Don Was is not the most obvious choice to host a country radio show. True, the Grammy-winning producer has worked with Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson (whose Was-masterminded album Closer to the Bone is out September 29). But the Detroit-born musician admits that he is “truthfully, an r&b guy” and, in many quarters, he is still best known for his idiosyncratic pop-funk outfit Was (Not Was).
Yet, on Saturday, August 29, at 10pm ET, Was will broadcast the first in a series of weekly shows called The Motor City Hayride for Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country channel. According to host Was, however, this isn’t going to be the most obvious of country showcases. “I’ve got an Iggy Pop song and a Conway Twitty song on the first show, so it’s pretty broad,” he explains. Was also intends the show to highlight Detroit, a city that, he says, is more of a country-loving burg than you might imagine. “It hasn’t spawned a lot of artists that have gone on to national fame in the country and western field,” he admits. “But there’s a huge audience for it. After World War Two, people flocked to Detroit from the south looking for gigs in the auto factories. I just want people to know that the city keeps going. It’s experiencing an economic disaster. But people are having fun and it’s actually a really nice place to live.”
After the jump, Was recalls having Marlon Brando as a neighbor, backing Iggy Pop, and the time Was (Not Was) made the mistake of supporting Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul.
Photo Credit: David Goggin
Entertainment Weekly: What is the format of Motor City Hayride?
Don Was: The format is 50 minutes of outlaw country, which has a pretty broad definition. It really runs the gamut. We’ve got Little Feat, Kinky Friedman, Joe Ely, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, the Faces, Ryan Adams. Then there’s ten minutes on the streets talking to people in different Detroit locations. The inspiration comes from a show that was hosted by a soul DJ named Nat Morris, who’s actually going to be the first guest. He hosted a show after school every day from a furniture showroom on the corner of Gratiot and 8 Mile Rd. This was 35, 40 years ago. In addition to telling you about great furniture bargains and the easy credit that was available, people could walk in off the street and dedicate a song. You got a real sense of community.
I read that both George Clinton and the Stooges played at your high school. What kind of high school would have those miscreants come and perform?
They were just local guys. (George Clinton’s band) were called the Parliaments when they played. I have a confused memory of the Stooges. I believe they turned the power off on them. Which happens with Iggy. I remember Was (Not Was) backed him at Farm Aid one year. It was a big, nationally televised thing. Dick Clark was the host, and he warned Iggy right before we started: “If you swear, we’ll cut you right off.” And so Iggy came out and kicked Dick Clark in the a– and then got the mike and said, “Hey motherf–kers!” That was it, man. We went right to commercial. No one saw us.
Was (Not Was) also once opened for Milli Vanilli, Paula Abdul, and Tone Loc. Memories?
I don’t remember what year it was: ’89, ‘90, something like that. We were the only band who did anything that was remotely live. But we’re playing almost exclusively to teenagers who knew the videos from MTV. So, we sounded less like the record than the other people. We died every night. It was just gruesome. One night Milli Vanilli came out and their sequencer didn’t work, so they’re dancing around onstage, and you hear drums playing, but there’s nothing else: no vocals, no anything. And they stormed off the stage. At this point, everybody in the audience had to know that they were on tape. And they came back out and just started up again and nobody cared.
So did you learn a few Milli-style dance steps after that?
No, we told told our agent to get us off the tour as quickly as possible. It was an awful f–king summer, man.
You worked on the score for the the 1990 Marlon Brando movie The Freshman. Did you ever meet him?
Yeah, sure. He was really cool. I think there was a wink to everything did. He’d been on top of his game, he knew the thing inside out, and he was just having fun. But I used to live across the street from him on Mulholland Drive.
And he lived next to Jack Nicholson, right?
Were they good neighbors? Did they recycle?
They were very guarded about what was going on up there. But I had a studio, and Brando never complained about the volume. Unlike Bob Rafelson (legendary director of Five Easy Pieces and The Postman Always Rings Twice) who was on the other side and drove me nuts.
He would complain about the noise?
Yeah. I did a Richie Sambora solo record up there, and Richie plays pretty loud. That was the first time I thought he was really justified in complaining. In fact, the guitar amp was so loud that when I walked in front of it I experienced fear. I never did that again. So, I sympathized with Rafelson. And, as peace gesture to my neighbor, I left him a bag of reefer in the mailbox. Which was my big mistake! Because after that, any time he ran out of reefer, all he had to do was complain about the noise [laughs]. In the end, it just made more sense to close the studio down.