What is SeMi Bluegrass? It's a meeting place where live music fans in Southeast Michigan gather to exchange information about the live music scene: show reviews, cool venues, band profiles, product reviews and more.
Articles, news, reviews and band profiles welcome.
Email to: SeMiBluegrass@gmail.com

If you're looking for the South East Michigan Bluegrass Music Association (A fine group of Bluegrass fans in South East Michigan) you can find them at http://smbluegrass.org/

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Little Known History of Detroit Bluegrass

Guest Commentary by Hugh Fader

Editor's Note:  SeMiBluegrass welcomes submissions from all our readers.  Here's an excellent article by Hugh Fader on the History of Bluegrass in Detroit.   Good Job Hugh!

CKLW Press Photo: Sonny & Bobby Osborne, Jimmy Martin
When people think of Detroit music they usually think Motown or the early garage rock rumblings of The MC5 and The Stooges. Or possibly as the home of Jack White and location of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. What's not well known is that for a brief period during the 1950s, Detroit was also a hotbed of bluegrass activity. This is documented by Neil Rosenberg in Bluegrass: A History – a great book with loads of facts about bluegrass music. (And you know this is a serious book because there's a colon in the title.)

Sonny Osborne on WJR
The immigrants from Appalachia that poured into the city to work in the auto factories in early to mid-20th century brought their musical tastes with them. And this provided a ready-made audience for the music that was soon to be called bluegrass. Most notably, former Bluegrass Boy Jimmy Martin teamed up with The Osborne Brothers for The Lazy Ranch Barn Dance on WJR radio and CKLW television. Later, Jimmy and the Osbornes split. While still in Detroit, Jimmy formed his band The Sunny Mountain Boys.

Wayside Records Ad in Billboard Magazine
There was even a bluegrass record company headquartered in Detroit: brothers Wade and Wiley Birchfield's Wayside Records. The Birchfields were songwriters and players themselves and active on the Detroit bluegrass scene. In fact, Wade wrote Jimmy Martin's first single “Hit Parade of Love.” In his book Rosenberg shows a small ad for Wayside Records that appeared in a 1957 issue of Billboard. There are two things I find interesting about this. First, the ad is subtitled “Music Blue Grass Style.” This is one of the first documented commercial uses of the term bluegrass. Second, the ad gives the address of the record company (the Birchfield's house) as 1298 St. Jean Avenue, Detroit 14, Mich. Sadly, Google Street View shows that this is now a vacant lot off of Jefferson Avenue

Wayside Records Logo?

It's really great that we have a growing family of bluegrass musicians here in the Detroit area. And hats off to John Bayerl for SemiBluegrass.com and his other tireless promotional work. As a born and raised Detroiter, I love that there are venues inside and outside of the city limits to hear this great music.


Rosenberg, Neil V. (1993), Bluegrass: A History.  University of Illinois Press.

Billboard Magazine, April 16, 1955 article discussing Osborne/Martin on Detroit radio and TV

Note: this is a link to the record company's google map

Link on Banjo Hangout to Sonny Osborne identifying photo from CKLW

Link to site where I found Wayside Records logo. Not positive it's the same Wayside.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fantastic Festival on Harsen's Island!

Festival:  Harsen's Island Bluegrass Festival

Lots of great SeMiBluegrassfestivals this year...but this one could be my favorite.  Not 100% bluegrass, but did have the copious amounts of "the Three Bs--Beer, BBQ, and Bluegrass."

Concert Promoter Kristin talks to the boys backstage
This year marked the 3rd Harsen's Island Bluegrass Festival put on by Schoolhouse Grille owners Kristin and her husband.  They are blessed with a beautiful field in their back yard and make excellent use of it for the festival.  There was plenty of space to park, lots of sunny grassy areas to set up chairs, and ample seating under the shade tents as well.  The beer tent was well supplied with bottled beer, great wine and awesome microbrews (watch out for the Black IPA--deadly).  There were several very cool art vendors set up, including a local found glass artist who was simply amazing.  The Schoolhouse Grille provides the food...and it's terrific!  Walking onto the grounds to see a couple of bone-in  steamship rounds of beef rotating on spits over charcoal could be one of the sexiest food sightings I've had all summer.  Breakfast at the restaurant the next day was even better.

The Hillrays
Chasin' Steel
The bluegrass was terrific as well.  The Hillrays from Ann Arbor got the crowd going with their swingy, western-influenced take on classic bluegrass. Chasin' Steel drove all the way from Marquette to melt the crowd's faces with their high-energy "bluegrass with a rock-n-roll edge".  This was the first time in a couple years that Chasin' Steel has made trek down to the SeMi area and the fans still love them.  They are looking to entrench themselves in the SeMiBluegrass Scene with an appearance at Bluegrass Night @ the Circus bar in a couple weeks (August 29th).  You won't want to miss that! The hard-driving, made-in-Michigan sounds of Dexter's Lonesome County finished the crowd off and sent them home smiling.  Every time LC plays, they get better.  The mix of  killer instrumentals and great new originals is really coming together to form something special.
George Heritier wowing the crowd.

