All in the family

Published 10:43 pm Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Doerfel children are just like the children in most American families. They have their laughs and their arguments, they go to school and they enjoy playing together.

But the similarities end there. Their laughs and arguments often take place backstage, their school is usually in a motor home in which they travel across the country and rather than playing together with toys, they play together with musical instruments.

The Doerfel Family Bluegrass Band is one of the many headliner acts that will be participating in the Covington Bluegrass Festival this weekend at the Covington Center Arena. However, they are arguably one of the most unique as well — none of the performers in the band is older than 20 years old and they all come from the same family.

Tom Doerfel, the father of 10 children, including the nine who perform on stage in some capacity, said he has been quite surprised at the band’s success.

“My wife and I are both classically trained musicians and we started picking up bluegrass about eight years ago,” he said. “Most of the kids grew up playing the drum first to learn rhythm, and then they moved onto different instruments. One year, for a Christmas gift, we decided to record a few songs as a family and send them to our friends and relatives.

“Well, that first CD was such a huge hit that we started to get invited to do little things — dinners and church functions. It just grew and grew and now we’re doing about 250 shows a year.”

Tom and his wife, Cheryl, were once a part of the band but have not performed with the children since 2006.

“Things really started cooking once the kids got rid of the deadweight,” Tom Doerfel joked.

The band is composed of five permanent members who each primarily play one instrument but also sing and can play other instruments — T.J. is 20 and plays banjo, Kimberly is 18 and plays fiddle, Eddy is 15 and plays mandolin, Joey is 14 and plays bass and Ben is 13 and plays guitar.

Other children occasionally join the performance on stage, as well. Kurt is 11 and plays bass and mandolin, Garrett is 9 and is learning to play fiddle, Tommy is 7 and is learning to play guitar and Charlie is 3 and sometimes sings. A 10th family member, 17-year-old Bobby, does not perform with the band and instead works a librarian.

“(Bobby) decided that the traveling lifestyle just wasn’t for him,” said Tom Doerfel, whose family is originally from Springville in upstate New York. “We lived on a farm in New York and there were always lots of chores for the kids to do. They decided that they liked making music more than shoveling manure.

“I quit my job about three years ago and we’ve really taken off since then.”

Kimberly said that growing up on the road — the family tours constantly and travels in a motor home from performing venue to venue — can be hard but she has enjoyed the experience.

“It’s fun to go out and meet a lot of people and see a lot of different places,” she said. “I want to keep doing this as long as I can.”

The Doerfel children are homeschooled by their mother. Ben said that most of their school time occurs while traveling between performances.

“That’s the easiest time for us to have school because we’re not busy,” he said. “It’s not bad, although it’s kind of hard to write sometimes when the paper is shaking because the road is bumpy.”

T.J. recently married and his wife, Angelica, also travels with the family band. He said that life on the road has its high points and low points.

“It’s kind of hard in our motor home because there’s not a lot of room,” he said. “There’s a little area up front where we have to hang out because there’s no room in the back since that’s where all the bunks are. So, it’s a little bit like being in a school bus full of kids.

“It’s just like anything, you’ve got your highs and lows. But as long as we’re all getting along, it can really be a blast.”

Kimberly laughed when asked if being a family made the band have stronger chemistry.

“I think it does make it easier,” she said. “I mean, if you’re in a band that’s just a bunch of random people and someone gets mad then they’ll just quit. With a family, if someone were to say that they quit, then it’s like, ‘Well, all right. We’ll see you at breakfast later.’”

She also said it can be tough being the only girl in a family of boys.

“It’s hard in the sense that you’re surrounded by a bunch of doofus brothers,” she joked. “I tried to keep them in line when they were younger, but now they just kind of do their own thing. But I think it would be harder if I had nine sisters.”

Ben, for his part, didn’t reject Kimberly’s opinion that he and his brothers can be a handful.

“Being the youngest, they pick on me a lot but I’m also kind of the clown in the family,” he said. “It’s all in good fun, though, and I can usually take whatever they dish out.”

The Doerfel children’s youthful exuberance shines through in their music. In addition to playing traditional bluegrass favorites, they also delve into more modern genres and even include songs by John Mayer among their repertoire.

“We love going to schools and showing kids and teens that bluegrass isn’t just music for ‘old people,’” T.J. said. “There’s a lot of skill and really cool musical things that can be done in bluegrass. We want kids to look at this music and realize that it’s cool, but we can also do the older stuff too.

“We kind of tailor what we play based on our audience.”

No matter what style of music the Doerfels play, their parents always remind them of an important lesson.

“We always tell the kids that music is a gift to others,” Tom Doerfel said. “It touches the soul and stirs the mind, and we want them to always be humble. That’s the great thing about bluegrass music. It’s not just about the music, but it’s about the community and lifting up others.

“This family is making a living by doing a hobby that we love. There’s nothing greater than that.”

The Doerfel Family Bluegrass Band will perform at the Covington Bluegass Festival tonight and Saturday night. Gates open for tonight’s performance at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday night at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.