Waiting for the COVID-induced extended hibernation of the live music scene to thaw, there are plenty of ways to pass the time during February, a month that holds a special place in the hearts of hardy Michiganders. (Cue crickets, which are suspiciously replaced by the drone of a lone stink bug battering itself against an overhead light fixture…. Ah, sarcasm: the snappy kindling that reignites life’s smoldering fire pit in the deepest crevice of the groundhog’s shadow.)
Skewered at the midsection by Cupid’s icy arrow for a gratuitously sadistic twist, February personifies the state of this barren, road-salt-coated Mitten existence that, in 2021, has been distinguished by a mind-numbing succession of days in the single digits. In that respect, it’s been no different than any other year. But the isolation factor of the new normal has been amped up, magnified, and hyperextended by the absence of live entertainment.
There is one piece of cathartic ear candy, however, that has sprouted out of the dead of winter, and it can be enjoyed at home, and the places it will take you are bound to make you forget about your freezing digits for a few fleeting moments.
The Michigan Music History Podcast (MMHP 989) brings together two giants of Michigan music knowledge, Fred Reif and Gary Johnson, to explore the rich expanse of Michigan music that extends through their wealth of knowledge, research, and personal experience. The conversation is propelled by Scott Baker, who hatched the idea last year when geographic proximity and the shutdown gave him a lemons-to-lemonade idea.
Baker, a journalist, musician, and giant bear hug of a guy, figured that some interesting, deep-dive conversations could result from the association. Meanwhile, Alan Garcia, a friend and former colleague at the Bay City Times, had been trying to get Baker to dip his toe into the podcast pool. Garcia was a local podcast pioneer who had been doing shows out of his Essexville home since the early 2000s.
Reif had recently moved to Essexville, which placed Johnson, Baker, Reif, and Garcia within a convenient 2-mile radius at their respective domiciles. The opportunity to build a road between Michigan music’s golden past and its bright future was within reach.
But would there be enough to talk about?
Consider that Johnson, a former middle-school teacher at Cramer Junior High, wrote the curriculum for the school’s Rock and Roll history course that he developed back in the 1990s. During his research, when he learned that Michigan did not have its own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a mission was born. “I was shocked,” says Johnson. “With Motown alone, I would’ve thought somewhere along the way, someone would have put that together.”
Johnson founded Michigan Rock and Roll Legends, a museum that pays tribute to Michigan’s storied sonic past. The museum is currently located at Scotty’s Sandbar, where the walls are lined with memorabilia that will captivate as the echoes of live music from the past practically vibrate off the recently silenced walls.
Reif, meanwhile, is a veteran music historian, booker, record-store owner, writer, and washboard percussionist who has managed blues artists such as Lazy Lester. He’s written two books, “All of Me,” a history of Saginaw musicians, and “Tell ‘em ‘Bout the Blues,” both released in the late 2010s. He’s currently working on a third book that will focus on ethnic music in the region, including Bay City’s robust polka history and Saginaw’s tejano music heritage.
Baker figured that, through their various connections and dealings over the years, in the Michigan music microcosm, “most people know one of us,” so access to information wouldn’t be a problem.
The first episode of MMHP 989 offers an inviting preview of the topics that will surface in future episodes, with factoids and people connections that keep the conversation buzzing while feeding the listener’s music knowledge. For instance, did you know Bay City is where Meatloaf recorded his first 45? I didn’t. Or, that a little club out on Tuscola Road is where Don Brewer, Mel Farner, and Mel Schacher met, leading them to form Grand Funk Railroad?
The podcast forum allows Reif’s and Johnson’s respective memories to corroborate the others’, as memories of Muscle Beach, Daniel’s Den, Band Canyon, Sound Lounge and other haunts come rushing back with technicolor detail in Episode 1.
Listener contributions, memories, and anecdotes will inevitably follow, as Baker says he has already gotten feedback in that form since the first episode aired that he plans to incorporate. “We want this to be as inclusive as possible,” he says. “It’s about Michigan as a whole, first and foremost, from the UP to the southern part of the state,” even though the participants’ hearts, minds, and bodies are concentrated in greater Bay City.
Baker says the second episode, which hadn’t yet been recorded when we spoke, will focus more closely on Johnson’s Michigan Music Legends Museum, which will make its permanent home at 321 Washington Ave. in Downtown Bay City. Reif will also discuss his findings that are going into his latest book, including the long lineage of ethnic music, especially in Bay City’s polka-dotted South End.
Going forward, Baker says the show will feature an album pick from Johnson, Reif, and Baker. Culled from any era or genre, each album pays homage to some aspect of Michigan, whether it be the players, subject matter, location, or any other aspect deemed worthy of conversation.
Although the silence in the pubs, clubs, and other venues has been deafening, soon there will be plenty to celebrate in song, verse, chorus, refrain, and extended solo. Listening to these three informed musicologists discuss the great artists, places, and moments in Michigan music offers soothing reassurance to this writer’s frost-tinged ears.
16th November, 2023