Good times, great oldies

Rubber Chicken String Band

The Rubber Chicken String Band do the funky chicken. From left, Mark McDonald, Billy Van Dyke, Lynn Furnis and Mary Larson.

The Rubber Chicken String Band do the funky chicken. From left, Mark McDonald, Billy Van Dyke, Lynn Furnis and Mary Larson.

Photo By Dennis Myers

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At a recent Rubber Chicken String Band performance, a young man in the audience was so inspired that he leapt to his feet and exclaimed, “Hey, can I join your band?”

“Sure,” grinned Mark McDonald, the RCSB’s resident banjo picker and Dobro player. “But first you have to take a drug test … just so we know you’ve got some.”

This sort of on-the-fly, off-the-cuff humor is part of the down-home, easy-going charm of the RCSB, a group specializing in “bluegrass, folk and old timey music.”

“We like to interact with the audience,” says McDonald. “Fortunately, we’re all pretty quick on our feet.”

“It’s a fun thing,” guitarist and fiddler Billy Van Dyke says of the group. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

The RCSB formed 10 years ago. Mandolin player Lynn Furnis was hosting a potluck dinner for the Northern Nevada Bluegrass Association. She hung a couple of rubber chickens on her gate to help folks find the place. McDonald and his wife, bassist Mary Larson, two musicians then new to the area, were immediately impressed. Larson had a rubber chicken hanging from her keychain.

A shared affection for synthetic poultry was the first of many connections, a friendship formed, and then, by logical extension, a musical collaboration. They quickly adopted the twin mottoes, “The more you drink, the better we sound” and “More fun than a night in Battle Mountain.”

Their original guitarist, Kathi Bergemann, left the group a few years ago and was replaced by Van Dyke, a veteran player with 30-something years of experience in local bands like The Family Portrait and playing with well-known country acts like Ernest Tubbs, Merle Haggard, Johnny Paycheck and Tanya Tucker.

He’s one of those musical people who can coax a pleasing sound out of anything. His country and western background comes across in some of his playing; there are more honky-tonk twists and twangs than you might expect from a bluegrass guitarist.

Unlike a lot of bluegrass bands, the RCSB seems to value melody over speed. It’s positive, laid-back, down-home, pickin'-on-the-porch music. The casual, homemade feeling of the music is enhanced by the fact that all four members of the group sing.

They cover a wide range of material, from traditional English ballads like “Matty Groves” to contemporary folk songs by Todd Snider and John Prine. And they do bluegrass tunes like “If Wishes Were Horses,” older folk songs like “Down in Arkan,” and a few originals, like “Flamingoes on the Humboldt,” a playful ditty penned by Furnis about a roadside attraction on the drive to Elko.

And they do “Catfish John,” a Grateful Dead tune. It’s a funny thing about bluegrass bands, they all claim to do a lot of non-bluegrass material, and you ask them to cite an example, and one of the first things that every group always mentions is the Grateful Dead. So nearly every contemporary bluegrass band has at least one Grateful Dead song in their repertoire, and they all cite it as one of the things that sets them apart from the average bluegrass group.

But what really sets the RCSB apart is their version of “Dueling Banjoes,” where part of the melody is performed by the group imitating chicken clucks. It’s all part of the Rubber Chicken String Band’s eclectic repertoire.

“We prefer the term ‘eclucktic,'” says Furnis. “We can be pretty corny.”