The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is Michigan’s only venomous serpent, but because it prefers to do things its own way — staying under the radar rather than attacking — most folks have never seen one in the wild. The snake also likes to return to the same spot to hibernate year after year, restoring its energy in a familiar location.
The same can be said of Michigan Rattlers, the Petoskey roots-rock quartet whose members have called Chicago, Los Angeles, and metro Detroit home but always seem to return to their roots in northwest Michigan. Also like the snake, Michigan Rattlers have done everything on their own, alongside just a couple of close confidants in management and booking. Working without an established record label, they’ve self-released three remarkable records: 2016’s self-titled EP, 2018’s Evergreen, and the recently released That Kind of Life.
But unlike their serpentine namesake, Michigan Rattlers are pretty easy to spot in the wild, because they tour constantly — whether as headliners, as openers (for the late singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, for instance), or to help Bob Seger close out his last-ever concerts in his home state.
Singer-songwriter Graham Young (guitar), Adam Reed (upright bass), Christian Wilder (keyboards), and Tony Audia (drums) are longtime friends who started playing together as a Red Hot Chili Peppers-style funk-rock band in high school. But it wasn’t until Young left town for college that he discovered his true calling as a singer-songwriter. “I wanted to be a great guitar player, and I went to college for a year in Chicago studying guitar, and it was still a jazzy kind of thing,” says Young, whose thick, buttery voice resembles that of a more rock ’n’ roll Neil Diamond. “Then I got sick of that and was like, ‘This is not fun, and this is not really what I give a shit about.’ And that’s when I found my way to being a real songwriter.”
He’s the realest of songwriters, too, exploring intimate moments and writing character sketches with the same economy of words and attention to detail as Bruce Springsteen. While the Boss gained fame exploring the lives of hardscrabble folk in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Young finds his inspiration in the town of Petoskey and the experience of growing up in small-town northern Michigan.
“Strain of Cancer” from the Michigan Rattlers EP and “Sweet Diane” from Evergreen are the sonic equivalents of Vincent van Gogh’s working-class character studies “The Potato Eaters” and “Peasant Woman Digging.” Young continues his exploration of people just trying to get by on the recently released That Kind of Life, the band’s most direct rock record to date.
Audia, who has played with Michigan Rattlers live for a while, makes his recording debut with the band on That Kind of Life, and his addition helps to coalesce the band’s sound. It’s less alt-country now, more indie-leaning rock, while evoking Tom Petty, Wilco, and Son Volt.
That Kind of Life was finished in January 2020, and the band was booked to tour behind it when the pandemic hit. Young left Los Angeles and temporarily moved back to Petoskey, and all but Audia, who grabbed a job in Grand Rapids, rode out the lockdown there, too. Being off tour gave Young a chance to write a bit more, but no new songs have made it into the set list yet. “I’m a pretty slow songwriter, not super prolific,” he says. “There’s tons of half-finished stuff. The lyrics are always the hardest for me.”
When they come, Young’s lyrics are like his guitar chords — simple, direct, and aimed right at your heart. It’s why, despite not having a record label or any kind of publicity machine behind them, Michigan Rattlers keep playing increasingly large venues. “People have attached themselves to our band as fans because they get it,” Wilder says. “The songwriting and that emotional thing Graham’s getting at with a lot of the lyrics, in terms of hitting this real specific nerve — almost this feeling of like leaving somewhere and having an emotional past with places.”
A place to hibernate, a place to recharge, a place to create, a place to leave, a place to return. It’s what Michigan Rattlers do.
This story is featured in the September 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.