I didn’t think about it at the time, but we really had two distinct audiences. Our traditional fan base was made up of immigrant farmers and their descendants, mostly from Eastern Europe. These people had come to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seeking a better life in a landscape that looked like home. They came from Poland, Slovenia and the Baltic nations. but in our area the great majority were Czech. The local radio station had a “Czech Hour” every Saturday with Mildred and Tony, who would read the announcements in English before repeating them in Czech. They spun vinyl records from Czech-influenced Michigan bands (button accordion, tuba, drums) or the famous Czech brass bands from Nebraska. The ZCBJ, which was sort of a Czech fraternal club, had the best venue in town for wedding receptions. The dance floor was a substantial fraction of an acre, and you could buy a bottle of Pilsner Urquell (still among the best beers in the world) at the bar for a buck. The receptions were catered by the in-house cooks, who would produce tons of greasy fried chicken in big aluminum trays. I loved the Czech parties, with the attendees chattering in two languages and the little kids sliding around the dance floor in their stocking feet. When the guests had eaten their fill, we would play a waltz so the cooks — all of them stocky, rather stolid women of a certain age — could dance with each other.
Like our first audience, our second was a product of migration. After World War II, a stream of young men — some alone, some with families — flooded into Michigan from Southern states to take good-paying jobs at a string of automobile factories that ran from Detroit up the I-75 corridor to Flint, Saginaw and Bay City. By the 1970s, General Motors employed half a million people in Michigan. Hundreds of thousands more toiled at Chrysler, Ford and the suppliers that made everything from upholstered seats to car batteries. Many people in Owosso commuted 25 miles to Flint to work in the giant Buick assembly plant, which the locals called simply “the Buick.” Like most newcomers, the auto workers flocked together in communities that reflected their roots. Ypsilanti, a working-class enclave abutting swank Ann Arbor, sometimes was referred to derisively as “Ypsitucky.” These migrants brought their culture with them, including a taste for hard-edged country music. For some, country songs spoke to their sense of alienation in an urban, industrial landscape. One classic tune, Bobby Bare’s 1963 hit “Detroit City” (“By day I make the cars / By night I make the bars”), sounds the oft-heard refrain of a lonely man whose friends down South think he has it made. In reality, all he wants is to go home to Ma, Pa and the girl he left behind.
Auto City Eagles Club– Fenton — Eagles Club Owosso — cigarette smoke — guys with Elvis sideburns
Randy’s father gave me a conspiratorial leer.
“Sixteen?” he chortled. Then he leaned in for some advice.
“Get yourself a piece of ass.”
At that moment I felt like Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate.” Having been graced with a rare tidbit of wisdom — in Benjamin’s case it was the one-word career mantra “plastics,” whispered by a family friend — I felt utterly incapable of translating that gift into anything that might be acted upon. Trust me, I thought, I would if I could figure out how.