The RFD Boys

The RFD Boys are celebrating their 50th year together and, always with a steady local gig, have become an Ann Arbor institution. They performed together for the first time on December 11, 1969; the venue was Mr. Flood’s Party and the band quickly developed a following. After a brief but eventful stint at LUMS restaurant, they moved downtown to the Pretzel Bell restaurant where they played to a packed house 50 weekends per year for 13 years. When the “P-Bell” closed in 1985, they moved to Ann Arbor’s revered folk venue, the Ark, where they have been honored to be the de facto house bluegrass band for the past 34 years.
The group was formed by fiddler Dick Dieterle and initially included Charlie Roehrig on guitar, Willard Spencer on banjo, Paul Shapiro on bass, and Gary Hussar on mandolin – all present or past students at the University of Michigan. In 1972, Gary left to play country music and was replaced by John Stey, who appeared on the first RFD album and subsequently moved to Philadelphia to form his own band, the Skookil Express. John was followed by Erik Goodman (later of the Bluegrass Extension Service) and then Freddie Harris who appeared on the third RFD album and moved on to a distinguished bluegrass career before his untimely death in 2008. From 1976 through 2012 it was strictly a four-man band: Dick, Charlie, Willard, and Paul. In 2012, the unthinkable happened and Dick was lost to cancer. The band carried on thanks to the addition of the multi-talented David Mosher, who had previously subbed for every member of the group and who had become the fifth member during Dick’s final weeks on stage. In 2018, by popular demand, Charlie’s gifted son Dan Roehrig became an official member after a long history of guest appearances starting in 1995 when he was 12 years old.
One of the secrets to both the band’s early success and its longevity was the chemistry that developed between Dick and Willard. Dick started telling stories and jokes between songs and Willard was frequently the butt of those jokes. The two established a witty banter, full of quips and one-liners, that was improvised each night, delighting both the audience and their bandmates.
During the 1970s, the band released three albums, performed at numerous bluegrass festivals, and appeared on the cover of Bluegrass Unlimited. They also helped bring bluegrass greats to Ann Arbor including Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Martin, and the Country Gentlemen. Willard appeared on the cover of the Banjo Newsletter and Charlie’s song, “Sit by the River,” was recorded by the Country Gentlemen and was later featured on their greatest hits album. Jimmy Gaudreau, the great mandolinist, became a close friend and often performed with the band at the Pretzel Bell when he could make it to town.
Later the pace slowed as members completed schooling and began families and full-time jobs. Dick and Paul received their MDs and entered practice in pathology and physical medicine, respectively. Charlie received his PhD and became a healthcare economist; Willard became an award-winning sound engineer. Despite these commitments, the band kept up with their regular local shows and made numerous trips overseas including Germany, Austria, Monaco, Malta, New Zealand, and Australia.
Now in their 50th year, the band has released a new studio recording, RFD Boys at 50: Still Delivering, that represents some old and some new, with David and Dan front and center. In recognition of the 50 years, the Ark dedicated its 2019 Ann Arbor Folk Festival to the band. Other honors include a distinguished achievement award from the Detroit Music Awards in April and an article in the May issue of Bluegrass Unlimited. The official celebration of the 50th will be on September 21st at the Ark.