In October 1969, prompted by fiddle player Richard ‘Dick’ Dieterle, five students from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor decided to get together to form a band. At the time bluegrass music wasn’t very widely known in the upper mid-west. However, The RFD Boys built up an interest and later a following that has seen them remain active for almost 50 years – they celebrate that anniversary on September 21st (2019) at the famed Ann Arbor music venue The Ark, where they have been the house bluegrass band for the last 34 years.
The RFD Boys (RFD stands for Rural Free Delivery, a postal service that served the rural community) initially included Charlie Roehrig on guitar, mandolin player Gary Hussar, Paul Shapiro on bass, and banjo player Willard Spencer as well as Dieterle, who with his excellent MC work, his dry wit and comedic timing, made sure that the band put on an entertaining show whenever they stepped on a stage.
They performed together for the first time on December 11, 1969 at Mr. Flood’s Party, an influential bar with music seven nights a week, and the band quickly developed a following. After a brief but eventful stint at Lum’s restaurant in the North Campus Plaza, they moved downtown to the Pretzel Bell restaurant where they played to a packed house 50 weekends per year for 13 years until it closed in 1985.
The only Ann Arbor native, the late Dick Dieterle started as a square dance fiddler before joining bluegrass group, The County Line Boys, staying with them until they broke up in 1969. His fiddle playing was after the style of Buddy Durham and Paul Warren.
The Dick Dieterle composition Kent County Breakdown is a perfect showcase for his fiddle style (recorded in Salt Lake City and shown on a public TV) ……
Roehrig, a guitar player from Wayland, the same Massachusetts town in which Peter Rowan was born about three years prior to Roehrig, teamed up with New Yorker Shapiro, who started playing the string bass in about 1965. Shapiro’s baptism in bluegrass music came in 1968, initially not aware of the genre, as the duo, along with some other students formed the band called Harmony Grits.
Paul Shapiro was 11 years old when started playing the bass; for his school orchestra ….
“My public school was very small and I was the only bass player in the orchestra until I graduated high school. Our music teacher was a trumpeter so, I had no real training on the bass. I did not expect to play again after high school.
At 18, I started at the University of Michigan. One Saturday morning, I was sitting in my room playing the mandolin I had brought to school. My mother, born in Europe, had it to play Yiddish melodies every now and then. A fellow appeared at my door and said that if I had a mandolin, I must play bluegrass. He was holding a banjo and said they were having a bluegrass jam session in his room down the hall from me. I told him that I didn’t play bluegrass but, went down to listen to the jam session. The only three songs that the banjo player and two guitar players all new together were This Land is Your Land, You are My Sunshine, and The Ballad of Jed Clampett. The banjo player, who knew quite a bit of bluegrass, was very eager to start a band. I agreed to join if I could play the bass, rather than the mandolin, as that was not my instrument of choice or skill. We put up notices around campus and were contacted by graduate student who played guitar. We went to his dorm to play a bit and meet him. His suite mate was Charlie. Charlie heard us playing and asked if he could join us. We pulled in a few other musicians and formed a band called the New Huron Valley Bluegrass Rounders, or sometimes, The Harmony Grits. We played a few performances over the school year. By the next fall that group was falling apart. We had lost our fiddle player and picked up Dick to play fiddle for us. A few months later, he reformed the group with some changes, as the RFD boys.
Starting out, I very much wanted to learn a good slap technique on the bass. When we went to bluegrass festivals in the early 1970s, I eagerly watched different bass players to study slapping. Regretfully, I was too shy to actually approach one to ask. Tom Gray and Ed Ferris were my favorites. I ended up with my own slap styles which have served me and the band well over the years.”
Another video from the Salt Lake City show features Paul Shapiro singing the novelty song I’m My Own Grandpa.
For Shapiro, his highlights over the years include …..
