Forest Rye’s trail from Detroit to the ‘Grand Ole Opry’

Forest Rye, 1930s

Forest Rye, 1930s. Source: Linda Rye Austin

A long line of men dressed in rugged suits filed past iron gates on Manchester Street in Highland Park, Michigan, as they did every morning, into the Ford Motor Company facility. One by one, they flashed their Ford badges at the guard stationed in a small shack. Outside the gate, a 15 year-old boy stood near the shack, hands in his trouser pockets, chatting with the uniformed man inside, who interrupted the conversation every so often to check someone’s identification.

“I brought ya some apples,” the young man said with a Tennessee drawl, and handed a paper sack to the guard, who gave one apple back. After sharing a snack together, the young man asked, “Say, what are my chances today? Like I said before, I’m ready to work at anything.”

The guard tolerated his daily appearances, eventually warming up to his friendly personality and persistence. It was obvious the young man, who showed up at the morning whistle every day, intended to stay in Detroit. “Well,” said the guard while keeping his eye on workers entering the property, “There’s a small opening in the fence about sixty feet east of here. It may be wide enough for you to slip through. I reckon I can’t stop you, if I don’t see you.” He took his eyes off the shuffling plant workers long enough to look the kid in the eyes and say, “I know you won’t cause me no trouble.”

“No, sir!” The wide-eyed young man continued chewing apple.

“I just happen to know a foreman who’s looking for a welder,” said the guard. “If you get in, look up Fred Walker.” The young man thanked the guard, who nodded, too preoccupied to look up. Then he strode east to the gap in the fence, slipped through, and secured a position at Ford.

Working man, day and night

"On Down The Line" by Rye's Red River Blue Yodlers (Hot Wax 1616-B)Trained on the job as a welder, Forest Rye had grown up in Erin, Tennessee, west of Nashville. Born December 19, 1910, Rye learned to play fiddle and guitar before he left home in 1924. When Rye was a small boy, champion fiddler Walter Warden, from McEwen, Tennessee, and an early influence on Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, schooled him in music. Warden lived up the road from the Rye household, and thought so highly of Rye that he gave him a fiddle. When Rye came to Detroit, he found a room in a boarding house, and doggedly spent about a week talking his way into Ford’s Highland Park facility. [1]

A pioneer country music bandleader in Detroit, Rye entertained at house parties through the 1930s, eventually leading groups of musicians in local cafes and bars. In 1937 he married, and moved back to Erin, where he started a grocery with his savings. He visited friends in Detroit occasionally, and after divorcing in 1939, Rye returned to Detroit’s east side, near Chrysler facilities where he worked the day shift.

The area surrounding East Jefferson Avenue near St. Jean included neighborhoods of white Southerners who had moved for work in local factories. In this environment, Rye formed Rye’s Red River Blue Yodlers, and gigged steadily at the Torch Club on East Jefferson. They may have performed on Detroit radio as well.

Listen to: Rye’s Red River Blue Yodlers – You Had Time To Think It Over

In early 1942, the band cut a record for the Mellow Record Company, based in the Mellow Music Shop a few blocks away from the Torch Club. “You Had Time Think It Over” backed with “On Down The Line” were pressed on the Hot Wax label (with Mellow catalog number 1616 – it was pressed on Mellow, too). Vocals on the Hot Wax label were attributed to “Conrad Brooks,” a fake name Rye used on the record – perhaps to avoid public association with the hot lyrics of “On Down The Line,” a risqué song made strictly for jukebox plays in bars. The band included Rye’s fiddle, Hawaiian (lap) steel, rhythm guitar, and bass.

1942 Grand Ole Opry portrait of the cast

The 1942 cast of the “Grand Ole Opry” on the stage of Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium. Forest Rye, dressed as Little Willie Rye, stands next to announcer George D. Hay at far right. Source: Linda Rye Austin

Little Willie Rye

Rye’s stage show included humor, and as early as 1942 he was making appearances on the WSM Nashville radio’s “Grand Ole Opry” as comedian Little Willie Rye. This made him the first Detroiter to perform with the “Opry.” Many Detroit musicians would follow Rye’s path, beginning with the York Brothers after World War II. Not to mention a few musicians who moved to Detroit after first performing at the “Opry” (e.g., Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Okie Jones, and Chick Stripling).

Rye moved back to Tennessee in 1945 and married again. He returned to Detroit in 1947 as his family began to grow, remaining through 1955. Soon after this third move to Michigan, Rye secured a gig at WXYZ radio with his Sage Brush Ranch Boys, a band that included bassist Earl “Shorty Frog” Allen, who led his own band in Detroit several years later. [2]

Listen to: Rye’s Red River Blue Yodlers – On Down The Line

For a couple of years during the late 1940s, Mountain Red appeared with Rye’s Sage Brush Ranch Boys in Pontiac area nightclubs as a featured singer. Red also appeared with Rye on WXYZ, when he wasn’t performing his solo programs at WCAR radio Pontiac.

