Explore the Windsor Music Scene and Miss Detroit with Canadian Ron Leary


The Canada-U.S. Border closed early enough in the COVID-19 pandemic. It touched a lot of people and especially in places like Windsor and Detroit, two border towns separated by a large river. For centuries now, people have been traveling in one way or another to visit friends, family and loved ones, or to go out for a night on the town.

The Canadian border opened earlier this month, easing restrictions on people wishing to travel from Michigan to Ontario. It was recently announced, however, that ordinary Canadians seeking to enter the United States would have to wait a little longer; the date originally set for August 21 for easing border restrictions on Canadians traveling to the United States has been pushed back by one month.

Canadian musician and Windsor resident Ron Leary has been coming to Detroit since the early 1990s, performing shows at places like the old Xhedos Cafe in Ferndale or PJ’s Lager House in Corktown. His Traveling Salesman Radio Hour, currently on hiatus, reached Detroit from 99.1 CJAM-FM in Windsor. He also studied border history while earning his Masters in History from the University of Windsor, focusing on border regions music and radio.

You can catch Ron Leary’s next show on Friday September 10 at the Dominion House Tavern in Windsor, Ontario. Visit www.ronleary.com for the latest updates.

As the border opened, at least in a way, we gave him the keys to our Instagram account as part of the Model D Explorer Series. Ron took us to some institutions in the Windsor music community, both old and new. The way he talks about Windsor-style pizza, however, makes us think he might have to give us another round someday too.

We spoke with Ron Leary of Windsor, Detroit, and the shared relationship between these two incredibly unique, but forever linked border towns.

Canadian musician Ron LearyModel D: How would you characterize the back-and-forth relationship, the sharing of music, ideas and culture between Detroit and Windsor?

Ron Leary: The connection is incredibly deep. I am a kind of foreigner; I moved to Windsor in the early ’90s. But Detroit is right in the community here. Families – everyone has American-Canadian parents here. And obviously [legendary 1970s radio station] CKLW here, playing a lot of Motown, Detroit rock and roll – Seger and all these guys would come and play. Detroit, music, culture, it’s kind of part of the fabric of life in Windsor. It’s different here. It’s a bit like half Canadian, half American. It’s different from anywhere else I’ve been in the country.

Model D: You studied life on the Detroit-Windsor border while earning your master’s degree from the University of Windsor, particularly in music. What were the big takeaways there?

Ron: I think the most interesting thing I found was that through the two big Windsor stations here it has become a real jumping off point for Canadian artists in the US market. Windsor stations, CKLW in the 1970s and 89X in the 1990s, had a potential audience of over 10 million people – and mostly American ears. In the 1970s, Canada had a population of just 20 million, from coast to coast. If you could enter the Detroit market through Windsor, you could really establish your career. Even if you got national radio in Canada, you could still have some crappy jobs. But the opportunity to transform your career and your life through the Windsor-Detroit market has made a difference.

Model D: How do you think Detroit could have benefited from this relationship over the years?

Ron: I think in a very subtle way. Some don’t recognize it as much, but because Canadian radio is mandated to broadcast a certain percentage of Canadian music, I think the people of Detroit know a lot more about Canadian music than most other places in the United States, even if they don’t. I don’t really know that the bands they were listening to were Canadian.

With CKLW, it was bands like Guess Who that they always played. That would happen again in the ’90s with bands like Sloan, who always come to Detroit and always pack St. Andrews every time they play. I think the Detroiters and Michiganders have come to know a lot more about Canadian music and culture because border radio is an option and maybe a bit unique compared to any other station they listen to. It has been mutually beneficial for listeners and musicians.

Model D: Someone commented on your post on CJAM – and I think it was actually our editor, Biba Adams. But she did comment on your post on CJAM, saying it was one of the first radio stations to broadcast a lot of hip hop from Detroit.

Ron: It makes perfect sense. CJAM is very, very aware of the Detroit music scene. Most of the programmers are all Detroit music fans, live music fans. And there is a huge priority on local music. It doesn’t matter which side of the river it is on.

There’s a book by White Stripes that said there was a band from Montreal in the ’80s or something and they were just a duo – drums and guitar. And it has been suggested that Jack White first heard this on Canadian radio. The only radio station in Windsor that would have broadcast something like this would have been CJAM. And I know Jack White grew up in the Southwest, which CJAM reaches. I’ve always wanted to ask Jack this question and see if that’s where he’s had some influence for his band, because it seems like he could have.

Model D: Border towns have a different energy than towns in the interior. What is the attraction for you? What attracted you to Windsor and Detroit?

Ron: When I got here I was a little shocked. It was a whole different world than anywhere I have been in Canada. But very early on, I fell in love with Detroit and the music of Detroit. Whenever I had the chance, I would go see a show at a club or a festival or I would go to Car City Records. I really fell in love with the Detroit of the 90s, really fell in love with the culture of Detroit. The more I learned about it, as I dig a little deeper into the music of Detroit, it’s just an amazing legacy. I was just in awe of Detroit’s legacy. So that’s a huge reason why I’m still here. And I love this half-American, half-Canadian culture. I’m really drawn to the kinds of places where two cultures collide. It’s different from other places in North America.

It’s located between Chicago and Toronto, so it’s a great place for me to be a touring musician. It is essential for several million people and I love to travel and sing. And I guess the other thing about Windsor is that it’s a pretty cheap place to live – or it used to be, traditionally. So, to be an artist, if you had really cheap rent, you had a much better chance of just doing art. And that’s sort of what happened to me here in Windsor.

Windsor is a bit like a sleepy little town, but in just 10 minutes I can be in downtown Detroit. It’s sort of the best of both worlds. I think Windsor itself, as an arts community, I really mean it – I’ve been to every city of all sizes and I think Windsor is really outstripping its weight, artistically and creatively, and I think that it has a lot to do with Detroit. You have access to world-class entertainment just 10 minutes away, which most places in Canada don’t. You must be either in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal. But here we’re kind of a little town with Detroit right there. So people here have knowledge that other small towns in Canada may not have access to.

Model D: I was reading the newspaper this morning and saw that they had just extended the border closure for Canadians entering the United States, pushing it back to September. The borders have been closed for about a year and a half now. What do you miss the most about coming to Detroit?

Ron: Because I rely heavily on Detroit for my cultural needs, not having access to it has been very, very difficult. I love going to a show somewhere like St. Andrews. This is my dream place to play, St. Andrews. I saw Elliot Smith there when I was 25 and have always loved this place. So I miss going to concerts. And there are a lot of restaurants that I went to quite regularly.

But what is probably the most important is that I have met so many close friends in Detroit. Many of my closest friends are Michiganders living in Detroit, area. Just through years of playing music, whether it’s my own or through my show at CJAM, I just met so many cool and interesting people and couldn’t see them for basically two years, it’s been a real brake. Being cut off from the community that you’ve been so active in has been such a part of your life before, I think it’s been really difficult for a lot of people – I know that for me at least. I just can’t wait to get up and go see everyone.

Model D: When you come back, what’s the first restaurant you go to?

Ron: I think it will be Taqueria El Rey, over there on Vernor. Do you know this place ? I miss the tacos, the smoked chicken. It’s a little little joint, it feels good to be in there. It will definitely be Mexican food. This is probably what I miss the most: really good Detroit-Mexican food.

Find Model D on Instagram at @modeldmedia. And be sure to follow Ron Leary on @lawnreary to follow the Windsor music scene.

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