The Motor City Melodies
Their was definitely a SeMiBluegrass element to the festival as well.  Local cover artist "Jammin' Joe Vance" entertained the crowd with his powerful voice and guitar licks. A group of young ladies called the Motor City Melodies took turns singing lead and harmony to some popular pop and country songs.  Not even remotely bluegrass...but very cool to see some kids learning the music biz by getting up on stage and doing it.  Ann Arbor legend David Mosher and Teresa (sometimes the Pine Warblers) gave us a stunning set of dual-vocal harmony songs.  And George Heritier from Oak Park shared his clever songwriting, cool and entertaining lyrics and hot guitar/harmonica riffs.  He got the best round of applause for the whole festival!  I am a huge fan of acoustic blues and folk music and George is one of the best I have heard.  I would make it a point to go see him ANY time he plays, it will be well worth the effort!

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Listening Festival

Festivals:  Milan Bluegrass Festival 2012

One of the great things about Michigan is the fantastic variety of music festivals every summer.  It seems like there's some sort of festival going every weekend!  Perhaps this is why many festivals have evolved distinct personalities:  The Kendallville Festival is THE pickers' festival...the WMBA Mayfest is the FIRST festival of the season...and the Wilder Festivals (Charlotte and Milan) are where you go to see the BEST acts.

Rhonda Vincent meets the future of SeMiBluegrass
I always make a point of attending the Milan festival (since it's in the heart of SeMiBluegrass country--I feel like it's our "home" festival).  The host venue (KC Campground) is a nice little campground, clean, well maintained and staffed with hard-working and caring people to make sure you enjoy your stay.  There's plenty of shade, both indoor and portable restroom facilities, and a large beach/playground/swimming hole for the kids.  The center of the campground (with camping on all sides) is a large field with a stage on one end and a large pavilion in the center that becomes the festival grounds.  There is plenty of grass area to set up your chair and even a good deal of shade near the stage.  There is always a decent sound system, though it seemed to me that they had "upgraded" this year, as the sound was fantastic all over the campground.  In fact, due to light rain most of the day Thursday and Friday, my daughter and I sat at a picnic table under a canopy on our campsite and listened to many of the acts from a distance.

Festival Favorites Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out
Traditionally, Thursday is devoted to smaller and regional acts, with Friday and Saturday building up though national and "A List" acts, culminating in the Saturday headliners.  Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out play their traditional Friday sets, complete with a picnic dinner and their annual, rousing game of "cornhole" with one of the local families.  As usual they were fantastic and it is easy to see how they earned (and deserved) nine IBMA nominations this year!  Well rehearsed stage banter, tight -three and four-part harmonies, Moore's quintessentially bluegrass vocals and the ridiculous talent of Wayne Benson on mandolin/mandola are a pure joy to watch. 

Junior and the Boys Getting It Done In The Rain!
In an era of dwindling attendance and aging fan bases, it was good to see the concert area nearly full for many of the acts.  In fact, there were a LOT more young families and tons of children there this year.  Several of the acts mentioned that Michigan fans were diehard fans, and this was put to the test Friday when Junior Sisk & Rambler's choice showed up ON THE WRONG DAY!  The event organizers managed to squeeze them in during dinner and a late night set to close the day.  Unfortunately, it was fairly cold and raining during both sets.  However, most of the seats were full of raincoat and umbrella wielding fans.  The band responded to these hardy fans with two amazing sets.  Junior is a great lead singer and rhythm guitar player who really knows how to embrace the traditional style.  The high, lonesome vocals are powerful and clear.  And nobody works the single mic as well as Rambler's choice.  While some might ignore the bands constant swaying and fidgeting, it is obvious to those who watch them that they are subtly controlling the rise and fall of their sound, mixing and equalizing it to perfection.  They really stole the show Friday.

Audie Blaylock and Redline.  Hard Driving.  'Nuff Said.
After a long night of jamming with a couple of the infamous "big" jams at Milan (yes...there is jamming there...and it's damn good), we woke on Saturday to clearing weather and a little bit of sun.  There were a lot of great acts scheduled.  My daughter and I caught sets by Rhonda Vincent (solid) and the Grascals (entertaining), then ate lunch and got set up for two of my favorite acts.  New Found Road used to play on Thursday and made the most of their "promotion" to Saturday this year.  They were tight, played some killer instrumentals and were very entertaining.  I was going to call them the best act of Saturday (they were really very good) when Audie Blaylock and his band Redline took the stage.  Great young pickers, Audie's timeless voice and enthusiasm, the killer mandolin licks of Jessie Brock and Audie's unique, machine gun style rhythm playing really define the word "drive" in bluegrass.  This is an amazing band.  I was afraid to blink in case missed something.  Go see them.  Really.  Do it.

Guitar Raffle for the Pickin' on CF festival at KC Campgound
 This year, Milan wins my award for best vendors of the year.  They have the usual bluegrass t-shirt trailer and a great local music shop with lots of entry level instruments, picks, strings, etc.  I saw at least six kids walking around with starter guitars and mandolins, so I assume they had a great festival.  The food's pretty good too.  The ice cream shack didn't seem too busy...until they added hot coffee!  There was a local non-profit hosting a pulled pork dinner on Saturday (I tried a sample...it was excellent).  But I really look forward to a beans and cornbread dinner from the campground snackshop each year.  Both the green beans with ham and potatoes, and slow cooked pinto beans are to die for.  Nothing better after a long day of listening to music and getting ready for yet another all night picking session.  In closing, make it a point to check out the Milan Bluegrass Festival next year, it's a great event with fantastic people.  See you there!