The Car City Country Top 20

The writers of Car City Country present a top 20 list of country-western records made by Detroit artists between the 1930s and 1960s.

From the start of this project, Keith and I wanted to compile a compact disc for the book. Here is a list of our top 20 songs, in no particular order. These represent some of the most popular, as well as groundbreaking – and just plain good – records made by Detroit area musicians from the 1930s through the 1960s. Many of these records and artists are described with greater detail in the book “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies.”

  1. “Hamtramck Mama” York Brothers (Universal, 1939) Not only was it a polished performance of two guitars and two voices, this record started a pre-war demand for C&W entertainment in Detroit, and inspired the manufacture of homegrown records after the lean years of the Great Depression.
  2. “Tennessee Border” Jimmy Work (Alben, 1949) Work’s tune was the first non-novelty country hit in Detroit, and quickly attracted cover records by the likes of Jimmie Skinner, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Red Foley, who took the song into the national top ten chart."Please Blue Heart" by Lonnie Barron (Sage 230)
  3. “Jealous Love” Davis Sisters (Fortune, 1952) Betty Jack and Skeeter Davis cut this with Roy Hall at the piano. The girls thought they were cutting a demo for Dorothy Brown,  and according to Skeeter Davis’ biography, they were excited to see it issued on a record. A few months later, the Davis Sisters signed with the RCA-Victor label.
  4. “Please Blue Heart” Lonnie Barron (Sage, 1956) Lonnie Barron cut this song in Nashville with Casey Clark on fiddle. The record’s success helped Barron attract attention from Columbia Records.
  5. “I’m Learning” Eddie Jackson (Caravan Records, 1963) Eddie Jackson’s version of his friend Bobby Sykes’ song hit the top of Detroit C&W playlists after its release, and for good reason. Jackson led top-notch bands during his years in local nightclubs.
  6. “Dirty Boogie” Roy Hall and his Cohutta Mountain Boys (Fortune, 1949) One of the Fortune label’s best-selling juke box novelties, the band played a rough and rowdy western swing – tight yet swinging.
  7. “Tear Stained Guitar” Swanee Caldwell (King, 1963) Although singer Swanee Caldwell cut this in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was at the top of his game in Detroit nightclubs at the time. This record was a local hit, with respectable sales across the country.
  8. “Leave Well Enough Alone” Frank Wakefield and Buster Turner (Wayside, 1957) An example of early bluegrass of the Motor City, this tune gave a taste of the progressive style and influence that Frank Wakefield would wield in bluegrass circles during the coming decades.
  9. “Fickle Heart” Boots Gilbert and Bobby Sykes with Chuck Hatfield and the Treble-Aires (Fortune, 1954) Without question this record presented the most polished country-western act represented by the Fortune label. The arrangement was copied almost note-for-note by Justin Tubb and Goldie Hill in Nashville for their cover version on major label Decca Records.
  10. “We’re Satisfied” Earl [and Joyce] Songer (Coral, 1952) After recording several sides for Fortune, Earl Songer and his wife Joyce signed with Decca subsidiary Coral. Their first single for the label was cut in Detroit, featuring an uptempo beat, swell vocal harmony and electrified, Appalachian guitar picking.Picture sleeve: Billy Gill & Pete Goble with the Kentucky Rebels
  11. “Save Me All The Heartaches” Billy Gill and Pete Goble with the Kentucky Rebels (Happy Hearts, 1961) Versatile singer and songwriter Billy Gill worked with bluegrass acts (such as Billy Martin) and also sang straight country with deep feeling. He teamed up with songwriter Pete Goble, and together they sang this pure bluegrass classic.
  12. “I Can’t Stay Mad At You” Hugh Friar and the Virginia Vagabonds (Clix, 1959) Friar and band presented the rocking sound of country in Detroit with this record. Two lead guitarists, including rockabilly Jimmy Kirkland, made this a tough-sounding tune.
  13. “Pastime Girl” May Hawks (Label “X,” 1954) One of the most visible ladies in Detroit’s mid-century country music milieu, May Hawks wrote good songs and sang them with a charming Tennessee-bred voice. Working with top musicians such as the Lazy Ranch Boys (not on this record), steel guitarist Chuck Hatfield (not on this record) and guitarist Al Allen, she always made good records.
  14. “The Last Curtain” Danny Richards (Sage, 1957) One of the finest singers in Detroit, Danny Richards always came through with a heart-stirring performance on disk. Les York, who wrote the song, sang harmony on the refrain.
  15. “What In The World’s Come Over You” Jack Scott (Top Rank, 1960) Jack Scott’s second gold record, this tune reminds one of Hank Williams Senior’s songwriting, presenting a story about an experience many folks could sympathize with. Scott and his band maintained a unique, hit-making style that found his records listed in C&W and pop charts for several years."The Tattoed Lady" by Skeet's McDonald (Fortune 145)
  16. “South On 23” Curly Dan and Wilma Ann (Happy Hearts, 1963) Curly Dan and Wilma Ann’s most popular composition, “South On 23” was re-recorded for the Nashville label and generated an invitation to appear on the WSM “Grand Ole Opry.”
  17. “The Tattooed Lady” Johnnie White and his Rhythm Riders, vocal by Skeets McDonald [also issued as by Skeet’s McDonald] (Fortune, 1949) This juke box hit for Fortune Records featured hillbilly blues singer Skeets McDonald, who was a popular draw in Pontiac and Detroit during the late 1930s and 1940s. After moving to California in 1951, McDonald cut hit records for Capitol, and Columbia labels.
  18. “Ain’t No Sign I Wouldn’t If I Could” Ford Nix and the Moonshiners (Clix, 1959) Ford Nix wrote this humorous ditty and recorded it while playing electric guitar, rather than banjo, which was his main instrument. The result was a fascinating hybrid of country, bluegrass, and rockabilly.
  19. “High On The Hog” Jimmy and Russ Williams (Walker, 1966) An uptempo country record with slappin’ string bass, “High On The Hog” featured singer Jimmy Williams and his guitar picking brother Russ. The ode to a working man’s weekend fun was written by Howard Walker and recorded at Sound Incorporated of New Haven.
  20. “Lost John” Casey Clark and the Lazy Ranch Boys, vocal by Barefoot Brownie (Sage and Sand, 1956) Brownie Reynolds first cut this song with Eldon Baker’s Brown County Revelers 18 years before. The swinging performance included distinctive guitar solos by Don Hemminger, who played jazz in later years.

