Ty Stone is standing out in the alley behind Molly Malone's Irish Pub on Fairfax near Wilshire in Los Angeles. He's taking a break from his gig flipping burgers, smoking a cigarette. He thinks about how difficult this whole city is on songwriters, on guitarists, on musicians, on the heartbroken. You don't stand a chance. The singer-guitarist thinks about how he's a dude from Michigan, from Lincoln Park, who followed a girl out here — and to make something happen in music, just like what a million other Midwestern dudes have done.
And after nearly three years, he's about to get kicked out of his apartment, and he's literally flippin' burgers, just like what happened to a million other Midwestern dudes. What did he expect?
Then immediately, as if on some kind of crazy miraculous cue, his cell phone rings. Stone tosses his cigarette and answers. "Hello?"
"Is this Ty Stone?"
"Yeah. Who's this?"
"It's Kid Rock."
"Listen, Ty, I heard your demos. I think they're great."
Stone wonders which of his friends from back home is playing a cruel joke on him. He's never met Kid Rock, nor talked to him, much less given him demos.
"Who is this, really?"
"Dude, it's Kid Rock."
"It is. Your demos blew me away. Let's get your ass back to Michigan and make shit happen."
Turns out one of Stone's friends slid a demo into Rock's hand at a Detroit Pistons game. Rock actually listened to it and really was blown away by what he heard.
The whole thing is a Hollywood tale in reverse: Stone gets the call that lands him on a major label and could make him famous. Stone didn't need much persuading and Rock got him home to make shit happen. That was six years ago, and Rock stayed true to his word; this week, Stone's debut album for Top Dog/Atlantic Records, American Style, has finally been released.
Ty Stone is a guy who appears, in first conversation, to let all the troubles in the world, including his own personal demons, bounce off him. He's laid-back, easy to talk with, and is one of those guys who can immediately put a person at ease, like someone's ebullient beer-drinking uncle.
Plus, Detroit rock 'n' roll isn't American Idol, and Stone's the least glamorous musician in the Motor City; he looks like he just wandered out of an east side sports bar after a hard day's manual labor. He's a dude whose collar is a deep blue hue. And there's no denying that Stone's a big man.
"I guess for a long time it hurt when people had pre-formed ideas of who or what I am before they knew me or heard me," he says. "People would talk or write about my weight before my music. That's nothing new — people have always looked at me funny. I like to think that now, though, I'm above all that."
Stone says he's always had a problem with being unhealthy, especially on the road. "I eat terribly unhealthy food and drink way too much booze, and basically go on the road and gain 30 pounds over the summer," Stone says. "But over the years, I've gotten much more conscious of trying to take care of my body, and honestly learned to become more disciplined if I want my voice to function at an elite level. I feel like my voice, when functioning at 100 percent, is like a high performance racecar, and if I don't put the right fuel into it then it's like putting regular unleaded in the machine, and it performs like shit."
The 35-year-old was born and raised in Lincoln Park. ("I am a Railsplitter," he says.) His family wasn't exactly living in the lap of luxury, so he summered at home. There were a few summers when Dad bought a camper that the family kept out at Devil's Lake in the Irish Hills. With his mom and sister Tonya in tow, they'd spend the hot months at the campground, while his dad would commute to McLouth Steel in Trenton every day, which, Stone says, is a true testament to the spirit of the man. The image of his factory dad wound up in Stone's song "Down River" — Mom said you could see daddy working when the red fire fills the night.
Stone's dad is, in fact, an amateur musician, and has been one of Stone's biggest influences through his life and career. Dad would sit in the basement with a guitar, a microphone and an amplifier plugged in, and he'd play '50s and '60s rockabilly music. "He was my idol and I'm sure I picked up my love of music from him," Stone says. "My parents were divorced for a long time though, and they finally got back together recently, so I like to spend as much time with them as possible. Now I can go back with my beautiful girlfriend, and it's family time, like when I was a kid."
But kid life beyond the family wasn't nearly as fun for Stone. He got a lot of shit as a kid.
