Craig Maki and Keith Cady take a deep look at the country music history of a city not often associated with country in Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies.The book tells in-depth and well-researched stories of musicians that got their start in Detroit, those that went on and those that stayed there to fan the flames of a burgeoning scene. Today the authors talked a bit about the book:
Craig Maki: In terms of culture, Detroit and its history has been our rock. As teen-agers, we both started collecting records. With guidance from other collectors, we discovered some great 1950s rockabilly and country on Detroit labels such as Fortune, and Happy Hearts. During the 1990s, we interviewed (independently) country musicians who were active in Detroit during the 1950s while producing our own broadcasts for radio. We shared stories, pictures, music, and our concepts of the Detroit C&W scene with friends, and they all concluded: The history of country music in Detroit needed to be told. Our scope focused on the 1930s through the 1960s, when migration of workers from the South and country music activity in Detroit reached their peaks.
MT: Detroit isn’t often associated with Country music. How did you first discover the amount of Country music Detroit had to offer?
CM: The moment I realized Detroit supported a decades-old country music scene was in 1995, on the night I first saw musician Eddie Jackson’s wall of vintage photos – five decades of images pinned up behind the bar in his basement. I was 24 years old, and understood only an inkling of what I would research during the next dozen years. Before then, I hadn’t associated the city with country music, except for its annual Downtown Hoedown festival.
Keith Cady: While learning how to play music in my teens, I pal’d around with several veteran musicians. Over time, I realized these men and women knew fascinating stories of an era when Detroit and its suburbs overflowed with country music. I met Craig because we shared similar interests, and we both hung out with retired musicians who had amazing stories and music careers that, in some cases, not even their families knew about. In 2000 we decided to collaborate in documenting stories of these pioneers that otherwise would have been lost to history.
MT: How can a scene thrive today, a time when regionalism is in danger of being erased, in some ways, due to the increased accessibility of music from around the world?
CM: The best way for a regional music scene to thrive is for the community to generate it and support it. Detroit’s factories attracted hundreds of thousands of people from the South during the 20th century. Country music thrived in its neighborhood bars, as well as in showcases such as weekend barn dances, TV, and radio. During the 1950s and 1960s, a stream of musicians coming and going between Detroit and Nashville kept things exciting. Despite the changes in Detroit since then, we believe there will always be a place for local music in any community, whether it’s made in churches, schools, nightclubs, or back porches.
MT: Share with us one of your favorite discoveries as you researched the project.
CM: Besides finding music I never heard before … The connections of Detroit entertainers to musicians and groups from all over the country brought exceptional vitality to Detroit’s country music scene. Finding these associations was a blast, because it made one realize how important Detroit was to the national scene. The biggest surprise for me was learning of Chief Redbird’s multi-faceted background and accomplishments, including working with the first cowboy band (true cowboys based in Oklahoma) that ever broadcast on radio.
KC: I was surprised by how connected Detroit musicians remained through the years. Many of them had bands and regular venues they played, but they also visited each other, not only to sit in and promote themselves, but to support and enjoy each others’ music. The caliber of musicianship rated extremely high, and you can trace the best pickers circulating in the most popular bands in Detroit. There was competition, but also friendships that lasted a lifetime.
MT: What are you currently working on?
CM: For the past year, we’ve posted updates at www.carcitycountry.com, where we’ve expanded the research presented in the book. (The book could have been twice as long as it is.) The website has also introduced us to people who were related to, or knew (sometimes still know) musicians within the scope of the project.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
CM & KC: Nick Tosches: Where Dead Voices Gather, Country, Unsung Heroes Of Rock’n’Roll, Hellfire, Save The Last Dance For Satan. Cary Ginell: Milton Brown And The Founding Of Western Swing. Bill C. Malone: Singing Cowboys And Musical Mountaineers. Charles K. Wolfe: Kentucky Country. Nathan Gibson: The Starday Story. Martin Hawkins and Colin Escott: Good Rockin’ Tonight. Rich Kienzle: Southwest Shuffle. Susan Whitall: Fever – The Fast Life And Mysterious Death Of Little Willie John. Peter Guralnick: Last Train To Memphis. Linell Gentry: A History And Encyclopedia Of Country, Western, And Gospel Music. Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert: Before Motown – A History Of Jazz In Detroit, 1920-1960. Martin Hawkins: A Shot In The Dark – Making Records In Nashville, 1945-1955. Barry R. Willis: America’s Music – Bluegrass.