- hosting and sharing the stage with so many bluegrass icons at the Pretzel Bell and the Ark
- playing the Canadian national bluegrass festival outside Toronto in 1976 to somewhere between 8-10,000 folks
- several trips to Tubingen, Germany, representing Ann Arbor at sister city celebrations
- 1993 trip to Monaco, with multiple performances, large and small (turns out both Charlie and Prince Albert went to Amherst College in Massachusetts, and both threw the javelin for the track team)
- 2000 trip to Malta, playing at the US embassy, among other places
Charlie Roehrig remembers encounters with two of bluegrass music’s big stars as being particularly enjoyable …..
“One of my favorite moments in our 50 years was a show we played at the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda, Maryland. This was the era when the Seldom Scene played there every Tuesday (I think), and because my parents lived in DC we ended up getting to know them. We put on one our best shows there – high energy for three or four full sets. Some of the Seldom Scene were in the audience and we really killed it. Another is when we played at Bean Blossom — and sang John Denver’s Thank God I’m a Country Boy. After we played, Bill Monroe came up and told me I was a good singer but, why were we doing John Denver songs at his festival?? I think I responded that we didn’t want to do his songs since he was here to do them — and I think he said that everyone sings songs their own way so why not do some of his songs.
Our final concerts with Dick Dieterle were also among the most memorable as we (and our audience) knew each one could be the last – it was pretty clear that he was losing his battle with cancer. His courage was inspirational, and the place was electric.”
This video features a song that Charlie Roehrig wrote during early years of the band, Boston, (performed in Salt Lake City) …
As The County Line Boys and Harmony Grits broke up about the same time, Dieterle persuaded Roehrig and Shapiro sit in with him. In due course they formed The RFD Boys with Hussar and Spencer making up the quintet.
Spencer grew up in Pleasant Ridge, a Detroit suburb – his father was an engineer at the Ford Motor Company ……
“My early beginnings into music were piano lessons starting at three years old – trumpet lessons starting at nine years. During the Hootenanny craze all of my friends seemed to be playing guitar so the logical thing for me to do was pick up the banjo. My dad and I drove into Detroit and found one at a pawn shop. Then I got into the Pete Seeger banjo book.
I was 14 when I started. It was summertime so I probably spent seven hours a day fooling around with it. Bought the Flatt & Scruggs Live at Carnegie Hall album and learned all the songs. This was before any bluegrass banjo books were out so I had to not only learn the notes that were played but how you actually might be able to play those notes. So, Scruggs was my main man. At 15 I got a job at a local music store tuning up all of the new guitar arrivals, and then that led to some teaching on beginning banjo and guitar. THEN on hearing Bill Keith on Devil’s Dream and Sailor’s Hornpipe I was hooked on that style – still am.”
When he was 16 years old, he got a job playing banjo with Curly Dan, Wilma Ann and the Danville Mountain Boys.
Since 1976, when he started Solid Sound studio with partner Rob Martens, Spencer has amassed a considerable amount of experience and expertise as a recording engineer and producer providing services across a wide range of musical styles.
Foreign tours are uppermost in Spencer’s most enjoyable experiences with the RFD Boys …
“I have lots of great memories but, the ones that really stand out are our trips to Europe. Playing in Monaco and meeting the Prince, playing in Malta and meeting the ambassador and Admiral of the 6th Fleet. Getting many warm receptions in Tübingen, Germany.”
Although there’s a bit missing at the start, this performance of Fox On The Run has glimpses of some clowning by Willard Spencer ….
In 1972 Hussar left to play country music and was replaced by John Stey, who appeared on the first RFD album but, subsequently moved to Philadelphia to form his own band, the Skookil Express.
Stey was followed by Erik Goodman (later of the Bluegrass Extension Service), and then Freddie Harris who appeared on the third RFD Boys’ album before moving on to a distinguished bluegrass career only curtailed by his untimely death in 2008.
