Country music is kicking up its heels in West Michigan. "Within the last three years, the country music scene here has just exploded," said Kari Lynch, a fast-rising Grand Rapids country singer.
"The audience has always been there, but now there are a lot more venues that want to have country music ... and more opportunities to open for national country artists at venues like The Intersection."
That means more local country bands with diehard fans who Lynch says are "relentless in the best way. ... There is definitely something special about West Michigan audiences. It really blows me away." Adds Kalamazoo's Shelagh Brown, who's performed with Josh Gracin and who fronts the Shelagh Brown Band comprised of Western Michigan University grads: "There are more and more names (of regional country bands) popping up. I think it's great for country music to have such a large presence in Michigan."
So, it's little surprise The B.O.B. recently launched Friday country nights inside its Crush nightclub in downtown Grand Rapids, booking regional country acts through at least the end of the year. Matt Dowdy, The Gilmore Collection's creative director, says the club "just decided to switch things up" once a week at Crush, acknowledging a demand for the genre. Downtown's Back Forty Saloon has long recognized that audience with live country bands every Wednesday through Saturday. The Intersection and Grand Woods Lounge boast country acts on a regular basis, not to mention venues just outside town such as the Twisted Bull and Crazy Horse Saloon. And Shakespeare's Pub in Kalamazoo recently started "first Friday" country nights.
Audiences flock to see energetic performances by emerging acts like Lynch and Brown (both working on new studio albums), Gunnar & the Grizzly Boys, Union Guns, Brian Lorente & the Usual Suspects, Kris Hitchcock & Small Town Son, The Travelin' Janes and more. That's partly because "we are all really supportive of one another," says Lynch, "and take opportunities to introduce our fan base to another country artist and vice versa."
Of course, the support of country radio and the soaring popularity of mainstream "crossover" stars such as Lady Antebellum, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line and Carrie Underwood has further grown that fan base. And this doesn't even count the resurgence of vintage country, honky-tonk and alt-country which captivates an uber-devoted niche audience at spots ranging from Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill to One Trick Pony.
For musicians and live music mavens wondering how Founders Brewing Co.'s much-talkedabout expansion has affected the concert experience in its revamped taproom, Founders entertainment coordinator Joey Basch puts it this way: "Everything is getting a little bigger, a little better."
More specifically, Founders has added acoustic treatments, raised the stage, added new speakers and subwoofers, and given sound techs the wireless ability to mix sound from anywhere in the room (with a capacity of about 540). Founders will continue to host national and regional acts Thursdays and Saturdays, with occasional Sunday shows, such as monthly performances by the Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra. The project also added a beer garden and a second bar (taken from the Brass Works Building at Founders' former location) that allows folks who aren't there for the music to not be "overwhelmed by it." The first full month of music in the reopened taproom includes Deal's Gone Bad (Oct. 5), the 10th annual Harvest Party (Oct.12) and Roster McCabe (Oct. 24).
LOCAL CD RELEASES
Oh Me Oh My!
As upright bassist Tim Foley puts it, the Jukejoint Handmedowns' sophomore album is about "all the women who've driven us crazy." So, with a healthy dose of pedal steel guitar, mandolin and banjo, Foley, Nathan James, Paul Harris and Craig Van Otteren twang ahead with tears-inbeer tales of women-inspired wonder and woe in retro-country fashion that the band describes as "big tent American roots" music.
CD-release show: One Trick Pony; Oct. 17, 8 p.m. Free.
Wish You Were Here
Four years in, Grand Rapids' Midwest Skies has honed its pop-punk approach into a delectable, ultra-infectious rock assault that's part Green Day, part Blink-182 and all fist-pumping, headbobbing musical gusto. On its latest five-song EP recorded at Indiana's AlwaysBeGenius Recording Studio, the trio (which met at Grand Valley State University and includes guitarist James Johnson, bassist Ryan Ykimoff and drummer Josh DC Jones) uncorks its jackhammerstyled guitar rock from the get-go (on "Like Me, Like You") and doesn't let up until the final note.