Few outfits on either side of the Atlantic can claim as lengthy a legacy as the Belgian band Rawhide. Now in its 46th year of existence, they’ve gained a reputation throughout Europe as a premiere bluegrass band that’s unafraid to bend boundaries.
“Rawhide was created in 1977,” said Thierry Schoysman, the band’s current banjo player. “It rapidly evolved from Western music to bluegrass, with main influences being Hot Rize, the Country Gentlemen, and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. In 1991, the last original members decided to quit, leaving Dirk Peeraer on banjo and Bert Van Bortel on mandolin. Dirk and Bert then asked fiddler Dirk Fonteyn and myself to join. Dirk Peeraer also had decided to pick up the dobro so I could be the banjo player. The two ‘newest’ members — Dimi Laverno on bass and Jeff Cardey on mandolin — joined about 13 years ago. Bert then switched to guitar. Jeff is a Canadian who moved to Europe some 20 years ago.”
Schoysman says that these days the band employs a very wide repertoire that includes, “Some traditional bluegrass, some modern, some pop/rock songs, some barbershop, some jazz or a classical tunes, and even a Mexican song. In our arrangements we like to use some humor too — musical and visual. All of us sing. And we love to do some acapella quartet singing. We know a lot of the early Quicksilver songs and always have one or two in our setlist.”
He went on to say they have a repertoire that includes over 60 songs, so it’s sometimes difficult to choose which material will be included in their live performances.
“All singing around a single mike is not possible for us, so some years ago we decided to have high quality microphones mounted on our instruments and have a wireless connection with the mixing board,” Schoysman explained. “As a result, we can move around freely on stage. That’s really nice for the audiences, rather than to see us stuck behind microphones.”
The band’s performed extensively, but Schoysman says that because most of the musicians have day jobs, their traveling is limited to relatively short periods of time. “An exception was our twelve days in Portugal last year playing at the very first Bluegrass festival there — Trafaria — as well as a huge, well-established world music festival. All other international trips are usually built around a weekend but have covered most European countries. Some of them we’ve played many times, like in Switzerland and The Netherlands. Plus, bluegrass took us to places we otherwise may never have been, like Poland, Wales, Sweden or the Czech Republic. And of course we play in Belgium. Although personally I have been in the US many times, it is too complicated to take the band over there.”
Rawhide has also performed at its share of European festivals, including La Roche in France. It’s also the only band that played at all of the EWOB festivals in The Netherlands from the time it began in 1998.
“As a band, with our specific repertoire and arrangements, it is not easy to fit guests in our sets,” Schoysman says. “But Bill Keith has joined us at several occasions, playing some twin banjo arrangements. And occasionally, we had some Belgian public figure joining us on a song or two. Personally, I have been invited a few times to perform with Bill Keith, and once with Mike Marshall, Dan Crary, Tony Trischka, and probably a few more that I don’t remember right now. I also played the banjo and sang with Kristy Cox on a small European tour. I was invited to join a three week tour, but COVID decided differently… More recently, I jammed some Dawg tunes with Mike Marshall and Darol Anger.”
Winners of several prestigious honors over the years — including a number of awards from the European World of Bluegrass — Rawhide has naturally made its mark with audiences at home. “We mostly play for people that don’t know bluegrass,” Schoysman explains. “But they always love what we do. The variety of our repertoire, the humor during and between the songs, and of course the instrumental and vocal skills impress them.”
Still, he says, the band is still working to gain greater recognition. “We still need to find a way to better sell our product,” he muses. “Organizers prefer to play it safe by booking well-known names that people know from television… This year, Bert, Dirk Fonteyn and I, along with Guido Bos from The Sons of Navarone played 65 sold-out theater shows called The Broken Circle Breakdown with two well-known actors. The reactions to the music were unanimously positive. But we also realize it is the title of the play, which is also a successful Belgian movie, and the two name actors that filled all these theaters.”
In the meantime, Rawhide has plenty of credentials of their own. “The ‘old’ Rawhide had a few LPs that are long out of print,” Schoysman explained. “This incarnation of Rawhide has two CDs. The first is 2000’s Not Too Strictly, which shows we don’t play pure traditional music. It’s also a wordplay on our distributor Strictly Country Records, owned by Pieter Groenveld. The title of our second CD, The Dark is Barking from 2012, doesn’t mean anything, but it sounds good. And hey, surrealism was invented in Belgium.”
He went on to note that aside from one original instrumental, all the material they play are covers, performed with their own arrangements. He lists such songs as I Was Made For Loving You by Kiss, Cat Stevens’ Matthew and Son, Teenager in Love by Paul Anka, and the old ’50s standard The Typewriter, as recorded by Leroy Andersen as among the songs they put their bluegrass spin on.
“Bluegrass is excellent music when played well,” Schoysman maintains. “Bluegrass musicians often are virtuosos on their instruments. They can sing in harmony and they don’t need a sheet in front of their nose. That is a pretty unique combination. The music is acoustic, so it can be played anywhere. Plus, it is happy sounding music, even when the lyrics are not at all.”
For more information on Rawhide, including show dates, visit them online.