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Detroit Country Music

Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies

Craig Maki

Publication Year: 2013

The richness of Detroit’s music history has by now been well established. We know all about Motown, the MC5, and Iggy and the Stooges. We also know about the important part the Motor City has played in the history of jazz. But there are stories about the music of Detroit that remain untold. One of the lesser known but nonetheless fascinating histories is contained within Detroit’s country music roots. At last, Craig Maki and Keith Cady bring to light Detroit’s most important country and western and bluegrass stars, such as Chief Redbird, the York Brothers, and Roy Hall. Beyond the individuals, Maki and Cady also map out the labels, radio programs, and performance venues that sustained Detroit’s vibrant country and bluegrass music scene. In the process, Detroit Country Music examines how and why the city’s growth in the early twentieth century, particularly the southern migration tied to the auto industry, led to this vibrant roots music scene. This is the first book—the first resource of any kind—to tell the story of Detroit’s contributions to country music. Craig Maki and Keith Cady have spent two decades collecting music and images, and visiting veteran musicians to amass more than seventy interviews about country music in Detroit. Just as astounding as the book’s revelations are the photographs, most of which have never been published before. Detroit Country Music will be essential reading for music historians, record collectors, roots music fans, and Detroit music aficionados.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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Preface And Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-x

In July 1995 I received an unexpected call from Eddie Jackson, a sixty-nine- year- old musician who had entertained in Detroit since the 1940s. Through a Middle Tennessee accent, Jackson invited me to meet him for the very first time at a Detroit bar, at a private party he would play. “You’ll be my guest,” he said. “Swanee Caldwell will be there, and do you know . . . ?” He bounced...

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Chapter 1. Detroit's Everlasting Harmonization

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pp. 1-14

In October 1943 Detroit nightclub owner William Levin realized he had problems, World War II the least of them. After struggling through the Great Depression, earnings from his vaudeville show bar had slipped into the red. From behind picture windows advertising jazz music, theatric entertainers, and comedians, Levin fought pangs of helplessness as he watched hundreds of workers leave shifts at the Chrysler Corporation and Continental...

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Chapter 2. Cherokee Boogie: Chief Redbird

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pp. 15-28

When the cowboy and the country music singer joined forces during the 1930s boom of western musicals on cinema screens, the two images fused together forever. Before then, most people regarded cowboy songs as a distinct genre from the folk music of the South.
The string band that introduced singing cowboys on radio first broadcast over KFRU in Bristow, Oklahoma, in May 1925. Billy McGinty, a rancher...

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Chapter 3. The Kentucky Troubadour: Mountain Red

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pp. 29-36

Dressed in his suit of navy blue jacket and cream-colored slacks, the eighteen-year- old man with slicked red hair sat stiffly in the waiting room of WMBC radio, his guitar case at his side and harmonica in his coat pocket. Operating from the mezzanine level of the 700-room Hotel Detroiter on Woodward Avenue, a few blocks north of Detroit’s main entertainment...

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Chapter 4. The York Brothers, George And Leslie

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pp. 37-50

Leslie York’s brother George knocked at the apartment door. “Les, you in there?” he called. Leslie set down his glass, and swung himself up from his chair. “Yeah, it’s open,” he said. George entered with the half-smile he wore when something bothered him. “Have a chair,” said Leslie.
A few drinks and cigarettes later, George had shared his news: Nearly four years on WSM radio and the Grand Ole Opry couldn’t save Leslie’s job...

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Chapter 5. Tenacious Trailblazer: Arizona Weston

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pp. 51-68

During the first half of the twentieth century, country and western singers often invented alter egos. As cowboys and mountaineers grew popular through radio, stage, and motion pictures, musicians found it necessary to invent new names and appearances. Arizona Weston, a.k.a. William Harvey Breeding, began his career as a country and western singer, with an emphasis...

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Chapter 6. Hey! It's Chuck Oakes

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pp. 69-76

Guitarist Chuck Oakes set himself apart from most players by never using flat picks, but instead employed finger-style techniques that he learned from his father, who was taught in the army by an African American soldier during World War I. “Chuck had a following,” said bandleader Bill Hayes, who worked on stage, radio, and television with Oakes. “He could play boogie...

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Chapter 7. Here They All Come: Casey Clark and the Lazy Ranch Boys

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pp. 77-126

From 1952 to 1958 Casey Clark and the Lazy Ranch Boys, a nine-piece western swing unit, dominated country music in Michigan. Every week, Clark hosted Grand Ole Opry stars at the Lazy Ranch Boys Barn Dance in a United Auto Workers hall at 12101 Mack Avenue, broadcast over clear channel WJR radio Detroit, and performed at CKLW-TV Windsor, Ontario. Like...

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Chapter 8. The Hound: Roy Hall

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pp. 127-142

The Cohutta Mountain Boys, the group Roy Hall and Bud White assembled in Detroit, was among the top western swing makers in the city after World War II. Hall’s bands mixed hillbilly music with pop, blues, and boogie-woogie, well before rock ’n’ roll crashed the mainstream. The Cohutta Mountain Boys’ 1949 jukebox hit “Dirty Boogie” heralded a stack of...

