Ever since finding out the research Craig and I had compiled was actually going to be published in a book, “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies,” the most frequent question I’ve received from people is, “What was the coolest thing you found in your research?” I always answer the same thing: meeting the people who made this music! My research led me to talk with hundreds of people, whether they were bandleaders, musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, club owners, or fans. Each person had something special and enlightening to add to the story. Many conversations were over the telephone, but I also traveled across the Midwest and South, visiting with several folks over the years. As the bass player in a traveling bluegrass band, I found myself in cities where some of our contacts had moved after retiring from working in Detroit. Every one of them was so kind, and the warmth and excitement they communicated refreshed and encouraged me.
On several occasions I had the honor of being the guest of singer Okie Jones at his ranch outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. During the late 1940s and 1950s, Okie was a ball of energy on stage and off, traveling as part of Little Jimmy Dickens’ troupe and with Casey Clark’s Lazy Ranch Boys in Detroit. My visits often turned into a weekend of stories and sing-along sessions late into the nights. Okie shared with me songs he’d never recorded, and we taped some in his living room with a makeshift studio I had the habit or carrying with me on my trips [Reminds me of folk music archivist Alan Lomax! – Craig]. We also put several of his recitation numbers on tape for the first time ever.
Many memorable visits happened right here in Michigan, too. The first time I visited the farming community of Delton was to witness an induction ceremony for the Michigan Country Music Hall of Fame in July 2001 (Look for a blog post about memories and photos of trips to the MCMHOF in the future.) That day, I met a truly amazing woman and a real legend in the Detroit country music scene of the 1940s and 1950s. May Hawks had been inducted previously, and she returned to perform and support the new inductees, when I sat with her on her friend’s bus. We recorded an very long interview that day, and she expressed amazement that after all these years, this “kid” knew all about her records from half a century ago (I was all of 23 at the time). After we passed the guitar around a few times on the bus, she asked if I would play on stage with her that afternoon. I was bowled over with delight, and we performed about three songs, the highlight being an electrifying version with audience participation of “Ya’ll Come.” May Hawks’ full story can be read for the first time in the book.
I organized one of my most memorable visits at the Detroit area home of Al Allen and his wife, Kathy. I had visited them many times before, but this time we invited Jack Scott. Al played lead guitar on many of Jack’s hit records from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and although they parted as friends when they stopped working together, they hadn’t seen each other in several decades. I remember the tears in Al and Kathy’s eyes as they hugged Jack’s neck, and they seemed right back where they had left off, all those years ago. As part of their 1950s road show, Jack would sing Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” and Al would not only play lead guitar, he’d step up to the microphone and sing a clear, pitch-perfect harmony. This and many other great country standards were played in Al’s basement that day. I would often find myself forgetting to play along on my bass, as I just watched and listened to this magical combination of musicians who obviously worked so well together years ago, working together just as well that day. Singer Danny Richards, another Detroit legend and good friend, stopped in to lend a tune or two. Getting the three of them together was certainly one of the highlights of my experience.
On another occasion at Al Allen’s house, Danny Richards showed up with guitarist Jimmy Crabtree, and I recorded a few songs as I played bass with them. Here’s a sample from the session, a song made popular by Porter Wagoner.