a literary review
Doop and the Inside Outlaws
“Back in the summer of ’49, old Everett Belcher was runnin’ shine from the hills of Kentucky to the mills of Great Lakes Steel.” So begins the title track from Doop and the Inside Outlaws’ 2009 record, Everett Belcher. Many Americana songwriters arrogate working class themes and write about working class people in the abstract. In these versions the characters are often pat, over-simplified corporate country stereotypes. Not so in Don Duprie’s songs. Doop has come about as close as you can to actually living out the songs he writes, or as he’s fond of saying, “I ain’t living for this stuff, I’m dying for it.”
Born and raised in River Rouge, MI, home of US Steel and Zug Island, a manmade industrial island in the middle of the Detroit River, Doop writes songs that navigate that riparian territory where empathy and fatalism meet. To understand Doop’s songs, you have to understand Downriver, that cluster of working class suburbs south of Detroit, an area settled predominantly by white southerners coming north up I-75, “The Hillbilly Highway,” as Steve Earle would have it, in search of UAW wages and middle class existences, workdays unhindered by cave-ins, dungeon darkness, and the terrifying eventuality of black lung disease. People like the character Everett Belcher, who also happens to be Doop’s maternal grandfather. It is the place poet Philip Levine writes about in “Rain Downriver”: “In this state, which is not madness, / but Michigan, here in the suburbs / of the City of God, rain brings back / the gasoline we blew in the face / of creation and sulfur which will not / soften iron or even yellow rice.”
Doop’s story is well-known around Detroit. In 2010, he was laid off from the River Rouge Fire Department and began putting all his time and energy into his music and his small business, Dangerously Delicious Pies Baked in Detroit, a small kitchen in the back of the Comet Bar serving sweet and savory pies to patrons. At that point he had already recorded his debut record, Blood River, an homage to and lament for his hometown, and Everett Belcher, a slightly more anthemic treatment of the working class themes introduced on Blood River. Both albums were cut at Jim Diamond’s Ghetto Recorders. Diamond and his erstwhile studio are famous first and foremost for the first two White Stripes records, engineered and produced by Diamond at Ghetto. Blood River earned Doop a music row publishing deal, and several music critics, especially in Detroit but also nationally, took notice.
Given that he was writing pieces like “Blood River,” “Everett Belcher,” “MFNJOB,” and “What Am I Supposed To Do?” in the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the financial crash of 2008, given that Detroiters have long been bellwethers for the health of the American economy, and given that his best working class anthems are as well-wrought as anything Springsteen has done (this may sound hyperbolic, but I don’t think many can listen to these songs and not be struck by the empathic intelligence behind them), it isn’t surprising that Detroiters, especially Downriver folks, take pride in the fact that Doop is writing songs about their lives. Southeastern Michigan is our place in the world, and Don Duprie is giving voice to our concerns in ways that politicians and news media cannot.
What a place like River Rouge, MI can teach you is that death descends daily on fumes from Severstal Steel and the Marathon Oil refinery, that the west wind secretes it one sallow cloud-dollop at a time, that what is here today, be it a job or a life, might not be tomorrow. It makes it more difficult to other others’ hardships; it makes it that much more imperative to listen to the peoples’ stories before they themselves are gone. One of Doop’s favorite things to say when prompted to discuss the role empathy plays in his writing is, “I’m just a reporter, man. These people thank me for writing about them, but I’m the one who should be thanking them. Just listen to the stories people tell you and write them down. That’s all a song is. It’s easy.”
Doop began writing “What Am I Supposed To Do?” while he was still working for the fire department. One night they got a call to come out to Zug Island because a man was having a heart attack, but when they got there, it quickly became clear that it was a panic attack and not a heart attack. As Doop was taking his vitals and trying to talk him down, the man, a late middle-aged steel worker who had just been let go from the mill, kept repeating the question, “What am I supposed to do? This is all that I’ve ever known, so tell me what am I supposed to do?” Doop stored the line away, but he says it wasn’t until he lost his own job that he was able to complete the song, to really feel something proximal to the dread that panic-stricken man was feeling that night.
On the title track of Blood River, he sings, “I walk across his kind every day, behind the restaurant or in an alleyway. I try and help him out the best I can, but times are tough and sometimes I push away his hand, and all he wants to do is get him some dinner. Instead I drown him, I drown him here in Blood River.” This song, written early on in Doop’s musical trajectory, constitutes a microcosm of his whole approach to lyric writing: the question underpinning many of his lyrics about the amount of actual good this empathy can do, the question that often steers his darker songs toward the fatalistic end of the dialectic. The album is an auspicious debut, and in it we hear Duprie skillfully navigating influences of Springsteen, Mellencamp, Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, while pointedly evoking his unique place in the world, possessing the humility to quietly step out of the way and let the spectral, anachronistic voices of Downriver, Michigan merge with his own.
