- DETROIT COUNTRY MUSIC: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies by Craig Maki with Keith Cady
In this set of biographical sketches, Craig Maki and Keith Cady recount the work and careers of nineteen country musicians based in Detroit between the 1930s and 1960s. Intended as an introduction to an ongoing project about the “impact Detroit country artists had on the greater tradition of country music,” Detroit Country Music raises questions about the coalescence of style, race, and community as the motor city grew in the mid-twentieth century (viii). Due to the objectives of the larger project, Maki and Cady acknowledge the absence of many musicians, but lay out how they selected the musicians explored in this book: these are musicians that made their names from working, performing, and creating music in Detroit.
Their research comes principally from oral interviews conducted over a period of two decades, with periodicals utilized to illustrate when these Detroit musicians made national news and impact. Maki and Cady recount details with meticulous care and create narratives to invite interest, but limit discussion outside the project objectives. [End Page 137] The writers indicate where internal migration, industrialization, and country music linked the motor city with country styles developing in other regions and across time, such as in Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and California (5–12). Detroit country musicians factored in the national development of the music industry between the 1930s and 1970s, though their impact remained undervalued before this project.
Country music in Detroit offered prominent opportunities for work and careers beyond moments of sudden fame or success outside the motor city. The musicians in this book formed a wide “community” that sees influences appear throughout successive chapters. For instance, Casey Clark and the Lazy Ranch Boys “dominated” country music in 1950s Detroit (77), but routinely appear in other chapters working with individual musicians included. Clark and members of the band are credited by Maki and Cady as “supporting with special attention” musicians like Jimmy Work, so they and their styles “[shined] brightest” (204–205).
Gender and race factored importantly in the development of country music in Detroit. Singer May Hawks worked within “the male-dominated current of the industry” (143) during the early 1950s. Hawks appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, produced her own radio program, recorded, and pushed boundaries regarding subject matter (specifically a song about cancer). Joyce Singo was “one of the first women in the country to play modern, electrified country guitar on stage and records” (195), even if her success revolved around opportunities made by husband Earl Songer and later by guitarist Rufus Shoffner.
Though focused on country music, by the 1950s and 1960s, Detroit’s renown with rock ‘n’ roll and Motown emerges. Ford Nix was a 1950s and 1960s bluegrass performer that backed Motown performers at Hitsville, U.S.A., and briefly recorded for the label (267–268). Maki and Cady report that those bluegrass recordings remain unreleased by Motown, but the encounter points to a history of integration taking place among performers in Detroit.
The biographical sketches included in Detroit Country Music offer a compelling introduction and deeply intertwined set of country musicians that operated and worked together in the motor city. The writers include information about their project, which results in the book serving largely as an overview. Nevertheless, the musicians indicate Detroit’s relevance to country music and offer glimpses and relevant points for discussion about the popular music industry that took shape by the 1960s.