Long before Motown put Detroit music on the map, country was king in the Motor City. So say the guys behind a new book about Detroit’s long-forgotten country music heritage. From the “barn dances” where autoworkers cut loose after work, to the city’s strip clubs, “hillbilly” music was the soundtrack. Hell, even Henry Ford got in on the act. Earlier this week, we chatted with Keith Cady, co-author of Detroit Country Music, about why the city’s early musical mountaineers, cowboys and rockabillies should all be back on our playlists.
Found Michigan: So, how did country music end up in Detroit of all places?
Keith: Well, slightly after the turn of the century, a lot of the labor force from the South moved north, where Detroit was making a name for itself as an industry town. A lot of times the men would come by themselves, save up a little bit of money, then send for the family. And when the family would come up, they’d bring all their belongings and instruments and other family members—they’d bring a little bit of the South with them, I guess. And their culture would follow them: music and folk stories and dances. Matter of fact, Henry Ford would go around and record old-time square dance bands and he would release 78 recordings of their songs as a way of preserving that Southern heritage. Ford was, obviously, very interested in preserving history—even as it happened. He even built several dance halls that were used for company picnics all throughout Detroit and the suburbs. There’s one right here in Romulus, actually, in a place called Liberty Park, that still holds barn dances on Friday nights.
FM: So how did the music gain a foothold in the city?
Keith: It probably started just at social gatherings: church picnics, socials, maybe even at work-related functions. When the unions started gathering for their meetings, a good way to bring in a big crowd was to offer entertainment. Because there were so many Southerners in the factories, people who were native to Detroit eventually started liking the music because they were around it so much.
As time went on, some of the more well-known acts were picked up by local radio stations. The musicians would get maybe a 15-minute sponsored program on one of the early stations in Detroit or Pontiac, and they’d perform live. Often they did a daily morning show, something that would interest the station’s audience of Southern transplants. A lot of times that would be farmers, so the shows would be very early, like 5 o’clock in the morning. From that, the musicians could promote bookings, mention they’d be performing at such-and-such hall. At that time—we’re talking the 1920s and ‘30s—there really weren’t any commercial recordings made in Detroit; it was pretty much just live entertainment. Eventually, some of the Detroit clubs realized that there were so many of these Southern transplants in the city, they decided to try booking “hillbilly” acts.
FM: And the York Brothers were one of the first really big acts. You mention in the book that their 1939 song “Hamtramck Mama” was kind of a watershed moment for Detroit country.
Keith: Yeah, the interesting thing about that time period is there was a whole industry of producing records specifically for jukeboxes. They weren’t made by major labels to be distributed and sold at record stores and played on the radio. And “Hamtramck Mama” by the York Brothers was a huge regional hit in those jukeboxes.
FM: And that was partly due to the song’s content, right? I mean, it’s really a song about a lady who, how should we say it, knows how to have a good time? That was considered very bawdy for that time.
Keith: Right, and there was a lot of controversy as well. The mayor of Hamtramck at the time thought it was degrading and bad for the image of the city, so he tried to ban it, which led to more sales. But it did show the mass appeal this music had. Because at that point you could only measure how popular the music was by the amount of people that would fit into a room where the band was playing. This really gave hard numbers. When it was all said and done, the reported record sales were more than 300,000 copies in the city alone.
FM: And then the York Brothers sort of tried to repeat the formula, right?
Keith: Well, yeah, once they figured out it was useful for a song to have a local angle, they tried to repeat it. There was “Highland Park Girl,” also in ‘39. They also had a song called “Detroit Hula Girl,” which cashed in on the popularity of Hawaiian music at that time. Of course, the Hawaiian steel guitar was becoming a staple in country music as well. So that song shows when those things were coming together for the first time: the Hawaiian music and country music, and steel guitar, too.
FM: So what was the music like? I mean, was there a “Detroit sound” to this brand of country music?
Keith: Depends on what time period you’re talking about. The earlier stuff like the York Brothers was very reminiscent of what they were doing down in Ohio and at the Grand Ole Opry. A very stripped-down arrangement: a couple of guitars, a fiddle, maybe a bass if they had it. But as the recordings progressed in time, you can hear influences of western swing, honky tonk, bluegrass—even rock as the ’50s went on. There was a unique blend of a lot of things here. For instance, a lot of the bands in the area would carry an accordion, influenced by the large Polish population. Polka was real big. And the lead guitar players at that time would have been a lot more advanced in their technique: They could switch very easily from jazz to country music. Matter of fact, on some of the recordings that exist of live sets in the Detroit clubs, they’ll play a country song, and then they’ll do a jazz instrumental. And the audience would eat up both of ‘em. So it really did kind of meld all together in that live scene.
FM: And from there, the scene really grew. One of the coolest things mentioned in the book are these weekly “barn dances,” which were held all over the city. First off: Were these really in barns?
Keith: Well, there were some that were barn-“ish,” I guess, up in the northern suburbs. But generally they were done at a union hall, especially if there were going to be a lot of people there. There’d be maybe a backdrop to make it look like a barn, give it the feel of a down-home, old-timey barn dance. Some of these barn dances would even be picked up and broadcast live on the radio in Detroit. At the Madison Ballroom in Detroit, on Woodward and Forest, they would have Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances with a Grand Ole Opry star.
FM: Hard to believe the Detroit country audience was big enough for that.