"It's not easy to be overweight in America today, and I was big by the time I was 5, so it's something I dealt with my whole life," he says. "Luckily it was a family issue, so I had some people close to me who understood what I was going through, and helped me to deal with it, but at the end of the day, the fight is yours to win or lose. I chose to take to the stage, and in some ways I believe I started singing because I realized that people suddenly started noticing my voice, and not my weight."
(The singer says that his weight remains a daily struggle, but claims that what really pisses him off is the stigma associated with weight problems, the stereotype of laziness, and social ineptness. "I'm happy to stand up and let people know that big folks are people too, rich in talents and gifts, each one unique, and we should never be judged by our size or as a whole.")
Stone loves Elvis and rockabilly, stuff he picked up from Mom and Dad. He then soaked up all of the influences that came his way, from country to hip hop (at one point, Stone saw himself as an emcee). With his warm, throaty country vocals, truck-driver aesthetic and Motor City work ethic, country with a blue collar rock 'n' roll edge pulled him in. Stone calls it off in his song "Bob Seger": A little Bob Seger, a little George Jones, a little Hank senior, a little Rolling Stones. A little Stevie Wonder, a little Stevie Ray, a little Marvin Gaye, they'll sing these working blues away.
Stone — who also plays a little piano, bass, drums, mandolin, Stylophone synth and iPhone Theremin — first picked up the guitar in college when he was about 18 and began writing songs about a girl he had a crush on.
Stone had followed Dad's path into the steel industry but, having been laid off by Great Lakes Steel, "I was distraught for about 10 seconds, until I realized, I'm outta this bitch," Stone says.
He packed up and followed a girl to L.A. "Being laid off provided me with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show her that I could do that too. And seeing as how I wanted to be a musician anyway, it all fit. Girls I couldn't get have always fueled me to try and be better."
As Kid Rock has pointed out, Stone's move to Los Angeles wasn't the best idea from a career point of view. The City of Angels is a graveyard for never-wases, failed bands and stalled scenes. Things only started happening for Stone when he returned to Detroit, guitar in hand. The Top Dog/Atlantic deal got signed, and things began to move forward. But Stone couldn't have known quite how slowly those things were going to move:
It's been three years since Atlantic Records released Stone's first EP, "Four on the Floor." Stone's debut album is out, but only after myriad delays. Stone says he got frustrated at times, but only now understands what the wait was all about.
"You only get one chance to make a first impression, and Atlantic knows that," Stone says. "They've been very smart, and they wanted to make sure it [the album] was absolutely right.
"Eventually, we had to get the record out and see how it does. People have been waiting a long time. I have no doubt in my mind that this record is now perfect, to me. It is [a relief], but I'm a person who is always thinking about what's next. The record is out, that's great. Now what do we do to move forward? Most importantly, I absolutely feel like I have Atlantic's support."
American Style mixes Seger's dusty, hometown vibe with Merle Haggard's honky-tonk and songwriting that can sometimes rival an Elton John-Bernie Taupin ballad. Stone isn't afraid to get sentimental, but, in the blue-collar-hero tradition, he does it with enough grit to steer clear of schmaltz. It was produced in fits and starts by Stone, Marlon Young, Brian Irwin, Keith Stegall and John Fields. Kid Rock is the executive producer, and the majority of the record was recorded at Rock's studio in Clarkston.
In fact, those three years of waiting for the record to get a release allowed Stone to evolve as a musician. He toured and played countless shows, honed his chops and stretched himself as both a singer and guitarist. Where he once used to put his foot on the gas vocally, he now knows all about restraint and how that services the song.
His mates in his band, the Truth, believe in him. Guitarist Billy Reedy says, "Ty's songwriting ability has expanded since I started playing with him, and it was already really good. His ability to write in different genres and do it convincingly is pretty outstanding."
Band guitarist Christian Draheim says Stone has grabbed at the opportunity presented to him by Kid Rock and not let go of it or made the mistake of taking it for granted. Rather, he has worked his ass off and, as Draheim put it, "put in a lot of hustle."
