Hoedown in Motown
Detroit’s Hillbilly Lovefest
Published: May 29, 2013
Amanda Temple is the beguiling lead singer for Annabelle Road, a rising young country music quartet from Detroit. Now, that sentence might not seem the least bit unusual to you or me, but when the band proclaims its hometown beyond the Michigan state line, especially below the Mason-Dixon Line, the reaction they get from country snobs is startling.
“People are always surprised when they find out we’re from Detroit, like ‘How did that happen?’” Temple says. “When we go down South, I feel like we have a harder time getting people to take us seriously before we play. But once they’ve heard us, and they see that we’ve got the same heart and the same music in us as they do, it all kind of falls in place.”
Well, that’s just artistic prejudice. When the roll call of America’s country music hotbeds is recited — Nashville, Austin, Memphis, Dallas — the Motor City almost never makes the cut. But it should. “I’ve been a one-man army flying the flag on that one,” declares Tim Roberts, the operations manager and award-winning program director for Detroit’s country WYCD-FM (99.5) and prime mover behind the 99.5 WYCD Downtown Hoedown, the iconic three-day music festival celebrating its 31st year Friday through Sunday at Comerica Park.
“Honestly, one of my goals was to make Nashville aware of what a great country town this was,” Roberts says. “The Hoedown had been going on for years, and I don’t know how but it was very much under the radar. But I think that as the station got more recognition nationally, people are starting to get it, finally. I think we raised the level of awareness about it. Now the artists are aware of it. Most of them have played it, and the new artists want to play it. So I don’t have to do as much of a sell job anymore. It used to be artists would say, ‘What is it again?’”
What it is, or used to be, is the largest free outdoor country music event in the world. That “free” part went the way of the singing cowboy last summer, when the Hoedown marked its milestone 30th anniversary with a pair of radical changes: moving to a pay ticket format and shifting locations from Hart Plaza to the home of the Tigers. While it’s fairly safe to suggest people don’t like paying for something they’ve gotten free for decades, at $30 for a three-day pass (sold out within hours) and $20 per day for continuous music on three stages, it’s still a steal of a deal as music festivals go. (A portion of the ticket proceeds will benefit the charity Defeat the Label, which promotes a bully-free society.)
The change of venue, Roberts says, was necessitated by number of factors, including the dangerous environment on the riverfront — not disorderly fans, although Roberts notes that some audience members in recent years didn’t appear to be on hand to enjoy the music and the admission price appeared to reduce that element last summer – but the plaza itself.
“We did a huge survey, and a lot of people felt like it was getting unsafe,” says Roberts, “partially because the pavement is in a state of disrepair at Hart Plaza. We wanted to make sure our fans were safe in every way. We just outgrew that space, and people were unhappy that it was too crowded, you couldn’t move, there weren’t enough bathrooms. That was one of the biggest [complaints]. I don’t know how many Porta Johns we had there, but it was the most I’d ever seen. And it still wasn’t enough! So the fact we can use the bathrooms at Comerica was a huge deal.”
Let the national nabobs of negativism pimp slap Detroit if they wish. Lord knows we give them enough ammunition. But those of us who live here know how extremely blessed we are to have an international jazz festival that garners worldwide acclaim, a massive annual techno music festival in the city that invented the genre, and this remarkable Hoedown that has played host to some of the greatest names in country. Detroit rocks the summertime like very few places on earth.
Johnny Cash played the Hoedown. So has Willie Nelson. And Hank Williams Jr., George Jones, Big & Rich, Toby Keith, Reba McEntire, Zac Brown, Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum and Kid Rock, to name a very few. “Rascal Flatts to this day gives me crap because I had them play the third stage [usually reserved for local acts],” Roberts says, smiling. And I told them, ‘Hey, Garth Brooks played the third stage, so you’re not alone.’ And he did. This was the first show Garth played after he got a record deal, in 1989.”
This weekend’s lineup features country heartthrobs Jake Owen and Joe Nichols, rising new artists Drake White, Joel Crouse and Casey James, and Detroit favorite son Uncle Kracker. Noticeable changes this year include a greater number of acts on the bill, a revised layout of the festival stages on the Comerica grounds, tighter timing between performances alternating on the two main stages and a better division of the major artists “so the whole festival doesn’t just pick up and go over to stage one,” Roberts says.
That Detroit should be fertile ground for this music is not as inconceivable as some country cynics contend. Henry Ford’s legendary $5-a-day guarantee in the early 20th century sparked a migration of laborers from around the nation, most notably the South, to work on his assembly lines, and they brought their musical instruments and favorite songs with them. Their children’s children’s children still populate this area, and the music is their heritage.
Josh Gracin, the Westland native and American Idol finalist, has a No. 1 country single to his credit (“Nothin’ to Lose”) and has played the Hoedown five times. Rochester-raised Jana Kramer parlayed her TV role on One Tree Hill into a series of Top 10 country hits. Mountainous, raspy-voiced Ty Stone was signed to Atlantic Records. Detroiters Billy Craig and David Shelby are recording new music in Nashville; Annabelle Road and 17-year-old Paulina Jayne have performed showcase concerts there. Teen singer-songwriter Molly Hunt made the leap from Detroit to Nashville in 2010 after becoming the youngest person in that city’s history to sign a major publishing deal, and statuesque Canton-born country vocalist Justine Blazer has followed suit.
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