Despite the fact the Downtown Hoedown has been happening annually in Detroit since 1983, despite the fact that we have a flourishing country scene here in the city — and certainly in Michigan — it’s still tough for many people to look at the Hoedown with anything other than scorn.
It’s a “worlds collide” thing — the traditional Stetson and cowboy boot aesthetic of mainstream country music clashing with the gritty, urban surroundings of Downtown Detroit. That being said, however, those naysayers are wrong to scoff.
It’s been noted that if you don’t like country music then you simply haven’t heard the right song yet. Yes, pop people like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain exist, but so do incredibly gifted songwriters like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson — and let’s not forget Johnny Cash. At its best, country music tells real people’s stories. It’s been called the white man’s blues and there’s some truth in that.
Kat Beal of the Kat Beal Band knows that this is all true. Beal is performing at the Hoedown this year for the first time in her young career, and she’s well aware of the perceived contradiction of a Detroit artist playing country.
“I’m hearing a lot of that,” she says. “People ask, ‘Is there a lot of country music in Detroit?’ In fact, it has a pretty good following. Each country song has its own individual impact on people’s lives, and the folks that have been able to relate to certain songs for whatever reason will feel the impact more.”
Beal grew up in Lexington, Mich. “My mother passed away when I was very young, so I was raised by my father and step-mother,” she says. “I had nine brothers and three sisters. I know, it sounds like the beginning of a country song. I’ve always been a writer. My whole life, I’ve always written poetry and songs. I was in the church choir, and my father always encouraged me to sing, be creative and artistic.
“My mother was an actress, so the creative gene is there. I grew up on country music. My dad used to listen to it a lot. The influence was originally from rockabilly music and then it evolved into country, as country evolved. My dad used to listen to it in the kitchen all the time. He’s from Detroit.”
Despite her country leanings, Beal isn’t averse to soaking in some Detroit rock influences. “I would say that I have definitely got a Detroit rock edge, but I like to keep it as country as possible,” she says. “I like the reality of it, the real life situations that come through in country music. Right now in Detroit, I see Katie Grace is growing. Alan Turner is doing his thing. There’s a bunch of bands. Outside of Detroit, Brenda Lee is my very, very favorite; of course, Faith Hill and Reba McEntire. I really enjoy mainstream country music.”
That’s OK, nobody’s perfect. Mainstream country really does seem to be the antithesis to everything Detroit is about, but we have an incredible outlaw/Americana/alt-country scene here: people like Doop & the Inside Outlaws, the Deadstring Brothers, Whitey Morgan & the 78’s, the Orbitsuns and the aforementioned Katie Grace creating some incredible, dirty, authentic noises. Thankfully, the Downtown Hoedown does include bands of that ilk and Beal, with her Detroit rock edge, is certainly less polished than the average line dancer.
That said, much of the barbed nonsense aimed at country music — and the Hoedown — is simple snobbery. Like it or not, country music is one of the many beautiful things that Detroit offers up.
So how would Beal sell the Hoedown to the average dive bar regular in Hamtramck? “I’ve come across that — people that have never been or didn’t realize that it was there, what it’s all about and they’re not sore if they like country music” she says. “I would just say that it’s a great family event. It’s a wonderful experience, it’s fun, and it’s something that I think everyone in Detroit, and in Michigan, should take the time to go and experience for themselves.”
It would be crazy not to give Hoedown some love. After all, it’s widely recognized as the largest Country Music Festival of its kind in the world. This is the 31st anniversary of the event, and many artists have gotten their big break at the Hoedown including Rascal Flatts, Reba McEntire, Montgomery Gentry, Big & Rich — and Garth Brooks. Yup, Detroit has to take partial responsibility for Garth Brooks.
This year’s festival promises to be as well attended as ever, with Uncle Kracker, Jake Owen, Joe Nichols and Aaron Lewis (of Staind) on the bill. Beal has an exciting set of her own planned. “We have a lot of wonderful originals,” she says. “We’ve got a song that we wrote for the Tigers that I hope to debut, and it’s called ‘Home Run.’ I also wrote a song that is very near and dear to my heart for the men and women in the armed forces, and it’s called ‘My Soldier.’ We’re down here in Nashville hopefully getting those two done. We have a great variety of other music too.”
And when Hoedown’s over? “We’re hoping to play at some of the festivals,” Beal says. “We’re going to be traveling a little bit. Just experience as much as we possibly can.”
The Kat Beal Band plays the Downtown Hoedown on Sunday, June 2. The festival takes place between May 31-June 2 at the grounds surrounding Comerica Park, Detroit.
Brett Callwood writes City Slang. Send comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org