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Detroit's Downtown Hoedown celebrates 30th anniversary with major changes
More than a few eyebrows were raised in 1983, when Detroit's first Downtown Hoedown was announced.
There was something about the idea of filling Hart Plaza with pickin', grinnin' and ten gallon hats that didn't jibe with the image of a northern town that called itself the Motor City and was fixin' to host its second Grand Prix race just a few weeks later.
But after the sounds of Hank Williams, Jr., Tanya Tucker, Mel Tillis and others thundered up Woodward Avenue and brought out tens of thousands of heretofore under-the-radar country fans, the doubts subsided and the Hoedown became a fixture on the metro area's annual music calendar -- and a show that country artists both established and up-and-coming lobby hard to get onto every year.
"It's a big deal," says Dierks Bentley, one of the returning Hoedown headliners for this weekend's 30th edition of the festival. "You always want to do the Hoedown. People know how much fun it is, how many people come out. It's a big (gig) to land."
Josh Gracin, the Westland-born "American Idol" finalist who's making his fifth consecutive appearance as a Hoedown headliner this year, adds that the event has "been around for awhile now. It's a staple in country music. It's a good crowd. It's always big visibility. It's one of the top shows out there."
It's so desirable that Tim Roberts, of Hoedown presenter WYCD-FM, says that he hears from artists wanting to play the festival "almost a full year in advance...And if they didn't make this year's, they're already wanting to get on next year."
That's especially true for acts that are just starting out. As Roberts notes, "So many artists have played (the Hoedown) and it was a real launching pad for their careers." That includes Garth Brooks, who played the Hoedown as a relative unknown in 1989 and was one of country's biggest stars a year later. Other acts that logged early-career stops at the festival include Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts, Lady Antebellum, Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Little Big Town, the Zac Brown Band and Miranda Lambert, who closes out this year's Hoedown.
Actor Kevin Costner his band Modern West to town in 2009, while rockers Bret Michaels of Poison and Aaron Lewis of Staind have used the Hoedown to signal their crossovers into the country market.
"I always remember the amazing fans in Detroit," says Lambert, who played her first Hoedown in 2005 and will appear with her group the Pistol Annies this weekend. "The 30th anniversary...speaks to what a solid foundation has been built in Detroit that celebrates country music in such a big way."
For this year's Hoedown, however, WYCD and LiveNation Entertainment, which began producing the festival in 2010, decided to make some major changes.
The Hoedown is moving out of Hart Plaza for the first time ever, taking the three stages into the parking lots surrounding Comerica Park, where the Vans Warped Tour was held for several years. It will also be a paid event for the first time, with a capacity of about 30,000 for each day; a limited number of three-day tickets sold out in mere minutes, while Arby's bought up the first day's tickets for a promotional giveaway.
WYCD's Roberts, who's been overseeing the Hoedown for almost a decade, says the changes are "really for the safety and benefit of our fans." With its free admission, Hart Plaza had become unmanageable and, at times, unruly, and the cash-strapped city of Detroit required costly help with securing the area. But Roberts says the switch will also allow for larger staging, better sight lines to the stages, an improved video component and the comfort of the Comerica Park concourse -- particularly its concession stands and restrooms.
"To make it a better fan experience was the ultimate goal," Roberts explains. "The fact is there were a couple of times we literally got to a point where you couldn't move at (Hart Plaza). We wanted to keep it safe and have a great musical experience for our fans."
From the performers' standpoint, Gracin predicts this year's Hoedown will "be just as good if not better" but understands those who are disappointed that it's no longer a free event. "It's disheartening for those people who look forward to it every year, who aren't the riff raff and don't make trouble but just can't afford to go down this time," he says. "When you're changing something, there's always going to be pros and cons, and you can't please everybody. But having it be a controlled environment might be the right way to go now."
While many eyes will be on the headliners this week -- including Bentley, who's Saturday night set will be his first public appearance after the death of his father on June 1 -- others will be looking for this year's breakouts. Roberts says there's a "big buzz" on 19-year-old multi-instrumentalist Hunter Hayes, while Kip Moore is riding a recent No. 1 hit, "Something 'bout a Truck." And Rochester Hills native Jana Kramer, best known as an actress, is making a transition into music with her Top 20 single "Why Ya Wanna" and her just-released debut album.
And there's the usual wealth of local bands hoping to use the Hoedown to forward their careers.
"I try to outdo myself each year," Roberts says. "It's a hard thing to do, but we put in a lot of work. I think we have great headliners this year and a great lineup beyond that -- which is what we try to do every time out."
The 30th Annual WYCD Downtown Hoedown runs Friday-Sunday, June 8-10, at Comerica Park. Headliners include Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Josh Gracin, Montegomery Gentry, Chris Young and more. Friday is sold out. Tickets for Saturday and Sunday are $25 in advance, $30 day of show. Visit www.wycd.com for schedules and information.
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