11 Comments. Leave new

  • Larry L. Stout
    October 27, 2013 10:30 pm

    I have to admit that I am not familar with many Detroit artists but glad to see the Davis Sisters’ “Jealous Love” on your list since they got their recording start in your area. Also glad to see one of Jack Scott’s recordings. He has always been one of my favorites. Is he still performing? Would love to see him in concert.
    BTW I got your book last week from Amazon. Haven’t read it yet other than bits and pieces. As a Skeeter Davis fan I want to thank you for the many mentions of the Davis Sisters. I will post on the Miss Skeeter Davis Fan Page Facebook that the book is out.

    • Thank you, Larry! Yes, Jack Scott is still active as a performer. He does an entertaining show, and still sounds the same as he did on his records. The first appearance of his name in this post links to his official website.

  • Craig, was there such a thing as an identifiable “Detroit sound” in country & western music?

    • Hi Doug. A Detroit sound may be hard to define because of the variety of music made within the country genre (bluegrass, Western swing, cowboy). I notice most Detroit records feature strong rhythm that pushes the beat, whether the group had drums or not, but this observation alone could not make the case for a regional sound.

  • Another observation on the “Detroit sound” in country music could point out the very unique combination of bluegrass and rockabilly that can be heard on many recordings from Ford Nix, Ray Taylor, Hugh Friar, Rufus Schoffner, Earl & Joyce Songer, and several other lesser known Fortune Records artists from the 50’s & 60’s. Whether this can be a defining genre or just a unique hybrid of the region is up for debate.

  • Thanks, guys … I had heard the (untested) theory espoused once that musicians who worked in the rhythmic pounding of the auto factories tended toward heavier beats in their own music. At the least, it’s fun to speculate about that.

  • I love the list and am looking forward to exploring it further. Does anyone know if there was any conversation or cross-over between this and the vibrant blues scene going on at the same time in the African American community in Detroit?

    • David: We have not encountered stories of country musicians interacting with blues artists in Detroit. The segregated Hastings Street neighborhood was near an east side strip of clubs that employed C&W entertainers, so one might speculate that musical influences could have crossed community borders. We did find evidence of white jazz musicians playing on some Detroit country records during the late 1940s to mid-1950s.


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