s gallery is one of the best visual art venues in the Ann Arbor/Ypsi area. The works displayed at the gallery are juried. “Plus, we have art classes for children, work space for artists, and meeting places.”
The fall fundraiser typically bolsters Riverside’s coffers by anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, says LaRue.
“Our goal is $10,000 this year, although we know that, with the economy being what it is, we might not get it. But we’re hoping to retire some of the debt we incurred by installing an (enclosed) elevator and stair connector between our two buildings, which provide greater access for the handicapped and also allow us to use the upper floors now that we have a fire stairway.”
Riverside’s annual budget is $55,000, says LaRue, and Riverside has only one part-time employee — the gallery coordinator, who works 10 hours per week. “Everyone else — the docents, the theater coordinators, etc., are all volunteers. I’d say we have 50 to 75 active volunteers, depending on the month.”
PREVIEW The RFD Boys Who: Venerable Ann Arbor bluegrass band celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. What: Bluegrass standards, originals, covers of folk, folk-rock and country songs. Where / When: Sat., 7 p.m. 40th Anniversary/CD-Release Party at The Ark, 316 S. Main. SOLD OUT. 734-761-1451. Sun.., 4-7 p.m., Corner Brewery, 720 Norris, Ypsilanti (Oktoberfest Fundraiser for the Riverside Arts Center). $60 (tax-deductible), 734 480-2787 / Riverside Arts Center.
Kevin Ransom is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.