In October 1969, when the RFD Boys played their first concert together, they were still U-M students, and bluegrass was as unknown here as cable TV in the Ozarks. Today it's as common as e-mail in Appalachia, and the RFD Boys are still going strong. Though they've turned their degrees into full-time, offstage careers, their music has taken them all over Michigan and the Midwest, and as far away as Germany, France, and Malta. In the last three decades they've shared stages with a who's who of bluegrass and country musicians, from Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley to Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis.
At a recent concert at the Ark, where they've been the house bluegrass band for the last twenty years, the audience ranged from three-year-olds to grandparents who might have gone to college with the "Boys." The atmosphere is festive, the crowd clapping and stomping from the first tune and hollering out requests between songs. The more reticent write their favorites on napkins and stuff them in the red mailbox standing beside the stage. The Boys check their "mail" regularly, and with a repertoire of nearly 750 pieces, they're tough to stump.
They have originals, like guitarist and lead singer Charlie Roehrig's "Sit by the River," a lovely ode to the Charles River, and to his grandfather, who had Charlie convinced it was named after him. It's been recorded by the Country Gentlemen and even wound up on their "best of" album. Charlie's heartfelt tenor is perfectly suited to bluegrass, and decades of singing together have blended the Boys' three-part and four-part harmonies to the smoothness of Kentucky bourbon.
Paul Shapiro, on bass and high harmonies, takes the deadpan lead through the twisted genealogy of "I'm My Own Grandpa." Fiddler Dick Dieterle sings bass and leads on hymns and sacred songs, while Will Spencer fills in on baritone and adds his sparkling banjo and Dobro.
And when their voices are quiet, the Boys pump out rousing versions of an eclectic batch of instrumentals. "The Irish Washerwoman" starts out sedately, keeping to the pace at which most Irish bands play it, but speeds up with each repeat, Dick egging the Boys on to new land speed records in every concert. Will's virtuoso solo banjo version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" morphs into the old-timey fiddle tune "Soldier's Joy."
Although offstage the Boys all live typical modern lives, their music and jokes evoke a simpler time. "Orange Blossom Special," the granddaddy of all train songs, has been their closer for more than thirty years. And while railroads have a precarious place in the American countryside, the RFD Boys — who return to the Ark on Friday, March 12, to perform a benefit for the Leslie Science Center — show no sign of going away.