If one of the marks of a great performer is the ability to combine the ordinary and the extraordinary, then Ty Stone—a powerhouse singer in an unprettified package—is as true an entertainer as they come. “With me, it’s a matter of combining the everyday with having this chainsaw for a voice,” he laughs. “I’m not this pre-packaged, square-jawed, good-looking, 6-foot-4 kid. People relate to me most as the dude they hung out with in school, and I feel like my size gives me more of an everyman quality.” But, of course, not every man can wail like… that. “My voice is really about constant intensity,” he notes, “whether the pedal is down, and I’m hitting monster notes, or I’m in low gear, and I’m being sweet and thoughtful with every breath.”
The Detroit native motors onto the music scene with American Style, his Top Dog/Atlantic Records debut, which was executive produced by close pal Kid Rock. And, as the title suggests, you won’t be mistaking Stone for a Brit or Aussie or anything other than the product of a very homegrown hybrid sensibility. Don’t let the fact that he’s from Detroit dissuade you from thinking he’s a country rocker through and through. There’s long been a musical bullet train running directly from northern Michigan to the deepest South, and Stone has been riding it his entire life.
“I feel like the connection is a socioeconomic thing,” he says, “because so many people came up from Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s looking for auto jobs, and found them in Detroit, so you have all that Southern influence. I’m also influenced so much by the soul of Motown, and then you get a guy like Bob Seger who’s like Otis Redding and Elvis mixed into one. It’s not soul as a genre of music, but soul as in heart. Whether you’re doing rock & roll or country or rap, if you’ve got soul in it, then it’s super-bad,” he laughs, alluding to “a bit of James Brown.”
The title track is being released as a country radio single, and that fits into Stone’s soul picnic just fine. “I’ve been making Southern rock in bands for 12 or 13 years,” he points out, “and it gets pretty country when it’s country and pretty rock when it rocks. So we’re somewhere in the middle. Nowadays, though, country is the only place you can take a song. It isn’t really the song that you’re listening to on pop or rock radio. It’s catchy, and it’s new, and it’s cool, and is what it is, and I’ll turn it on when I’m in that kind of mood. But if you want to hear a story or something that has any kind of wholesome vibe to it or means something, you’ve got to go to country music. So I think it’s the perfect outlet for a song like ‘American Style.’ If you’re John Mellencamp 25 years ago, you go to pop-rock radio, but in 2011, you’re country.”
Stone’s album is a full immersion in the trials and joys of love in the land of blue collars. “The theme of the working man is definitely heavily reoccurring in my music,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a conscious effort to include those themes as much as it is just working my ass off and feeling trapped in that machine and needing to get some of that funk out of your system. Those things weigh on you, and they weigh on you, and I always end up writing about it.”
That’s certainly true of the overtly autobiographical title song, which riffs on actual family as well as the extended one that makes up the American community. “It’s the true story of exactly what was going on. The lyrics go: ‘Me and my sister used to run our mouths about growing up and getting out, and we’re both still living in the same damn house. There ain’t nobody going nowhere. My old man Frankie just turned 58, he talks retirement every day. He can’t make it on that 401k, and there ain’t nobody going nowhere.’ And the last verse is: ‘My main man Mike, he’s living on my couch, and I bring my girlfriend to my mama’s house, and the bank’s trying to kick everybody out, but there ain’t nobody going nowhere. We’re a family—American-style.’ That’s the truth, and I feel like it’s as much about everybody else in this country right now as it is me.”
Actually, while it was all true at the time he wrote it, there have been some updates in Stone’s life since he wrote “American Style.” He moved to Nashville, partly to be closer to the music business—but also because his mother’s house was foreclosed upon by the bank, forcing a move. “I was standing in front of 10,000 people every night on the Kid Rock tour,” he points out, “and yet there was nothing I could do about saving a $30,000 ranch house. It’s a very strange way to live! My life is such a dichotomy in that way. But hopefully I’ll be finding more success soon and won’t be living quite such a split existence.”