The Sage Brush Ranch Boys at WXYZ Detroit radio studios, late 1940s

The Sage Brush Ranch Boys at WXYZ Detroit radio, late 1940s. From left: unknown, Jimmy Stringfield, Forest Rye, and Earl “Shorty Frog” Allen. Source: Linda Rye Austin

Rye often let other musicians sit in with his band in Detroit nightclubs. Joyce Songer recalled performing with the Sage Bruch Ranch Boys several times, when she and husband Earl started their musical career, around 1949. [3]

Rye maintained ties to Nashville, including relationships at WSM with announcer George D. Hay and many performers. Singer Pete Pyle, a 1940s recording artist (Bluebird label) and one-time member of the Bill Monroe and Pee Wee King bands, was a fast friend, eventually moving next door to Rye’s house in Taylor, Michigan. They appeared together in local nightclubs, such as the West Fort Tavern on West Fort Street in Southwest Detroit. In 1953, Rye and Pyle cut sessions for Fortune Records. Rye’s “Wildcat Boogie” and Pyle’s “Are You Making A Fool of Me?” were combined on a single record (Fortune 172). [4]

In 1955 Rye and Pyle moved their families back to Tennessee. As Little Willie Rye, Rye worked on Nashville radio as a solo comedian, and with the band of Big Jeff Bess. He wrote songs, operated a song publishing company (Geraldine), produced and made his own recordings [5], and issued music on his own record label (Forest), besides playing music in studios and on stages. He also booked acts for WSM radio and Nashville area venues. In 1967 Rye left behind his activities in country music to become a Christian preacher. He passed away April 24, 1988.

Notes

  1. Linda Rye Austin interviewed by Craig Maki in 2012-13.
  2. Shorty Frog cut his own record at the Fortune studio on 3rd Street in Detroit around 1958 (“Sheddin’ Tears Over You” b/w “I’m Glad You Didn’t Say Goodbye” by Shorty Frog and his Space Cats, Hi-Q 12).
  3. Joyce (Songer) Singo interviewed by Craig Maki in 2008. Singo’s story appears in the forthcoming book “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies” from University of Michigan Press.
  4. Steel guitarist Chuck Hatfield and guitarist Al Allen played on Pyle’s session.
  5. For example, in 1960 Little Willie Rye and the Old Timers made “Road Of Happiness” b/w “Make Believe Girl” for Pace Records (1007).

10 Comments to "Forest Rye’s trail from Detroit to the ‘Grand Ole Opry’"

  • chandra guthrie
    February 4, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    I would always love to sit back and listen to my grandma tell me storys about my pape forest rye and her

    • February 4, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

      Glad we could post this story, Chandra. He was truly a musical pioneer in the Detroit area.

  • February 19, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

    Good to see this review of Forest Rye. He was a dear friend and we spent many hours together visiting people all over Houston County and hospitals in Nashville, and Clarkesville. His badge was his old big Bible that he pored over in his living room and carried with him everywhere. He read that same big Bible to whoever would let him read it to them. He led many men to Christ, reading that Bible to them. He prayed a lot and was a man of great faith. He wanted to see the Lord’s work done. Though he had a heart condition, he kept pushing on. I ate many meals from Mrs. Rye’s kitchen and took one extra dog home with me that the kids enjoyed. Had great fellowship and have many good memories of the children growing up.

    • February 20, 2013 at 7:24 am #

      Dan: Thanks for sharing your memories of Forest Rye.

  • August 4, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

    Fascinating piece, fills in lots of blanks, explains why Pete Pyle and Forrest Rye shared a release on FORTUNE.

    “On Down The Line” and “You Had Time To Think It Over” were released on MELLOW 1616, although the MELLOW release was just credited to Rye’s Blue Yodelers, with no vocalist credited (I can scan both sides of the record if required).

    There is also a release by Rye’s Red River Blue Yodelers on UNIVERSAL (issue # 1002) “Snake Bite Blues” / “Don’t Come Cryin’ Round Me Mama”, vocalist (on both sides) is Conrad Brooks. I would imagine that the UNIVERSAL release predates the MELLOW / HOT WAX record.

    Forrest Rye also had two releases on MERCURY in 1951 “Crying My Eyes Out” / After All These Years” (6328) and “Midnight Boogie Blues” / Won’t You Give Me A Little Loving” (6329)

    • August 4, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

      Thanks for the comments, sir! I believe the Universal release came before Mellow and Hot Wax records, as well. By the way, you’ve done great work on your blog!

  • Pamela
    November 29, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

    Growing up as a kid I had no idea my Uncle Forest was famous… Just that he could play a mean fiddle. I remember always doing things the old fashioned way in the Rye family, right down to hauling manure for the garden… Everyone worked… Kids too!!! Then we went swimming in the swimming hole. Afterward, everyone ate. There was somehow always plenty of country cooked food in the Rye home… And if you didn’t feel welcome… Well that was your own doin’ cause they greeted everyone at the door with a hug and took em straight to the kitchen for something to eat and drink!!oh… BTW… There were way too many of us to not find someone to talk too or go unnoticed! It was the warmest place to be…

    • November 29, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

      Thanks for your sharing your childhood memories of your uncle, Pamela.

  • May 23, 2016 at 1:47 pm #

    Forest was my great uncle! My grandpa “Pete” John Rye helped manage him. He always told me stories about Forest. It’s always great to read about my families musical history as I myself have made a bit of my own music history.

    • May 23, 2016 at 9:31 pm #

      Nice to hear from you, Jake! Glad to see you’re keeping the Rye family name current in the music biz.

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