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It’s More Than A Hoedown

The 2010 WYCD Downtown Hoedown wrapped up a week ago and I’ve purposely waited a bit to let all the sights, sounds, smells, and other experiences digest in the back of my mind before writing a reflection on it.

This is not a typical recap, as other media have already done a great job of doing that, including WYCD. But let me preface this by saying that my attendance at the Hoedown was not to be a typical reporter. I am not a typical reporter, nor is Detroit Unspun your typical media outlet. We do not exist to give play-by-play, this-is-what-happened, generalized stories. We exist to balance the extremely unbalanced mass media perception of the Detroit region, and to highlight stories that either go overlooked or under-reported.

That said, not many people know that the Downtown Hoedown is the largest free concert in the world. It pulls over a million people over three days. In downtown Detroit. That’s right — Detroit. That city that most people outside the region, based on our recent Detroit Pulse survey, equate with such words as “dirty,” “slums,” “dangerous,” and “decaying” . . . in addition to “automotive.” Oh, and it’s been going consistently for twenty-eight years now, with no interruptions. All free.

One would think this would be a big story. A highly-anticipated, highly-celebrated event in all of music, not just country and not just locally, highly reported on in the mass media outlets, like Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair, Fan Faire, and more recently, Rothbury in northern Michigan.

But it’s not. Why? My guess is because it’s in Detroit and it’s a positive story. Positive stories don’t get ratings, and positive stories about Detroit directly contradict everything the mass media has been feeding the rest of the world about our city.

The Overall Feeling

I’ve worked in music in various roles off and on for over a decade, and been to more concerts than most people you’ll ever meet. I know the amount of work and the amount of people required to put on even a small multi-act show is immense.

So when I say that the 2010 WYCD Downtown Hoedown is one of the most well organized shows I’ve ever attended, I mean it. I was thoroughly impressed. Yes, there were a few fights, but add alcohol to any crowded event and that’s what happens. Overall, though — the acts were top notch, there was a great mix of local and national names, the sound and stages were premium quality, the timing and flow of the shows were next to clockwork, and most of all the people, both behind the scenes and in the crowd, were in good spirits and for the most part, very friendly.

My purpose in attending the Downtown Hoedown this year wasn’t necessarily to enjoy the music and the experience (although I did), but to capture the essence. Take some pictures, video, and to talk to the people — both artists and attendees — about the Hoedown, what it means to Detroit,  what Detroit means to country music, and to give them the chance say something to the rest of the world about the Motor City.

With each person I spoke to, common themes emerged. Themes like “rebuilding,” “don’t believe what you hear,” tradition, home, and most of all, people. Everyone talked about how proud they were to be Detroiters, how strong and resilient we are, how we help each other out, how connected we are, how much we love getting together and having a great time at events like the Hoedown. Those from out of town talked about how Detroiters’ hospitality, our work ethic, and our cohesiveness will get us through the tough times. And everyone mentioned music, specifically.

Nashville is defined by its country music. Conversely, music, of many genres, is defined by Detroit.

Quick History Lesson

Historically, if you think of any decade in the past sixty-plus years, Detroit has had significant impact not only in music but in American culture all together.

In 1940s, Detroit made significant contributions to gospel, while in the 1950s it became an epicenter of jazz. In the 1960s, a tiny little record label called “Motown” became a major force in not only the music industry, but pop culture in general, defining an entire genre and rebranding Detroit as a city who still carries the nickname. Simultaneously, the Grande Ballroom was the hotbed of the rock scene in Detroit, hosting some of the most legendary bands in rock and roll, and the springboard for such local rock bands MC5 and Iggy & the Stooges.

Detroit in the 1970s produced some of the most legendary rock icons, including Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, and Ted Nugent. In the 1980s, a young singer and dancer from the Detroit area named Madonna emerged in the international pop spotlight and subsequently proceeded to change pop culture history almost single-handedly. Detroit also gave birth to a genre called “techno.”  In the 1990s, artists Kid Rock, Eminem, The White Stripes, and Sponge became household names. . . need I go on?

While much of this was happening, the Downtown Hoedown continued year after year in Hart Plaza, becoming the big break for notable acts such as Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Rascal Flatts, and Gretchen Wilson.  And year after year, families  and friends kept coming downtown for the free music, good times, and great memories.

Too Many Groups, Too Much Duplication

I’m not the most passionate person when it comes to “saving Detroit” or, in other words, revitalizing the city. It’s not that I don’t care — I certainly do want to see this town come back from its current state and become the force that it used to be, or even better. It’s that I see so many groups with the same goals, the same mission of “saving Detroit” and/or “showing the positive side” make a lot of noise but make very little progress. They sit in coffee shops talking about it, hold conferences, have websites, etc. So many people and groups have the same common goal, yet so few actually work together. These groups isolate themselves from each other, thinking that somehow, their group will be the one that will “save Detroit.”

I thought about this while I was at the Downtown Hoedown. I thought about these various groups, and about how not only will this kind of self-isolating, non-collaborative behavior not save the city, it will continue to be our Achilles heel until we learn to put whatever prejudices we have aside and work together to achieve our common goal of revitalizing Detroit.

I thought about this as I wandered around Hart Plaza, listening to the music, and watching people of various ethnicities and backgrounds all come together in the same place. I saw strangers come together and dance with strangers, enjoying the music and enjoying the moment. I saw people who would normally not listen to country music genuinely having a good time. I saw friends being made, I saw prejudices vanish, and I saw differences all meld into one mass of people in downtown Detroit. For one weekend, a million people gathered in Hart Plaza — more than the entire population of the city itself — and they got along, and they had fun.

That is what will save Detroit. No, not more music festivals in Hart Plaza — the amity that is created when we are drawn together at such an event, with music as the common thread. Detroit will not be “saved” by 50+ different “save Detroit”-themed groups having their own events.  Only when we set aside our prejudices, ignore whatever boundaries exist because of ethnicity and/or race, come together and embrace our differences instead of segregating ourselves because of them — much like the atmosphere at the Hoedown — will Detroit be saved.  It won’t happen in a boardroom, nor a coffee shop, nor a conference, nor online. It will happen when each of us steps out of our comfort zone of our familiar group of friends, sheds the chips from our collective shoulders, and dances with strangers.

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