We know what you must be thinking. Kid Rock? our Kid Rock? Detroiter of the Year? Whatsamatter, Kwame out of town? Monica refuse to be honored by those vicious demons in “the media”? Luke Song, the man who fashioned Aretha’s inaugural bonnet, too busy filling hat orders? Whoa, cowboy. Just let the idea marinate in your mind for a moment. In this year of our massive disappointment and pervasive despair, couldn’t we all benefit from rallying around a genuine, happy-go-lucky, Detroit-lovin’ party starter?
Usually Hour Detroit’s most prestigious annual award has been reserved for titans of local industry, urban-development visionaries, or legal lions. Well, this year our industrialists are scrambling to keep their businesses from circling the bowl. Big-name politicians have let us down. And securing a loan to reshape the city’s skyline?
Hey, good luck with that. It’s been an unconventional year, to say the least. But in the category of creative pioneers, lanky 38-year-old Robert James Ritchie — the boy from Romeo, Mich., with a musical dream and sheer determination in his heart — surely qualifies.
In truth, even the Kid himself was surprised upon receiving the news. Informed that he is the first musician to receive the Hour distinction, “That’s probably because them other people must have said no,” he cracked. “You start thinking of Bob Seger, Aretha Franklin, people like that.
“I appreciate accolades every time, whether it’s being nominated for Grammys or winning American Music Awards, whatever it might be, but they’ve never really been high on my agenda. ‘Vote for me, I really want one,’ that’s not me, you know? I’ve always been about playing. But something like this is close to my heart. I mean, it’s hometown. It’s great. I don’t know exactly who votes for this, but thank you.”
Sipping from a paper cup of green tea, he’s draped across one of the black sofas in the lounge area within the “Clarkston Chophouse,” his massive storage and entertainment facility in an industrial park about 10 minutes from his northern Oakland County home. “Can’t beat the commute,” he says. It houses a row of classic autos, motorcycles, a boat, a basketball court (with the Kid Rock logo emblazoned on both free-throw lines), all the black travel cases from his recent European tour and, most prominently, an elevated full stage for rehearsals. Rolling Stone magazine calls it “an adult amusement park.” Against the rear wall, oversized, illuminated letters that once adorned the outside of Michigan’s largest mortgage company blaze proudly: R-O-C-K.
This is worlds away from the basements of house parties in Mount Clemens, where he once developed his hip-hop skills for $30 a night in the ’80s, prompting even skeptical black audiences to admit they enjoyed watching “that white kid rock.” Embodying the grit and perseverance of his native region, he has parlayed those meager beginnings, rejection slips from at least two record labels, and several poor-selling LPs into his own uniquely amalgamated brand of raucous American music, international celebrity, and iconic status as the swaggering, no-B.S., devil-may-care Everydude — he was married to Pamela Anderson, for goodness’ sake.
Name a more marketable Detroit export right now. His records have sold more than 22 million copies in America alone, with five Grammy nominations along the way. Yes, the title of his last LP in 2007, Rock N Roll Jesus, may have been a bit over the top. And the music itself can feel maddeningly derivative; his biggest hit, “All Summer Long,” is a delightful tune, but even better if you’ve never heard Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” But nothing succeeds like success. The photos of Kid Rock and pro golfer John Daly using beer cans for tees at last year’s Buick Open pro-am in Grand Blanc were disseminated around the world, and while it might have been nicer had Rock not worn his overalls, the images (unlike the videos of the Detroit City Council on YouTube) seemed to proclaim, “Yeah, we’re in Michigan, and we know you’ve heard times around here are tough. But we still know how to have some great freakin’ fun!”
Always, for Kid Rock, it comes back to Detroit and Michigan. The city is consistently prominent in his songs and accompanying music videos, if only by his wearing one of the hundreds of snap-brim chapeaus he has obtained from Detroit’s Henry the Hatter. Some people wear Detroit on their sleeves; he has the Old English “D” tattooed on his right forearm. He owns the universally recognized circular “Made In Detroit” logo and clothing company, which he purchased from local designer and entrepreneur Robert Stanzler in 2007. Last year, he partnered with Wayne State University to dedicate sales from a limited-edition WSU “Made In Detroit” T-shirt to fund a Kid Rock Music Scholarship for deserving metro Detroit students. And his new private-label Bad Ass Beer, expected to be officially launched around Labor Day, will be made and distributed at the Michigan Brewing Company in Webberville, thanks to a $7-million tax break from the state, adding more than 400 jobs over the next few years. He’s even good for the economy.
Fresh from his appearance as grand marshal for the LifeLock 400 race at the Michigan International Speedway — he is arguably Detroit’s No. 1 sports fan — with a summer concert tour now well under way and a new album due out this fall, the Kid is all right. Hell, he’s better than that. He’s omnipresent. Like it or not, he is our Kid Rock. He may not be the representative you would have chosen, but unless he bumps into Tommy Lee at a Waffle House, a more exemplary and enthusiastic Detroit ambassador you might be severely challenged to find.
