When Randy Rutherford was 15, his mother realized she could no longer afford to take care of him.
So she packed him onto a bus and sent him 3,000 miles from their Ohio home to Medford, Oregon, to live with an older step-brother he had never met.
What happened after that is the stuff of Rutherford’s most popular piece of solo theatre, My Brother Sang Like Roy Orbison.
For the impressionable Rutherford, who admits to being “kind of a runt of a kid” at the time, that newfound sibling quickly became a boyhood hero.
“He was like in his early 20s and I was still in high school, so he was like this James Dean, bigger-than-life figure to me,” the San Francisco-area storyteller says.
“At first I’m kind of apprehensive about him, but he drives a candy-apple red Corvette and he sings like Roy Orbison, and the next thing you know we’re cruising town and he’s trying to teach me about girls and cars,” Rutherford says by phone from Edmonton, where his show is filling houses at this year’s Fringe festival.
“So it doesn’t take long before I warm up to him and he becomes like a father figure to me.”
But wait. This is the 1960s, with a controversial war rending US families asunder, not to mention the nation itself.
“The Vietnam war is looming in the background throughout the whole show, and it moves more toward the centre stage and affects our lives,” Rutherford says.
“The ideology and the politics of the war itself divided families. It just destroyed relationships with families that haven’t healed to this day, or took a very long time to heal if they did.”
The older brother, Denny, becomes a US Marine. Rutherford, in his turn, volunteers for the Air Force and becomes a clerk in Fairbanks, Alaska.
As Rutherford puts it, “He joins the Marines to fight for his country. I end up joining the Air Force to type for my country.”
The relationship between the two becomes strained when Denny realizes his kid brother isn’t the man he wants him to be.
“I love him and everything, but as I become older and become my own man and start making my own choices, I kind of take a different road than he does,” Rutherford says.
“So I still love him, but I kind of love him from afar, because we’re very, very different. And the war kind of crystallizes that difference.”
The final rupture comes on the evening of May 4, 1970 as the brothers are watching the TV news. There’s a report from Rutherford’s home state of Ohio about members of the National Guard opening fire on student protesters at Kent State University.
All that, and the aftermath, are at the core of Rutherford’s show, which will be on view at the Old Fire Hall September 7-10, interwoven with Rutherford’s signature humour and snippets of music from the Vietnam war era.
My Brother Sang Like Roy Orbison is one of six solo theatre pieces that have earned Rutherford 23 “Best of Fest” awards at Fringe festivals across Canada and the United States.
A seventh show is now in development, which Rutherford hopes to have stage-ready by next summer.
As with one of his earlier shows, Singing at the Edge of the World, Rutherford’s new show deals with the impacts of his profound hearing loss, which began during a 12-year stint as a folksinger in Alaska.
“I would spend as much time between songs telling little stories about my life, little funny stories to get the audience to laugh and stuff,” he says.
As his hearing impairment progressed – he has now lost 70 per cent of his hearing in both ears – Rutherford found he could no longer perform effectively in noisy clubs.
Instead, he turned to watercolour, eventually earning a Masters degree in fine arts.
“I started winning awards and earning my living as a watercolour artist and art teacher,” he explains. “I was still involved in the arts, just making music visually on paper.”
But the stage still beckoned.
“So I got my guitar out of the closet and started,” he says. “But now, instead of singing a lot and telling little stories between the songs, I was telling stories a lot and singing a little bit between the stories.”
Unlike most performers, Rutherford prefers to have the house lights up a little, to read visual cues from his audience.
“The thing that’s the most fun for me is standing on stage, waiting for the audience to stop laughing, so I can deliver my next line,” he says. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”