Country-western bandleader Forest Rye entertained in Detroit nightclubs, and on radio from the 1920s through the 1950s. Rye was the first Detroiter (of many) to perform at the “Grand Ole Opry.”
Forest Rye’s trail from Detroit to the ‘Grand Ole Opry’
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
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. 
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 in 1939, Rye returned to Detroit, where he found work as a welder at the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge Plant.
On the other side of town, 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’s Red River Blue Yodlers, gigged steadily at the Torch Club on East Jefferson. They may have performed on Detroit radio as well.
In early 1942, the band cut a record for the Mellow Record Company, based 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, and rhythm guitar.
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. 
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.
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. 
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). 
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 , 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.
- Linda Rye Austin interviewed by Craig Maki in 2012-13.
- 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).
- 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.
- Steel guitarist Chuck Hatfield and guitarist Al Allen played on Pyle’s session.
- For example, in 1960 Little Willie Rye and the Old Timers made “Road Of Happiness” b/w “Make Believe Girl” for Pace Records (1007).