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Chapter 9. Meet Me Down In Nashville: May Hawks

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pp. 143-152

While most female country singers in Detroit’s nightclubs and radio of the 1940s and 1950s struggled against the male-dominated current of the industry, May Hawks fell into the drink and let it carry her upstream. Lucky to be widely appreciated for her singing and gracious personality, Hawks attracted people who helped her avoid the burden of promoting herself. For...

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Chapter 10. Chuck Hatfield And The Treble-Aires

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pp. 153-168

After the tone arm drops its stylus into the groove in the flipside of a Davis Sisters single issued by Fortune Records, a steel guitar fanfare announces the arrival over the speaker of one of the top C&W groups that worked in Detroit: Chuck Hatfield and the Treble-Aires. The instrumental that follows, titled “Steel Wool,” jumps with improvisations on steel guitar, fiddle...

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Chapter 11. Music With A Western Beat: Eddie Jackson

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pp. 169-180

After finishing his second set of the night, Eddie Jackson lit a cigarette, stepped carefully down from the bandstand at Caravan Gardens, and surveyed the bar. One of Detroit’s larger nightclubs featuring country music, the Caravan, as most people referred to it, was filled with friends and music fans tonight. Many had stopped in for a nightcap after seeing a show of...

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Chapter 12. Guitars, Bars, and Barre Chords: Fran Mitchell

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pp. 181-186

Around 1942, Fran Mitchell arrived in Detroit with her first husband and baby daughter. Though her marriage didn’t last, her skills on the guitar helped her find work in Detroit country-western nightclubs, beginning with a trio that included herself, Bob Norton, and Duke Medley. Mitchell worked with a variety of bands through the early 1950s, before she decided...

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Chapter 13. Rocky Road Rambling: Joyce Singo

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pp. 187-196

Earl Songer and his wife Joyce, who grew up playing music in West Virginia and east Tennessee respectively, spearheaded the evolution of Appalachian string band music to electrified honky-tonk and boogie-woogie that swept the country after World War II. Although many country bands in Detroit during the postwar boom played western swing, and despite the few...

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Chapter 14. What Makes The Jukebox Play: Jimmy Work

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pp. 197-210

Looking through a country music fan’s music collection, one song that’s sure to be there, by one artist or another, is Jimmy Work’s “Making Believe.” Trained as a millwright in Detroit during World War II, Work wrote songs and sang them on radio as a hobby. In 1948 Work recorded his “Tennessee Border” for a Detroit jukebox label. The resulting C&W hit distinguished...

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Chapter 15. The Mississippi Farm Boy: Lonnie Barron

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pp. 211-224

Arriving home late on a frost-filled night, the young singer spied a familiar car parked on the frozen dirt of his driveway. He quietly pulled up his station wagon and noticed the storm door at his front porch sagging open on its hinges, and a light glowing through a window nearby. Lonnie Barron’s modest two-room cottage, and a hall in which he hosted weekend dances...

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Chapter 16. One-Way Ticket: Danny Richards

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pp. 225-238

Two young men wearing western clothes, Red and Stan, stood talking softly near a stage door while WLS National Barn Dance favorites Lulu Belle and Scotty sang a duet at the Carmichael Auditorium in downtown Clarksburg, West Virginia. The men had opened the show with their group, Patsy Jean and Her Hillbilly Pals. Patsy Jean’s husband, Mel Steele, nearly disrupted...

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Chapter 17. Egg Head: Al Allen

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pp. 239-252

Guitarist Al Allen had spent ten years working radio shows, theaters, nightclubs, and some television in Detroit, Michigan, when he found himself at a routine recording session in New York City with his friend Jack Scott. Together they had cut several pop hit records, and Allen felt they might do more during the next couple of days. Perched on a stool in a large sound...

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Chapter 18. Rockin' Vagabond: Hugh Friar

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pp. 253-260

It wasn’t a stretch for Hugh Friar to change his band from country to rock ’n’ roll in 1960. Friar witnessed first-hand the evolution of country music from folk and cowboy tunes to the widespread use of amplified instruments and drums. With a group he called the Virginia Vagabonds—a band that lasted only a couple of years—Friar was best remembered for two records on John...

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Chapter 19. Ain't No Sign I Wouldn't If I Could: Ford Nix

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pp. 261-270

A young man in dust-covered leather shoes slowly walked an empty highway shoulder headed north. The orange sun blazing over the western horizon shot shadows across the surrounding grassy hills as he carried a small grip of essentials and a battered banjo case. As a car approached from behind, he turned and signaled the driver with his thumb that he needed a ride. It rolled...

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Chapter 20. You Can Hear The Old Folks Sing: Curly Dan and Wilma Ann

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pp. 271-276

A Southeast Michigan legend tells that folks back home in Kentucky once taught their kids a variation of the three R’s: Readin’, Ritin’, and Route 23. With a steady stream of workers headed north, U.S. Route 23 brought traditions and values of Southern people to Michigan’s industrial cities during the twentieth century. Curly Dan and Wilma Ann drove Route 23 north...

Appendix A: Related Music in Print

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pp. 277-278

Appendix B: Bibliography and List of Interviews

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pp. 279-284


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pp. 285-308


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pp. 309-328

E-ISBN-13: 9780472029617
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472052011

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2013