Whether he stays in Nashville or not, and whether he someday joins his friend as an arena headliner or not, “I will always be the kid from Downriver,” he says, “a blue collar part of Detroit.” The lineage is undeniable. “I feel like I’m telling the story of my father sometimes, because he was that steel mill worker at a plant that shut it’s doors for good one morning. He’s 62 years old now, still working at Chrysler, even after they took him away from being a machine repairman and put him back on the motor line at 60.” Stone could have easily settled into that life himself, having worked for a spell at the same steel mill that his grandparents did when they moved to Michigan from Kentucky. But he went out to L.A. to flip burgers and pursue music… which, ironically, led him back to Detroit, thanks to one of the world’s most iconic rock stars.
Stone was working in the kitchen at L.A.’s fabled Molly Malone’s pub—many nights getting up on stage to sing, still wearing his apron, if any of the booked bands canceled at the last minute—when his career took a fateful turn. A friend got front-row tickets to a Pistons game in Detroit and decided to take along a copy of Stone’s demo, just in case Kid Rock should show up. “He did, so my friend Sam gets his courage up and walks over to him and says, ‘Hey, I have this CD of this kid I think you should hear. He’s got a lot of soul and he’s from Detroit and living in L.A. now.’ Bob (aka Kid Rock) says to him, ‘Well, that’s his first mistake.’ But he took the CD.” Over the next few weeks, the star listened to the upstart’s demo over and over again, finally calling up and inviting Stone to dinner. “He said, ‘Hey, man, we’re in L.A. Do you want to go have dinner with me and Rick Rubin?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s my favorite producer. I would love to do a record with him some time.’ He just started laughing and said, ‘Well, let’s see if we can get him to do my record first, and then we’ll see about yours.’”
Rubin did go on to produce Kid Rock’s album after that dinner—but Kid Rock himself ended up being the main behind-the-boards creative force on Stone’s debut album. The superstar’s executive producer credit is no honorary title. “I’d say we recorded 80 percent of it at his house, and every single day I’d look through the glass and he’d be sitting there at the console. He literally worked side by side with Brian Irwin and Marlon Young on the eight tracks we did there,” the other two having been done in L.A. and Nashville. “He’s definitely a big part of this record, and it’s not like he’s in it for the money. He just loved my voice and loved the music, and he told me one time, ‘Ty, I can’t make you a star, but I can make sure you get a shot at it.’ I’ll take those odds! You can’t do no fighting for me, but all I ask is that you let me step in the ring.”
Kid Rock put his support where his mouth was in other ways, too. He convinced Stone to move from L.A. back to Detroit, sent his limo to pick him up at the airport, and carried his bag up to the bedroom next to his, where Stone lived for the next four months. That led to experiences like rubbing elbows with the likes of Elton John and Axl Rose, or the time he was sitting around a campfire, trading verses with Hank Williams Jr. as well as Kid Rock. “It’s an honor to work with him. He cares about the music and he basically sticks up for me in this business, like a big brother.”
That extended to taking Stone out as an opening act on two arena tours, the latest of which was this spring. A Kid Rock audience is not necessarily an easy or compliant one, so a certain amount of Michigan-bred moxie is required just to get on stage. It’s bravado in which Stone, humble a soul as he may be, is not lacking.
“It’s a battle every night,” he says. “I feel like a Christian in the Coliseum every time, squaring off with the lion. But I’d say the majority of the fight is won or lost in the first 10 seconds. I’m not the kind of fighter that tries to go ten rounds and win by decision. I’m the Mike Tyson knock-you-out-in-10-seconds type of fighter. When I first step out, I go out with just an acoustic guitar and do this song called ‘Blessed St. Anthony,’ and I get out there rip into this big monster soul note. You get louder later on, and you definitely win more fans over the course of the set. But I like to hammer them with the sucker punch. They see me walk out on stage for the first time and I can feel them thinking ‘What is this shit?’—and I stand there feeling like the most underestimated man on the planet. But the very first note out of my mouth, I feel like, if you’re gonna be my fan, you’ll know—you’ll be my fan right then.”
And he knows within an hour’s time whether he won the fight or not. “You get right into the crowd—they’ll let you know. I run backstage, change into my street clothes, and my band and I start walking around the arena shaking hands and saying hi to everyone. If you can make it all the way around the floor and get backstage again before the next act comes on in 20 minutes, then you lost. But if you have a good night, if you won, you might only make it 25 feet from the gate. I’m trying to make fans face to face, one handshake and one picture at a time.” That’s the kind of effusiveness that is, as anyone around the world can tell you, a distinctly American style.