From 1976 through to 2012 the line-up – Dieterle, Roehrig, Spencer and Shapiro – remained constant although their continued existence wasn’t without severe strain. During the Vietnam war Dieterle was in the Air Force based in Dayton, Ohio. Soon after, Shapiro was in medical school in Lansing, Michigan. Both had lengthy commutes to make their shows.
Despite these commitments, the band kept up with their regular local shows and made numerous trips overseas including to Germany, Austria, Monaco, Malta, New Zealand and, most recently (in 2008), Australia.
They were featured on radio stations WJR, Detroit and WAMU, Washington, DC.
During the 1970s, the band released three albums, performed at numerous bluegrass festivals and even appeared on the cover of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine (May 1975). Spencer appeared on the cover of the Banjo NewsLetter magazine.
They also helped to bring several bluegrass greats to Ann Arbor, including Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Martin, and the Country Gentlemen, who in 1979 recorded Roehrig’s song, Come Sit by the River.
Since the closure of the Pretzel Bell in 1985 the RFD Boys have had regular gigs at The Ark.
When Dieterle passed away in 2012 his place was taken by David Mosher, a local musician who played several instruments, and had done, as occasion demanded, some fill-in work for any absent band member.
Mosher considers Dieterle, whom he met 23 years ago, to be his musical mentor….
“The first time I saw the RFD boys was at the Pretzel Bell in Ann Arbor around 1975. My mom brought my brothers and me there for burgers as a treat for making it through our first year in A2. She moved us here after a divorce, from just above New York City, to give us a new start and get her masters degree in social work. What I remember most about that night at the Pretzel Bell was the peanut shells on the floor. I was 16.
After graduating from community high school, I headed back east for college and started playing bluegrass in Vermont. My first bluegrass band was Bucks Run based in Johnson, Vermont. Then I toured for 3 years in New England with a band called Mardi Gras, based in the Adirondacks. Lastly, I started a band called Breakaway in Burlington, Vermont. That band lasted without me for another 20 years… All of the seasonal swings in gigs and never having more than $200 in the bank there made me come back to Michigan.
I quickly started to meet some musicians in southeast Michigan and joined the Northwind Bluegrass Band and the country band, Barnstorm.
I knew about The RFD Boys but, it wasn’t ‘till I joined Deadbeat Society (a newgrass band) in the mid-1990s that I begin to bump into the boys at the Ark, etc. It was at the Golden Nugget Saloon in the Irish Hills where I was playing with Barnstorm when Dick Dieterle and the RFD crew came in to eat, that was the first time I really talked to Dick.
He came up to compliment my singing though I was mostly playing lead guitar then. He found out I played mandolin and invited me to come sit in sometime at the Ark with the boys. I was also fooling around with fiddle and he offered to get together with me and talk fiddles….
Over the next 20 years we did a lot of both. He was an important part of my fiddle exploration both in buying and selling old violins, as well as learning how to play them. He was a great mentor and teacher.
At one time or another I’ve subbed for every RFD boy. Though, while Willard was in Arkansas for 10 years, I mostly played mandolin to replace the missing banjo.
I also recorded two CDs with Dick of his mostly original tunes. We finished the second one just in time for him to hear it before he passed. Dick had the fastest bowing technique. He bowed like he was using a pick. Plectrum like. His other genius was working a crowd. His dry wit was always infectious and a big hit with the Ark crowds.
He was a great friend and I learned so much playing with him and the boys. It was hard to think of the RFD boys going on without him. Charlie has done a great job filling in for Dick as MC. But I’m afraid they lost a lot of entertainment value when I stepped in…. I miss him.
I’m lucky to share in a legacy that has little to do with me.”
This video of the popular fiddle / banjo duet Blackberry Blossom at The Ark on December 15, 2017, features David Mosher and Willard Spencer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YIlSMF26EI
Charlie Roehrig‘s son Dan joined full-time last year, having first taken the stage with the RFD Boys at the age of 12. He had grown up with the group, often at their shows but, he played guitar and sang in a few local rock bands before re-joining the bluegrass music community.
