For Craig “Bones” Maki, Detroit’s musical legacy extends beyond Motown, the MC5 and Eminem.
It includes a bygone era filled with early country music – imagine barn dances, radio shows and jukeboxes blaring emerging country, western, bluegrass and rockabilly stars right here in the Motor City.
As early as the 1930s, a growing series of country radio stations, nightclubs and record labels emerged to supporting Detroit’s thriving scene. Over the next four decades, several local country music stars, including the York Brothers, Chief Redbird, Swanee Caldwell and Eddie Jackson, proved Detroit could rival Nashville.
“I wound up finding out that there were a number of records made in Detroit during that era, and I was really interested in that because I had no idea that something like that had happened,” said Maki, who co-wrote “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies” with Keith Cady in 2013. “I’m very curious about local history, so I wound up tracking down a few fellows.”
In 1990, Maki unearthed a goldmine of Detroit country music while spinning 1950s rockabilly records at WCBN-FM, a freeform Ann Arbor radio station at the University of Michigan. He took over as host of the specialty “Rockabilly Show” and played timeless tracks by past Detroit country artists. Maki continued that tradition when he later moved to “Honey Radio” (560 AM) in Oak Park.
“I started doing interviews for it just because I was so curious to learn more about the music, and a lot of the guys who were in the studio and in the ‘50s making it were still around and performing here and there,” said Maki, also a metro Detroit country singer-songwriter and guitarist.
Maki will celebrate that overlooked era of Detroit country music with the Blue Water Boys Feb. 21 as part of the Farmington Civic Theater’s “LIVE!” 2020 winter concert series. Special guests Rochelle Clark and Caleb Peters will open the show.
During their set, Maki and the Blue Water Boys will spotlight classics from Detroit country music legends as well as originals from Maki’s other vintage-inspired projects, including Big Barn Combo and the Sun Dodgers from the early 2000s. For the current band, it’s like opening a country music time capsule for today’s audiences to hear yesterday’s sonic treasures.
“We’re gonna do some tunes from the Big Barn Combo album, we’re gonna do a couple of tunes from the Sun Dodgers material, and we’re gonna do some songs that we think deserve more attention that were recorded by the guys we reported on in the book,” Maki said.
Paying Tribute to Vintage Detroit Country Music
Along with Maki, Ben Luttermoser (guitar), Russ Vallee (guitar), Loney Charles (drums) and Cady (upright bass) of the Blue Water Boys will pay tribute to Jack Scott, the York Brothers, Ricky Riddle, Jimmy Kirkland, Jimmy Work and more.
One timeless track will include “Hamtramck Mama” by the York Brothers. Originally recorded in 1939 at Universal Recording Studios on East Jefferson, it was the first country record pressed and sold in Detroit. As an ode to a red-hot playgirl, it caused a local controversy when Hamtramck Mayor Walter Kanar sought a court order to stop it from being played in barrooms and café jukeboxes.
Despite its controversy, the catchy track features deep high-tone guitars and thumping bass to celebrate the 1947 version of “Hamtramck Mama” – “Talkin’ about your truckin’ mama boys, I’ve got one/She’s a Hamtramck baby, and she has her fun/She’s a Hamtramck mama, and she sure does know her stuff/She’s the hottest thing in town, but lordy how she can love.”
“It sold more than 300,000 copies in the city alone, and it was 80 years old last year. After the success, another jukebox operator on the east side, he owned a couple of music shops, and he had the York Brothers record like 30 or 35 different sides, and he pressed 15 to 20 records that we know of just by the York Brothers before they went into the navy in ’44. It was just an amazing trove of early country music in Detroit,” Maki said.
Maki and the Blue Water Boys will also share an original track called “Blue Water Baby” from Maki’s rockabilly and western swing days with the Sun Dodgers. The fast-paced summer ditty eloquently brings vibrant guitar and pulsating bass together – “In the summer when it’s time to play, and the air is hot and hazy/You’ll find me cruisin’ around the bay with my blue water baby/The breeze is cool and the lake is warm, but our day too is lazy/But hey, who’s that tippin’ my inner tube, it’s my blue water baby.”
“The Blue Water Boys are called that because I had an EP called ‘Blue Water Baby’ after a song I wrote about running around on Lake St. Clair near where I grew up, and then this buddy of mine from high school got in touch two years ago through Facebook,” said Maki, who’s influenced by Chet Atkins and Eddie Jackson.
“His name’s Russ (Vallee), he was a guitarist back then, and they had this great teenage rock and roll band back in high school that played ‘50s rock and roll, and I always got a kick out of it, and sometimes they let me sit in and sing something.”
Compiling ‘Detroit Country Music’
After discovering a shared love of the same old-time music, Maki and Vallee performed live together and then quickly brought Luttermoser, Charles and Cady into the fold. It served as a welcoming chance for the band to reignite that spark of vintage Detroit country and rockabilly music.
“I’ve played music with Bones off and on since we met in 1995, both onstage and off. He asked me to be part of the Blue Water Boys because he knew how much I obsess over this music we are presenting at this show. I’m sure anyone could play it, but someone who has a deep love and understanding of it will always put more heart and soul into any presentation of it,” Cady said.
Cady discovered his co-author while listening to Maki, aka Rockin’ Bones, on “Honey Radio.” Maki often took on-air calls from Cady, and the two ran into each other at local record shows. Cady soon interned at “Honey Radio” as a Specs Howard School of Broadcasting student and later joined WSDS-AM in Ypsilanti to share traditional country music from the ‘50s to the present (or circa 1997). The two kept in touch while working at their respective radio stations.
“Craig and I shared a love of local music from the first time we met. And it became very clear one night at the funeral of one of our many great local artists that we realized we needed to be proactive on the preservation of Detroit’s history. We gathered phone numbers that night, and I started conducting interviews with the aid of the radio station’s well-equipped production studios,” said Cady, who discovered a love of bluegrass at age 19.
Together, the duo amassed a wealth of Detroit country music history while conducting artist interviews before and after they decided to co-write their 2013 book, “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies.”
“He and I would go down to Nashville to the hall of fame and the library and look things up down there on microfiche and listen to old records that they had down there in the library that had Michigan artists on them. It took about 20 years of research and 10 years of writing it to get it published,” Maki said.
Maki and Cady have received significant press for their book during the past seven years. They have more than enough interviews, stories and photos for a second edition or possibly a sequel.
“As far as updating the book, we have so much more material that we honestly could do an encyclopedia set,” Cady said. “We have continued to self-publish on our website, carcitycountry.com, and update existing stories from the book as well as new artist overviews for people to learn about.”
In the meantime, Maki, Cady and the Blue Water Boys will continue to share old and new Detroit country music treasures with local crowds. Together, their music will serve as another time capsule for future audiences to discover and enjoy.
“We’re still wrapping our chops around these tunes, but I could see us doing something in the near future for sure,” Maki said. “We’ll probably play more locally and make some recordings to promote it and then maybe foresee some festival gigs like that with the recordings.”
Craig “Bones” Maki and the Blue Water Boys with Rochelle Clark and Caleb Peters
Friday, Feb. 21 | Doors 7:30 p.m. | Show 8 p.m.
Farmington Civic Theater, 33332 Grand Rive Ave. in Farmington