Humility is key to Doop’s approach to songs, life, and friendship. In an age where much of our cultural understanding of authorship, this especially being true of the narratives we consume about songwriters, celebrates the genius of the individual, Doop’s always viewed songwriting as a collaborative exercise, one whose process far exceeds the scope of those isolated moments when one sits down with a notebook and guitar. Much of this is borne out of a reverence for the craft and tradition of American songwriting, but it also betrays a sophisticated understanding of textuality, which explains why when he seriously started making music, he branded his project “The Inside Outlaws Songwriter Collective.”
The concept for The Inside Outlaws came about in 2004. The story goes that Doop was getting off work at the firehouse to go meet his friend Ryan VanOver (stage name “Ty Stone”), steel worker and fellow Detroit-Downriver songwriter, at the Cee ‘Em Bar in Lincoln Park. This was at the height of the Rick Rubin curated Johnny Cash revival, and Doop and Ty were lamenting the fact that a bunch of Cash-inspired kids were running around with acoustic guitars writing bad corporate country knock-offs and calling themselves outlaws. Doop’s idea was to parody this trend by starting a songwriting collective called “The Inside Outlaws” and write real working class ballads that went beyond the pat and trite renderings of rich kids who had likely never stepped foot inside a dive bar, let alone fired a Colt pistol.
If Cee ‘Em in Lincoln Park seems like an inconspicuous place for the birth of a musical movement that would go on to produce publishing deals, record contracts, arena tours (for Ty Stone), a Kresge Arts Fellowship (for Doop), and several Detroit Music Awards, one must keep in mind that Lincoln Park has always been a hotbed of musical activity. It is home to the MC5, and it is also where figures like Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, and Mitch Ryder cut their teeth playing bars, VFW Halls, and high school auditoriums. In addition to Doop and Ty, The Inside Outlaws would include Alison Lewis, Pat V, Katie Grace, and Matt Dmits. It is significant that at the cusp of the Americana craze such a project was dreamed up by a firefighter and a steel worker in an area that was once synonymous with American manufacturing.
Although in 2004 the rest of the country hadn’t yet experienced recession and subsequent economic collapse, in Southeastern Michigan the writing was on the wall, and this group of artists was elegizing a way of life that seemed to be slipping away from them. In just a few short years Doop and Ty would find themselves laid off from their respective jobs. I said earlier that the people here are the bellwether of American economic health. Doop, growing up the son of an industrial worker in River Rouge, understood this intuitively. But he says it wasn’t until he heard Ty Stone sing his song, “Line of Blood,” that he realized he could write directly about the people and places he’d grown up around. “Line of Blood” is a rocker with heavy, distorted, palm-muted electric guitar work reminiscent of Tom Morello’s playing, thus aesthetically very different from Doop’s music, but the lyrical content is what was epiphanic for Doop when he first heard Ty sing it at The Magic Bag in Ferndale, MI in 2003: “Well it was said on the day of my birth the ghost of a dead man walked the earth, and my mama don’t love me none. She hates everything my daddy done. He got killed on a steel mill line, just like his daddy in a black coal mine.” “Line of Blood” was featured on the Boondock Saints II soundtrack. Doop says after he heard it he thought to himself, “Wow! You can write about that shit?”
“That changed everything for me, man,” he adds.
I first met Don Duprie at St. Andrew’s Hall in 2010, shortly after he was laid off from the firehouse. I was there for a Drive By Truckers show, and Don had set up a songwriter showcase to take place after the show in the basement of the venue, a smaller stage called The Shelter. I had come to see The Truckers but was not all that enthusiastic about the record they were promoting that tour, The Big To Do, and I was looking forward to hearing The Inside Outlaws’ sets.
I had already heard a few songs by Doop and the Inside Outlaws’ through my friend Nick Mansfield. Mansfield is a fireman on Zug Island and knew Doop through the bars and pool halls frequented by industrial workers in Rouge and Southwest Detroit. I shook Doop’s hand and said, “You’re a great songwriter.” We stood in the lobby of St. Andrew’s Hall as Patterson Hood shouted over the noise, “And goddamn Reagan’s in the Whitehouse and nobody gives a damn.”
Doop seemed embarrassed by the praise. He nodded toward the stage. “You know who’s a great writer? That guy right there.”
