We’ve come a long way from the 1983 festival described by the Free Press as “an extravaganza of nonstop country and bluegrass music, square dancing, banjo picking and yodeling.”
Twenty-eight years after that inaugural Downtown Hoedown, the annual event has become a Detroit institution, reliably packing the 50,000-capacity Hart Plaza with curiosity seekers and committed country fans.
But it won’t be Tanya Tucker and Mel Tillis atop the bill this time: Reflecting the evolution that has transformed country music from Americana into big-time American entertainment, this weekend’s Hoedown will pulse with the beat of pop, rock and even a touch of hip-hop, as a new generation of Nashville hit-makers takes the stage.
Headliners Joe Nichols, Josh Gracin and Jason Aldean lead a cast of 27 main-stage artists, while about 20 local acts will play during daylight hours at the secondary riverside stage. And the good news for old-school fans: You’ll still find some traditional country sounds in the mix.
Westland native Josh Gracin puts a Motown spin on his new record
It’s been a while since he had a Michigan address. But you’d better believe that Josh Gracin still has plenty of Detroit fire running through his veins.
After a dicey few years that found him fighting with his record label, wrestling for creative control and finally embarking on a new career path, the 30-year-old Westland native is heading to this weekend’s WYCD Downtown Hoedown in a freewheeling and feisty mood.
“They made me feel like an outsider,” he says of the powers-that-be in Nashville, where he moved nearly a decade ago. “And they made me develop a chip on my shoulder. I decided I’ll handle things on my own, handle my own business.”
He doesn’t mince words about his battle with Lyric Street Records, which issued his self-titled debut in 2004, a year after Gracin’s fourth-place finish on “American Idol” made him a household figure — the rugged U.S. Marine with the smooth country baritone.
Indeed, he’s got beefs with big-time Nashville and showbiz in general, a world that he says is fixated on “a lot of quick money,” often to the detriment of artists’ careers. Even as the album debuted at No. 2 and went gold, disputes emerged about song selection, the timing of singles and the overall branding push.
“We got into some huge skirmishes. I didn’t agree with a lot of things they were doing, and you can see how far my albums were spaced out,” Gracin says, citing the four-year gap between his first and second records. “And there’s the double-edged sword of television: It can get your face out there, get you a lot of followers, but that can hurt you greatly when you’re not on so much anymore. I just wasn’t being set up for a long-term situation.”
A couple of years in the wilderness followed his 2008 departure from Lyric Street, as Gracin examined his options. The fans who’d been young teens when he first stormed their television sets were now college kids who had drifted away from both “Idol” and country music.
“I spent three days going through thousands of the friends on my Facebook page, and it was startling to me that there was hardly any country music coming up,” he says. “We had to find ways to reach my old fan base from ‘Idol.’ “
Seven months later, he’d expanded his Facebook following nearly sixfold, to more than 38,000 fans. An avid Twitter user and social-media advocate, Gracin was steadily getting the word out: I’m still here, I’m taking a new musical ride, and y’all are coming with me.
And so comes his bold third album, set for autumn release by the indie label Average Joe’s Entertainment, which has given Gracin ample creative leeway — “pretty much whatever I wanted with the project.”
Fans at his Hoedown headlining show Saturday night will hear his live rendition of the record’s first single, “Long Way to Go,” which will be released by Memorial Day. It’s a change of pace for Gracin, a rhythmic summer tune that will get pushed not to country radio, but to pop.
” ‘Michigan music’ is what I call it,” he says. “I grew up listening to Motown and R&B — that’s how I learned to sing. It wasn’t until 13 that I got into country. This album has a lot of Motown-flavored melodies and movements, and this is a real grooving, windows-down kind of single.”
Gracin says he’s feeling confident again, and life is bustling at his house 30 minutes south of Nashville, where he lives with his wife, three daughters and son. Gracin’s parents and three of his four sisters have all migrated to the area from metro Detroit.
“This can still be very surreal to me,” says Gracin, a John Glenn High School grad. “I haven’t changed at all since I stepped onstage. I do my own yard work, paint my own house. I’m lucky to have family around me because they’re quick to knock me back to Earth. And being raised in Michigan … it’s the call-it-like-you-see-it state. So that’s a big part of it.”
And call it he will — even if it means wrangling with that chip on his shoulder.
“I’ve just been trying for the last seven years to prove that I’m not the normal talent-show kid. The normal stereotype is that people think it’s pretty much karaoke,” he says. “That’s why I wanted this record to be the way it is. I insisted on writing and producing it so everybody could keep their damned mouth shut.”