Keith: Oh yeah. The typical Saturday night audiences were packed from the front all the way to the back, with standing room only. It’s amazing to see how many people would come out for a typical night—and to know that there were other barn dances going on in the city at that same time. There was competition! They would be very inexpensive, too. We have copies of the fliers, and the admissions ranged from a quarter to a dollar. The dances were aimed at the working class, for sure. You’d see families with their kids in the audience, too. I mean, this is the era of Howdy Doody and Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Kids went to school with their cowboy shirts and boots on, and then they grew up to be big kids in cowboy hats.
FM: And it wasn’t just dancing that went on at these barn dances.
Keith: That’s right. There would be comedians, there would be music, all kinds of acts. Meanwhile, in the Detroit nightclubs, you were catering more to the adult audience. You would see, like, bullwhip acts in addition to bands and some of the more vaudeville, throwback acts.
FM: Wait up: Bullwhip acts?
Keith: A bullwhip act would be the equivalent of somebody being a sharpshooter, but with a bullwhip. For instance, somebody would have a cigarette in his mouth and another guy would be able to crack the whip and cut the cigarette in half without hurting him. It was a throwback to the old cowboy, Wild-Bill-Cody days. And we’ve even heard stories of some musicians who were hired to play the music for strippers at Detroit clubs as well.
FM: Really? Country music doesn’t strike me as an obvious choice for a striptease.
Keith: No, not at all! But, you know, when that’s your clientele—factory workers who’ve moved here from Tennessee—that’s the kind of music they want to hear when they come to the club, I suppose.
FM: Well, one of the big stars of the scene at this point is this guy Casey Clark. Tell us more about him.
Keith: Well, Casey was originally from Soldier, Kentucky, and he was a large fella. When he did his radio shows and up on stage, too, he used to introduce himself as “Ma Clark’s Fat Boy Casey.” You know—that southern, self-deprecating sense of humor. Everybody who knew their craft, musically, they worked for Casey Clark at one time. He always had a big band, and he attracted the best musicians, not only from Detroit but from surrounding areas and other parts of the country. At that time, Casey was booking all the big stars from Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry to be either a headliner or some part of his Detroit barn dances as part of the draw each weekend. So he’d have, say, Carl Smith from the Grand Ole Opry one weekend. Carl Smith would then say, You know, that steel player you got, he’s amazing, and the next thing you know, that steel player’s hired to go play down in Nashville with somebody. Actually, I would say the folks that are most remembered from Detroit are most remembered for what they did after leaving Detroit.
FM: With so many musicians passing through Detroit, were there any characters that stand out in particular?
Keith: There’s a lot of great stories about Okie Jones. Okie joined Casey Clark’s group, the Lazy Ranch Boys, in the mid-50s—around ‘55, I guess—and he, at that point, had been performing for years. He had performed all over Texas and at the Grand Ole Opry, had been a recording artist for Columbia Records. But his stage presence was just pure electric. One of his nicknames was “Jumping Okie Jones.” He would, literally, while being introduced, take off running from the audience or backstage or somewhere, and he would go leaping up onto the stage just in time for his cue. And he would wear the most flamboyant Western costumes imaginable. Like, a purple-and-chartreuse sequined rhinestone-and-fringe Western two-piece suit. And he would shake all over when he sang, and he would act out the words to every song. Okie was definitely a trend-setter in that very physical stage presence that Elvis became known for. Elvis was known for shaking all over the stage and people thought it was kind of shocking. But I don’t understand how people could be shocked when I see the film clips of Okie Jones. He was just 10 times worse than Elvis!
FM: And as far as the music goes, where can people listen to this stuff? Is some of that vinyl still out there?
Keith: Oh yeah, I still run across records every so often. Not so much anymore because, as years go by, a lot of the collectors swoop them up. And in many cases there were only a couple hundred made. Some of them are extremely rare. And others, because they weren’t very popular, there’s still tons of them floating around. We’ve actually found multiple copies of some releases that are in unplayed, mint condition because someone ordered 500 copies of it and only 100 were sold in the clubs at the time and the rest got packed away in a box somewhere. So, yeah, you can still find them, especially in this area. But they’re very popular worldwide now. If you look up Fortune Records, a Detroit label, on eBay, you’ll find pages and pages of them being sold around the world because they’re that collectible. Of course, now you can find a lot this stuff on YouTube.
FM: Well, Detroit isn’t known as much for country music today. When did the scene start to fade?
Keith: I would say it was when rock ‘n’ roll really started. That was the start of the decline because at that point you had this new, exciting sound that the kids were going after. And the barn dances were cashing in on it, too; they would have a rock ‘n’ roll act do a few songs. Also, as time went on, country music went from being a regional thing to a national thing. Nashville was becoming more of the national hub of country music. The Grand Ole Opry was beamed coast to coast on syndicated radio shows, so it could be heard everywhere on Friday and Saturday nights. So you didn’t have huge followings for local acts as much as you did earlier in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.
FM: Your book has this great quote from Casey Clark, who stayed in Detroit throughout his career. He says: “Everybody said, ‘Well, you can’t get by with country music here [in Detroit].’ And I guess if they hadn’t of told me that, I would have left. But when they told me I couldn’t, why, I decided I would.”
Keith: Oh yeah, I mean, it was just like now, when people say: “There was country music in Detroit!?” It’s just not associated with Detroit anymore because of Motown and industry and things like that. At that time, too, country music was not getting national attention. It only became popular because of people like Casey Clark and their hard work in promoting it and bringing quality entertainment to the area. But up ‘til that point, it was a tough row to hoe, for sure.