While for many years he was viewing the RFD Boys’ progression from the periphery, Dan Roehrig has still been aware of those big occasions …..
I remember the 25th anniversary show and CD release party (the first album release in 18 years). I had been to RFD gigs where there were good crowds, but this was the only time I saw the middle Ark packed to the gills. It was such a hectic event that at the time (I was helping sell merchandise) that I didn’t stop to think about it, but afterward I was so impressed and I think it was when I first began to understand the impact the band had and the legacy it was cultivating. Also, the amount of smoke in the bar area, my goodness. I was waiting for Big Ben to chime.
I remember how welcome both the band and the crowd made me feel when I would join the band on stage as a teenager. I was so far from a finished product then and I felt so much love and encouragement that helped to keep me going regardless of whether I did well at a given performance. The RFD community is a wonderful one.
I will never forget Dick’s final show when he was wheelchair-bound in the audience. Again, so much love and enthusiasm. It was both poignant and affirming, and (to me, anyway) cemented that the band must go on in his honor. I talked to him before the show; he had just unearthed the Milan prison recording and was just raving about the energy the band had and how I had to listen to it, for my dad’s performance in particular. “He takes a break on every song and he sings his guts out.” I’ll always remember that.
Then there was, “getting the call” from Paul, asking me if I wanted to join the band full-time. After previous bands ran their course, I was wondering what my future in music would be and, while I was content to be a supporting player for the RFD Boys, I was so happy to be asked to join officially.
In this video, recorded at the Ark on November 4, 2017, Dan Roehrig sings Mickey Newbury’s Tell Me Baby Why You Been Gone So Long https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kX4M8gccPKQ
The RFD Boys have performed at numerous bluegrass festivals, including Bean Blossom (Indiana), Charlotte (Michigan), Milan (Michigan), Indian Springs (Maryland), and Carlisle (Ontario, Canada).
Their best-known original song is the aforementioned Sit by the River. It was first recorded for the band’s RFD #3 album and was then covered by the Country Gentlemen, Auldridge-Bennett-Gaudreau, and many others. Others penned by Charlie Roehrig are Leavin’ the Ozarks (from the LP RFD#1) (covered by the Craven Family Band) and Boston (also on RFD#1), which was popular in its day.
Dieterle wrote a number of fiddle tunes – notably Kent County Breakdown (another track on the album RFD #1). Many of his original compositions were released on his solo fiddle albums recorded with David Mosher.
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 Dick Dieterle – thanks to some electronic wizardry -– David Mosher and Dan Roehrig all very prominent.
In recognition of that anniversary, the Ark dedicated its 2019 Ann Arbor Folk Festival to the band.
Other honours include a distinguished achievement award from the Detroit Music Awards in April and induction into the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Association Hall of Honor, both in 2019. While they have received further international recognition with an article in the May (2019) issue of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.
The official celebration of The RFD Boys 50th anniversary will be on September 21, 2019, at the Ark.
The RFD Boys –
Leavin’ the Ozarks / Kent County Breakdown (Rural Free Delivery 3670, 1970)
Paradise / Boston (Rural Free Delivery 20841/2, 1972)
RFD Boys No. 1 (Jessup MB 126, October 1972)
RFD 2 (Pretzel Bell P BR 737, 1974)
RFD 3 (Pretzel Bell P BR 738, 1976)
Live and Unrehearsed at the Ark (Schoolkids SKR 1534-2, CD, 1995)
Still Alive and Unrehearsed: The RFD Boys at 40 (Rural Free Delivery, 2009)
The RFD Boys at 50: Still Delivering (2019)
Dick Dieterle –
Iron Skillet Breakfast: Dick Dieterle with David Mosher and Dana Cupp Jr. (1999)
Fiddle Proclamation: Dick Dieterle with the RFD Boys and Special Guest David Mosher (2012)
Charlie Roehrig has granted permission for Bluegrass Today to share this YouTube video –