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By Tom Durkin
Family embarks on a world tour
Group plays to pay for once in a lifetime journe y
“We’re taking the kids out of school for a year and going to Europe, Africa and South America,” Phil Ruckrich told the Advocate. “We’re wheels up October 4th.”

“It feels like a dream coming true for the kids to let them be able to pay for something they want to do with something they love to do, you know? I think that’s a lesson they can carry through their lives,” Brenda Shawley added.

“It’s going to be a life-changing event for all of us,” Ruckrich agreed.
Wait. What? They’re going to make their kids pay for their trip?!
For the laid-back Ruckrich Family Band of Grass Valley, that’s how they roll: making money doing what they love.

Over the past nine years, the band has done just that. They’ve bought their instruments, sound equipment—and plane tickets—playing local gigs and busking at farmers markets and other community events.

The band plays an eclectic collection of back-porch Americana, ranging from classic bluegrass to classic Grateful Dead to brand-new songs the kids wrote themselves.

“This isn’t about getting our kids famous. It’s not like that at all. We’re just playing for fun. We don’t practice. We just play for the most part,” Ruckrich laughed.

“When it stops being fun, we’ll stop,” he said seriously.

D’Jango effect
About nine years ago, Ruckrich and his four-year-old son, D’Jango, were walking up the street for D’Jango’s first busking gig at Hot Summer Nights.

“Are you nervous?” Ruckrich asked.
D’Jango looked up at his dad curiously, “About what, Pop?”

D’Jango is a musical prodigy with perfect pitch, Ruckrich explained. (“You’re flat, Pop.”)

“He just came into this world wanting it,” his dad recalled.

Although both musically inclined, neither Ruckrich nor Shawley had any prior aspirations to be in a band until, “D’Jango decided we were going to be a band,” Ruckrich laughed.

By the time he was 5, and again at 6, D’Jango was the youngest performer ever to play on the youth stage at Doc Watson’s Merle Fest in North Carolina, Ruckrich reported.

D’Jango met such Americana luminaries as Doc Watson, Peter Rowan and David Grisman, who gave him some of his personal mandolin picks.
Of course, D’Jango and his little sister Jasmine are veterans of the Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival in Grass Valley.

All in the family
Neither D’Jango, now 13, nor Jasmine, 9, Ruckrich remembers life before the Ruckrich Family Band—even though it was D’Jango’s idea.
“Jasmine grew up on stage,” said Ruckrich. Even before she could play an instrument, she was singing with the band and playing toy instruments – “until I got a dirty look on stage when she was trying to tune a fake banjo, and she was like, ‘Wait a minute. Someone is not being straight with me.’”

Now, Jasmine plays fiddle, mandolin and guitar, like her brother.
Neither Jasmine nor D’Jango would say which is their favorite instrument.

“I love all of them,” Jasmine said. “They keep me entertained.”
Even though the kids are being pulled out of their regular school environments, Shawley and Ruckrich will be home-schooling them while they’re on the road.

One of their primary objectives this year is learning Spanish in Spain, Ecuador and Argentina. While Shawley is fluent in Spanish, the kids – and Ruckrich – have a lot to learn.

This will be Ruckrich’s second musical tour of Spain. When he was 22, he was busted for busking. He was deported for overstaying his visit and not having a ticket home.

This time, “We’ve already bought our round-trip tickets,” he emphasized.

One of the ways Ruckrich and Shawley know the kids are into it is because they choose to buy their own instruments with the money they make busking.

D’Jango’s face lights up with a grin when he talks about recently buying his first electric guitar – a classic archtop, f-hole guitar from the prestigious Eastman Music Company.

Eastman is so impressed with the Ruckrich kids’ talent that they can buy any instrument they want at wholesale prices, their father said.
Eastman wants them playing Eastman instruments, he explained.

Kids Are Us
At a recent performance at the Nevada City Fair, D’Jango and Jasmine were dressed up while their parents wore more casual clothes.

Clearly, the kids are the stars of the band, although Ruckrich does sing some leads and is the spokesman for the band.

D’Jango doesn’t sing much, and it’s mostly harmony.

Jasmine, however, sings songs with power and authority. After all, she’s been doing it her whole life.

After the show, the whole band sat down for an interview with the Advocate, but the kids’ eyes were mostly focused on the carnival rides just across the way.

Once they were released from the interview, they quickly changed out of their show clothes.

Just before running off to the carnival together, D’Jango said, “We’re musicians, but we’re kids too.”

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada County. Contact him at tdurkin@vfr.net or www.tomdurkin-writer.net.
Photo by Tom Durkin
The Ruckrich Family Band performs at the Nevada County Fair, just weeks before leaving on a trip that will span three continents.