“I’m just proud of where I come from,” he says. “Proud of where I was raised. I figured that out at a young age, I think, that it’s always better to be proud of who you are. Whether it’s in a circle of people or friends you have, or trying to interact with different groups of people, you could just never go wrong by being yourself and being honest, no matter at what level. You play what cards you were dealt.”
On July 17-18, he will lay down a royal flush — and boost the local economy again — when he and his Twisted Brown Trucker band perform before more than 70,000 fans at Comerica Park, the largest headlining concerts of his career. Obviously, Detroit feels the love this man holds for it and is showing its affection in return. The first show sold out in 27 minutes, thanks in part to a special package deal offering six upper-deck tickets for $99.
“We’ve just built this. Over time,” he says. “Everything I’ve done has been about not going for the fast buck, about not being greedy. When it comes to concerts, it’s been slow and steady and about really understanding my audiences, hard working-class people, and never trying to gouge them. I always say one of the things I’m proudest of is that I don’t have to drive around town in some tinted-down foreign car, hiding from people. I can go anywhere locally, anywhere I want. People just say, ‘What’s up, Rock?’ maybe want a picture or just to say hello. Because I feel proud that I’ve never made a dishonest dollar off a working man’s or woman’s back. I’ve always kind of kept that in the back of my mind.
“Yeah, I’ve made a lot of money, but I never made it by overcharging people, especially my fans. I remember the first time we were going to play The Palace, after we probably just played somewhere like the State Theatre. We had been out on the road working, still playing clubs, and people were like, ‘Man, if this doesn’t work … .’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m positive of it. It’ll work.’ And we sold it out in like 10 minutes or something, which is a great feeling. Detroit has always been the start of what’s happening everywhere else around the world for me. I always say Detroit’s a year or two ahead of everyone else, so maybe within a year or so I’ll be able to play stadiums in other cities.”
In previous years, Rock says, he would tour only on weekends, “Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, so as a single father I could be back and forth with my son [Robert Ritchie Jr.].
“But now he’s 16, he’s kind of got it together. He’s a great kid, and I’ve got a great support system of family and friends around, so I’m just going to go out for six weeks straight. He’s getting a job. He’s going to go and bus tables. He’s going to do his thing, and I’m just going to go knock it out, four or five shows a week, then I’ll be home that week for the Comerica shows, so it’s really not that bad. I just wanted to get it done and then get home, enjoy the rest of the summer. Hopefully catch a little bit of time on one of those beautiful lakes.”
Self-taught on all the instruments he plays, his sound today, “at every level, is rhythm-and-blues based American music,” he says. “Because everything comes from jazz and the blues, at least until hip-hop came along, that’s the way I look at it. Now that I’m older and I can study music, I look back at it now like hip-hop was really the blues music of my age. There was no music that was untouched by jazz and blues up until that point. And then when hip-hop came along, that was something completely brand-new, and now for better or worse, it influences every type of music today.
“As I’ve gotten older and more successful, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of my heroes, people I’ve always looked up to as players, so I’ve gotten to learn a lot of great stuff. Get the Cliffs Notes, or maybe the Pro Guide, to being a musician a lot faster than figuring it all out on my own. Hank Williams, Jr., because he plays everything so great, or sitting with Jerry Lee Lewis playing piano at Sun Studios and asking, ‘How did you do that lick?’ ‘What are you doing when you play that minor 7th?’ Singing with Steven Tyler and Peter Wolf. It’s just endless, the stuff I’ve learned.”
As he speaks, it’s impossible not to notice the massive chunk of jewelry dominating his right ring finger. It’s a Red Wings Stanley Cup ring from last year’s championship season, with the Kid Rock logo engraved on one side. “I was friends with the guys when they won years ago, played a free concert for them downtown, so Chris [Chelios] went and talked to the guys, approached [Wings captain Nicklas] Lidstrom and said, ‘Do you think we should give Kid Rock a ring?’ ‘Yeah.’
“Everyone takes such good care of me around town; it’s very nice,” says the unabashed Detroit sports fanatic. “Otherwise, it would be very hard to go to some of these events. But they make it easy for me to come in, because you know I don’t like to sit up in the boxes! I want to have a blast! I’ve got the floor [seats] for the Pistons, I’m in the stands for the baseball games. It’s been great, man. I can’t say enough about the people in Michigan. I mean, that’s what keeps me here. It ain’t the f***in’ weather — everybody knows that!”
Detroit will make a comeback, he says. As the man said, our city is always a year or two ahead of everyone else; it was so for the recession, and should hold true for the recovery.
Besides, his own career arc should provide any naysayers with hope. “At this point in my life, I truly believe anything is possible,” he says. “Anything.” And he plans to be here to witness the next renaissance. But can Ritchie still be “Kid” Rock as 40 approaches?”
“Yeah, I’m going to be a kid forever,” he replies with a laugh. “I’ve often thought about how you grow old gracefully in this business. I’ve never done anything gracefully. I’ve just put the pedal to the metal and did it. It’s kind of funny, because I’ve got rocking chairs on my porch and I always envision myself when I’m old and gray, sitting up there drinking my beer, maybe watching the grandkids. And somebody’s going to come up and say, ‘What are you up to, Kid?’ I’ll be going back and forth in my chair, I’ll look up and say: ‘Still rockin’.”