We chatted for a few minutes about The Truckers, specifically Jason Isbell’s departure from the band. I told him that while I loved Hood and Cooley, I thought Isbell had been the band’s best writer.
“He’s great, man, but nobody can do what Patterson does.” For him it was a measure of scope and risk, not pure poetry.
It was far from my first show at The Shelter, and I’ve seen a few memorable ones there: The Geraldine Fibbers in 1994, the punk band Avail during the July 1997 tornado outbreak in Detroit, but this show changed my life. It’s a woeful cliché, I know, but seeing Don Duprie and Alison Lewis sing songs that they had written about neighborhoods I’d lived in and bars I’d frequented left me feeling much like Doop must have felt that night he heard Ty Stone sing “Line of Blood.”
“Wow! You can write about this shit?”
Posterity’s Dark Prizes
The Comet Bar where Doop opened his first pie shop was the de facto home for Detroit’s hardcore scene before Doop began hosting songwriter nights there in the winter of 2010. His new record, The Corridor, one of the last projects to come out of Jim Diamond’s now-defunct Ghetto Recorders, is very much a story of that place and the people who worked and drank there. This album is Doop’s most cohesive given its strong narrative arc and its tragic dimensions; it plays like a novel in ten songs. Where Doop’s previous records are gritty, yet somewhat redemptive, The Corridor is achingly real, using character studies to examine social issues ranging from gentrification and its accompanying displacement, to prostitution and incarceration. A few years after Doop opened his shop, The Comet was bought up by Mike Ilitch’s Olympia Development to make way for the new Detroit Red Wings arena.
The Corridor is eponymous with the neighborhood in central Detroit where The Comet was located. Corridors are long dark features of urban architecture that often leave one feeling trapped, “living on the edge of disaster where the beast has become the master” (“The Edge of Disaster”). A chance-medley is when a stray bullet finds an unintended victim. “God bless us all and our little war” (“The Corridor”). A war is a large scale military conflict; a little war is a daily existential struggle; any war is a class war.
The title track is narrated from the point of view of a sex worker navigating the treacherous terrain of The South Cass. The female speaker of the song says, “I see Danny at the end of the bar. He’s down there talking with the regulars. Now Danny’s always been good to me. It kind of helps me with my sanity.” There aren’t many songwriters who would have the guts to step outside of themselves like that and narrate from the point of view of someone from a completely different life circumstance, let alone gender. There are many such moments on this album, though, that give the music a penetrating bleakness.
I don’t know enough about marketing and contemporary musical tastes to predict what this novel-in-songs, The Corridor, will do commercially, nor does the question interest me very much as I listen to it while making the trek over the pocked and potholed asphalt of Schaefer Road, past Ford’s Rouge Plant and The Marathon Oil Refinery, into River Rouge where the road name becomes Coolidge and the air quality regularly ranks among the worst for municipalities in Michigan to grab drinks at Mr. K’s Bar and pick Don Duprie’s brain about songwriting. Going here seems a bit mythical, perhaps the Michigan equivalent of rolling into Asbury Park to hang with The Boss. The razor wire fence surrounding Great Lakes Steel takes on a dull glint in the gas light, and the cirrus clouds with the chemicals at night get tinted a sallow-green, cirrhotic hue.
Doop, Alison Lewis, and I shoot pool and play the jukebox at K’s for an hour or so before cashing out. The plan is to head back to Doop’s place to drink beer and have him help me with a song that has been giving me trouble, but first Doop wants to show us something. It is winter, a snowless night, the air dry and frigid. He drives his Ford transit van down a dark street labeled, “No outlet.” He points toward the Marathon refinery and the glowing ore mills on Zug with his tattooed fingers and says, “See, lots of folks look at nature and swim in lakes and climb mountains and shit and say it’s beautiful. I consider this stuff beautiful, man. This is my idea of beauty.”
I look out and have to admit that I don’t quite see it. An outmoded factory, an oil refinery that is surely depositing ungodly amounts of mercury into the Trenton Channel which rushes into Lake Erie, a fragile ecosystem subject to toxic algal blooms and resultant no-swim advisories up and down its coast. In recent years philosophers like Timothy Morton and Slavoj Zizek have suggested that at the end of history the goal of the radical ecologist must be to admire the aesthetics of the damage and find the beauty there. As this irredeemable century trudges on that ought to be the goal of the great songwriter as well: to look at what’s left over and recognize its precarious worth.
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Cal Freeman is a poet and songwriter from Dearborn, MI.