And Stone can hustle. Other area musicians have called him a master self-promoter, sometimes not in a good way. Once, while hunting for permanent members of his band, Stone decided to film the audition process for a reality show screened on CW50 (the CBS-affiliated local television station) with judges and everything (this writer was one of them). He took knocks for that, because the concept reminded folks of America's Got Talent. The show involved Stone playing his songs with different local musicians in front of a panel over three different rounds. By the end, the singer had his band. Basically it was an audition in front of an audience. But it worked. With the exception of drummer Bryan Reilly, who joined six months later after the "winning" drummer moved to Vegas, the current lineup of the Truth (Reedy, Draheim and bassist Greg Beyer) is comprised of the winners from the show.
"I had been playing with great musicians, but it was different guys every time, and so we couldn't take it up to the next level," Stone says. "I really wanted to find guys who were not well-known in the scene, not necessarily instantly recognizable. People told me that I was making a fool of myself by doing the show like that, but I didn't care. I've never cared about what people think."
Stone's been working, to be sure, but the real work starts now that his album's finally out. Stone's policy of getting out there and playing to the folks as often as possible will, if anything, pick up the pace. And he will have to promote like hell if he wants Atlantic to release the next one.
"I believe in the contract, they have options to put out the next," Stone says. "I think with me, that runs up to record number seven. They've been very smart with me though. ... they know I'm not going to compete with Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. They've just gone after country radio and TV."
Kid Rock's belief in Stone is unwavering and he continues to take him out on tour as he did last summer, hitting arenas around the country.
"I did two Kid Rock tours, and they were fantastic," Stone says. "One of them was acoustic, and that's intense because you really have to bring it. You have to be ballsy to get up in front of thousands of Kid Rock fans every night with an acoustic guitar. Playing at Ford Field is an amazing experience. It's great when people see me come on stage and think I'm some asshole guitar tech, and then I start wailing. I've done these tours with him, and he's always been supportive of me on his website. He's constantly stepped up. When the album was delayed and everything looked dead, he did everything he could to keep it alive."
For his part, Kid Rock says, "Ty is a world-class singer and songwriter, sometimes it's frustrating that we don't celebrate those qualities as much as we used to in music. Ty's singing and songs turned me on to him, plain and simple."
Stone really isn't about image or scenes, or being seen in all the right places. He's about singing, playing his guitar and writing songs — that's his work. That's what he does. He might spend 50-something days out of the year working in Nashville, but he's a Detroit boy who simply wants to go to work.
Fellow Detroit alt-country outlaw Don "Doop" Duprie appreciates hard work as much as the next guy and says Stone plays guitar the same way Jackie Gleason played pool in The Hustler. Duprie and Stone have been helping each other out since they were kids, and he believes Stone can play pretty much anything as long as you give him a few minutes to figure it out. He also says Stone's attitude has always been that he'll kick down the front door of the music business. "That's always been his attitude and he is doing it."
That's how Stone does it; it's a mindset that allows him to say, "Fuck you" to those who judge him by his weight.
The flipside to that is his sensitivity, which often defines his proletariat country anthems. When Atlantic does send him to spend time in Nashville, he misses home. In his song "Blessed St. Anthony," he sings: I've got Detroit on my mind, Jesus have mercy ... Won't you bless all my friends back in Detroit city.
"Of course," he says. "All my family and friends are here. I spend more time here, to be fair. It's just work. Atlantic wanted to work the Nashville market and, if you're on a major and they ask you to go to Nashville, of course you go."
Ty pauses for a moment, and then finishes with the words that'll put him in the good graces of his other half: "I miss my girl when I'm away."
Ty Stone plays the Fillmore with Frankie Ballard, Brandon Calhoon, Paulina Jayne, Doop & the Inside Outlaws, and the School of Rock Band on Tuesday, March 20; 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-5450. His American Style album is available now. For more information, visit tystonemusic.com.