Hoedown in Motown
Detroit’s Hillbilly Lovefest
Published: May 29, 2013
Take that, Music City.
“You couldn’t get a country band arrested out of here when I started in country radio in Detroit,” Roberts remarks. “I was always thinking to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was just one country band that got signed out of here?’ So now there’s at least a respectability, that Nashville’s aware that good musicians could come out of this city, whether they get signed or not. We’re starting to be known as a community that can put out national quality entertainment.”
So here is what we know: Successful country music singers, songwriters and instrumentalists are emerging from Metro Detroit in ever-increasing numbers. Of all the country radio stations in all the cities in all the country, WYCD is the ACM (Academy of Country Music) Major Market Radio Station of the Year for 2013, and won the prestigious Marconi Award from the National Association of Broadcasters as Country Station of the Year in 2012. Radio Ink magazine, the premier publication for broadcast management, named Roberts the best country program director in America. Two years in a row. WYCD morning host Don Carpenter, better known as “Dr. Don” from the “Dr. Don Morning Show With Rachael & Grunwald,” has been inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame in Nashville.
And this weekend, more than 150,000 enthusiastic, vocal country fans will descend on Comerica Park to revel in a three-decades-plus tradition that dwarfs anything Nashville has to offer. So you tell us, Tennessee: Who’s more than a little bit country?
“I’ve been saying it for years, and I always joke with people in Nashville,” says Roberts. “They call themselves ‘Music City U.S.A.’ I say, ‘Listen, ‘Music City U.S.A.’ is Detroit, Michigan. You’ve got Motown, you’ve got Bob Seger, Kid Rock, jazz, you’ve got it all. This is the biggest musical melting pot in America. And country is just a part of it.”
Jake Owen picked up the guitar as a lark, teaching himself to play as therapy while recovering from the wakeboarding accident that derailed his dream of becoming a pro golfer. Apparently he healed pretty well: Owen was named the ACM’s Top New Male Vocalist in 2009, the American Country Awards’ 2012 Breakthrough Artist of the Year, and is riding a string of three consecutive No. 1 country singles from his latest LP, Barefoot Blue Jean Night.
He’s married to a former model, Lacey Buchanan, whom he proposed to onstage in his hometown of Vero Beach, Fla. Their first child, Olive Pearl, was born last November – on Thanksgiving Day.
Geez, can this guy’s life get any more ideal? Maybe we should all take up wakeboarding.
“I’ve been really fortunate, that’s for sure,” says Owen, who’s jumping off a national stadium tour with Jason Aldean to be the closing act for Saturday’s festivities at the Hoedown. “As far as me struggling in Nashville, I can’t say that I did. It’s been a long time in the making, but when I was going to school at Florida State I never really thought, dreamed or imagined of playing music for a living. My dad said, ‘Boy, you’d better get a job, you’re not going to just sit around in college playing sports.’ I thought playing guitar sounded pretty good.”
While he’s no stranger to headlining – his first starring assignment, “CMT on Tour, Jake Owen: The Summer Never Ends 2012,” set a record for the most consecutive sellout shows in that tour’s 11-year history – this will be his first time performing at the Hoedown. “I’ve had a few opportunities to play, but the scheduling was never right,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it. I mean, you work for that [headliner status] your whole career, to get to the point where you are the guy.”
He’s “the guy” in part due to the explosive success of “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” the title track and No. 1 single from his current album, a lively summertime anthem that has catapulted Owen’s career to the next level.
“I knew it was a great song and related to my life, but I didn’t expect this,” he concedes. “That’s the first song I’ve released that I didn’t write, and I was a little bit timid about how it was going to be received. And it just completely changed my world. It opened my eyes up to a lot of things, especially not having to write all the songs that I record and drawing from the amazing songwriting well of Nashville.”
The Radio Guy
Tim Roberts is an Allen Park native. And, like most veteran radio people, his career has taken a long, strange and circuitous journey – through Wisconsin, North Carolina, Iowa, Washington, California, even co-hosting a morning show with his wife, Lori, in Texas – before fate brought him back home eight years ago with WYCD.
He caught the radio bug as a student at Central Michigan University, working for the campus station while commuting to Detroit’s WRIF-FM to serve as an unpaid intern for then-morning star Jim “J.J.” Johnson. He showed the gift right away. “I eventually was running the campus station, and probably one of the things I’m proudest of is that I took that little radio station, with a couple of people that really knew what they were doing, to No. 1 in the market. We got a power boost to 300 watts and we beat the country station that had been No. 1 in town.”
As you might imagine, that country station, WCEN in Mount Pleasant, wanted to meet this guy Roberts. And for a man generally regarded today as the best country radio programmer in America, his first job interview left a lot to be desired. “I remember they asked, ‘Do you know anything about country music?’ And I said, ‘Not really,’” he recalls. “They said, ‘Well, can you name any country artists?’ I was like, ‘The Eagles?’ ‘Uh, no.’ ‘Oh, how about Dolly Parton?’ I had seen her on TV.”
Incredibly, he got the job. And every subsequent step on his radio path – his first major-market opportunity in San Francisco, and the 29-station group he managed in Ohio and Michigan before coming to WYCD – has enriched his knowledge base. Now at 52, and with more than 30 years in the business, Roberts has touched the career of virtually every contemporary country artist working today. Taylor Swift considers him principally responsible for helping launch her superstar success (read that story in the “Reckless Eyeballing” blog on metrotimes.com), and she’s far from the only performer who feels that way.
> Email Jim McFarlin