Detroit serves as musical muse for 2 songwriters

DETROIT – Sam Roberts and John Rich have found inspiration in all kinds of places during their years writing and performing music.

Recently the Canadian rocker and the country star happened across the same muse – a certain struggling Rust Belt metropolis.

The Sam Roberts Band’s “Detroit ’67” and Rich’s “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” each have caused a stir in the Motor City and represent the latest in a long line of songs that found musical inspiration in America’s auto capital.

Many of the Detroit-centric songs of the past focused on the city either as party town (Kiss’ “Detroit Rock City”) or violent outpost (Trick Trick and Eminem’s “Welcome 2 Detroit City” and David Bowie’s “Panic in Detroit”).

But the Roberts and Rich efforts paint a different picture.

Roberts uses the infamous 1967 riots to make the point that Detroit has been down before and will rise again, while Rich’s anthem praises the city’s working-class roots.

Both songs have been championed by local radio stations, and the “Detroit ’67” video even was played on the Joe Louis Arena scoreboard during a recent Red Wings game – a treat for the hockey-mad Roberts.

The Montreal native enjoyed a triumphant return to Detroit in late February, when he and his band played a sold-out show at St. Andrew’s Hall hours after performing a free promotional gig for several hundred fans at the Hard Rock Cafe.

The crowd at the St. Andrew’s show was enthusiastic from the start, but the decibel level hit a new high when Roberts’ band played the first few notes of “Detroit ’67” during the encore. Concertgoers sang along and extended hands and beer bottles when Roberts hit the part of the song that asks listeners to “raise a glass to the Ambassador” – a reference to the bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

The span holds a special place for the 34-year-old Roberts, who first became aware of Detroit as a child making trips from Montreal to his aunt’s farm in Indiana. He crossed at the Ambassador, a passing Roberts described as “magical” and “mystical.”

“And as you come across, you see this amazing skyline of the city, a silhouette against the river,” he told The Associated Press in an interview just prior to the St. Andrew’s show.

Those childhood trips through Detroit sparked a fascination that later grew when, as an adult, he made his way around the city and learned it had been founded by a Frenchman and features street names (Beaubien, Lafayette, St. Antoine among them) with which he is familiar, having grown up among French speakers in Montreal.

“So then the idea of history, all the changes through the ages that this city has undergone and all the times they get knocked down and seem to be able to rebuild themselves and come back stronger and to me that was inspiring,” he said. “So I picked a moment, a pivotal moment in the city’s history – the ’67 12th Street riots – and decided to tell the song around there. … (I) hoped to evoke some of the pride the city feels about itself and its people.”

Rich’s Detroit song also focuses on civic pride, but of a different kind. It’s a celebration of the city’s blue-collar sensibilities and an indictment on executives who exploit workers.

“It’s aimed at two groups of people – the CEOs and the people in government that give the money to the CEOs that abuse the money and then give them more money,” said Rich, a native Texan who gained fame as half of the popular Big & Rich duo.

“People around Nashville have been comparing it to ‘Okie from Muskogee’ because ‘Okie from Muskogee’ was about what was going on in the country right then. … I think ‘Shuttin’ Detroit Down’ is striking a similar note.”

Rich and Roberts may have come at their Detroit songs from slightly different angles, but the results have been the same: they have created a lot of buzz in Motown and are gaining popularity elsewhere.

“Shuttin’ Detroit Down” originally wasn’t scheduled to appear on Rich’s new album, but because of an extraordinary fan response, it earned a spot on the record. “Son of a Preacher Man” is to be released March 24.

Rich played the song live at a radio station in Tampa, Fla., and the phone lines lit up. He sang it again at radio stations in five or six other cities with the same results, so he rerouted his tour bus to Nashville, Tenn., and recorded it in one day.

It has been one of the most-downloaded country songs on iTunes.

Meanwhile, the “Detroit ’67” video, which was shot on the streets of Detroit over the summer and features historic video footage of the city, has generated more than 79,000 views on YouTube. It’s the final track on the Sam Roberts Band’s “Love at the End of the World” album, which was released in the U.S. last month.