Detroit isn’t really known as much of a singer/songwriter town. Jazz, blues, and soul, yes. Rock and roll, garage rock, and punk, you bet. Rap. R&B. The birthplace of techno.
But acoustic guitars?
“Growing up I always equated the Detroit music scene with great rock and roll and Motown, like Bob Seger, MC5, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and those that propelled their careers there like Alice Cooper and KISS,” says Ned Hill, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter that has been coming to Detroit for about a dozen years now. “So I was surprised when I first started going up there that there was such a great folk and Americana scene happening. And I was very thankful that they welcomed me into it.”
Francis Decario at Ghost Light Open Mic.
Turns out, the Detroit singer/songwriter community is as vast and varied as Metro Detroit itself. Downriver has a songwriter community. So do the west burbs, the Woodward corridor, and the east side. Much of it, as with many of the different music communities here, revolves around the music bars and clubs of Detroit and Hamtramck.
Just as there are “country bars” and “Irish bars”, so too are there “songwriter bars,” though perhaps without the branding. Typically, these are the places that host popular open mics and songwriter nights, the lodestones of the singer/songwriter community. These days it seems as if the New Way in Ferndale and the Ghost Light in Hamtramck are carrying the torch, along with coffee shops like the Plymouth Coffee Bean Company in Plymouth and the Dovetail in Warren.
A good open mic is integral to fostering a robust songwriter community, and it’s one of the ways Metro Detroit’s songwriter community stays invigorated. Hang out at a good open mic long enough and it’s inevitable that some of the more established songwriters will reminisce about open mics from five, ten, and even 20 years previous. You’ll hear stories about Gotham City Café in Ferndale and Bittersweet Coffee House in Detroit — places long since shuttered yet still talked about within the community.
Dave Toennies and Scott Kraus at Ghost Light Open Mic.
The key is spaces that create “listening room” environments, where even the din of a barroom falls to a hushed silence. A good open mic will attract even the most seasoned of songwriters looking to try out new material, shake the dust off, or see old friends.
It was the songwriter night at Union Street in Detroit, hosted by local songwriter Audra Kubat, that hooked Dave Toennies. A native of southwestern Illinois, Toennies was attending school at Lawrence Tech when he discovered Union Street. He credits the open mic there for not only encouraging him to keep making music but for keeping him in Detroit, as well. Toennies now leads the international Detroit-Windsor band Border Patrol and hosts the open mic at the Ghost Light.
“An open mic, one of the things that is nice about it is the wide variety of talent that comes. You get people that are just starting out, still trying to get comfortable. You will get people, maybe they just got back from touring somewhere, maybe they’re here to work out a new song and want to try it out in front of people. It’s this great equalizer. You can’t find anything similar to it,” says Toennies.
Dave Toennies at Ghost Light Open Mic.
“An open mic is this one particular time of the week when all those people are on the level together.”
When considering what makes Detroit’s songwriter community tick, Toennies, alongside Scott Kraus, are perhaps the ideal duo to consult. Kraus and Toennies host the Detroit Songwriter Dispatch, a podcast that documents Detroit’s songwriter community. The two interview a local songwriter each week, discovering their inspirations and paths taken along the way.
Kraus, who also hosts the SCOTTcast podcast, got the idea for the Dispatch simply by being a fan, albeit a frustrated one. Attending shows and open mics week after week, Kraus began to lament that the musicians he was enjoying weren’t receiving the attention that he believed they deserved. So he teamed with Toennies to form the Dispatch, making public the conversations songwriters have amongst each other, stories usually reserved for the bar.
Sarah Torres and Lillian Lee. at Ghost Light Open Mic.
“If you go out and listen to live music from some of these people in Detroit, it’s not like you’re listening to 'local music'. You’re going to see these brilliant artists that are doing it for not much money and you get an experience that is your favorite artist right there in front of you, something people pay hundreds of dollars for,” Kraus says.
“The value of this scene does not get the attention I would like.”
Having recently celebrated its first year, the podcast has interviewed dozens of local songwriters so far. Both Toennies and Kraus say that they’ve noticed similar story arcs among the songwriters.
“Give someone an acoustic guitar and they’ll end up writing songs,” says Toennies. Get them into a good open mic community and they’ll keep writing songs.
Kraus and Toennies refer to a quote from Don “Doop” Duprie, a revered songwriter from River Rouge, when talking about the links between area songwriters. Duprie says that songwriting is reporting. You write about the particulars of daily life that then, once turned into a song, comes across as universal.
Another common songwriting theme is found in the region’s identity of won’t-back-down sticktoitiveness.
“What I think gives it character is its working-class nature, the camaraderie among the people and artists, and the pride they have in their city,” says Nashville’s Ned Hill.
“When things were tough, they rallied around each other. I loved that and I love the great music that comes from it.”
Mike Galbraith is Metromode's news editor and an accomplished singer-songwriter. Check out his work here.
Photos by Doug Coombe