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Matt Jones is recording songs from all over Michigan

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Last February, Ypsilanti musician Matt Jones set out to document the Michigan music scene by recording as many artists as possible, each playing a single song. One year and almost 200 artists later, he’s not even close to being finished.

“It’ll be done when I get everywhere I need to go,” Jones says. “It’s not like I’m trying to go to every town, but I’m trying to get to every region (of Michigan) at least … If I can do that, I’ll feel pretty good.”

Jones’ project, the River Street Anthology, is named after the street he lives on in Ypsilanti. He’s recorded many tracks for the anthology in his basement, although he’s also traveled to record artists in Hamtramck, Marquette, Kalamazoo and the Traverse City and Houghton areas. He says the idea was partly inspired by a 2007 compilation he participated in called “Ypsilanti Folk Singers,” featuring a more modest 17 musicians.

But Jones says he also was driven by a love of history, which he’s currently studying at Eastern Michigan University. He views the anthology as a historical preservation project, a way of documenting Michigan’s rich music scene for posterity. He plans to eventually make the entire anthology available online, and possibly as a physical release on vinyl or CD.

Detroit singer-songwriter Audra Kubat, who recorded a track for the anthology, compares Jones to legendary music archivist Alan Lomax, who is now famous for recording numerous Appalachian folk artists in the ’30s and ’40s.

“I don’t want to compare myself to any of those artists, really, but just to say how wonderful it is to capture all of this sound now,” Kubat says. “When Lomax was doing it, I don’t know if he knew exactly what it was going to be. I feel like Matt just needs to get it down on tape.”

The recording process for the anthology started small, as Jones invited about 15 good friends to record in his basement. However, that soon grew to include another 45 artists from around the metro Detroit area. Then Jones broadened his scope to include the entire state of Michigan, adding an additional 120 musicians. Recording session venues have included Lo and Behold! Records in Hamtramck, a one-room schoolhouse near Traverse City and the historic Orpheum Theatre in Hancock.

“I never planned for it to get as big as it has,” Jones says. “I feel like the entire time I’ve just been running behind it, trying to chase it down, but also liking that it’s going in directions I didn’t anticipate.”

Jones’ recording setup is simple, utilizing a single microphone, and he encourages artists to perform their songs in a single take. The low-key, impromptu nature of the sessions has allowed for some moments of unexpected beauty, as when Jones invited Lo and Behold! owner Richie Wohlfeil to perform a song of his own. Wohlfeil drums for Detroit bands, including Danny and the Darleans, but usually doesn’t perform solo. He also had the flu that day. But he picked up a guitar and sang anyway.

“If Matt gets a hold of you and asks you to play or record at your place, you just do it because he’s a good dude and I trust his vision,” Wohlfeil says.

Jones was wowed by the resulting track.

“Even though he was just sick as a dog, he played this song and it sounded so good,” Jones says. “It was the only time I’ve appreciated somebody whose head was just completely full of snot.”

Not content to only capture audio of the sessions, Jones has recruited videographers and a sketch artist to visually document the process.

“I want you to be able to see where these people are, what they look like,” he says. “It’s just part of the story, and if you can’t flesh out the story there’s no point in having the story.”

One of those videographers, Steven Michael Holmes, says his interest in Michigan music began with hearing one of Jones’ records. He’s since filmed numerous local bands, hosting the videos on his blog, Mostly Midwest.

“So many of us in the music scene were doing something like (the River Street Anthology),” Holmes says. “We were all doing some sort of cataloging or history-keeping of what was going on. But it wasn’t deliberate like what Matt is doing.”

So far the only public release of anthology material has been through two listening parties held in September and January. Before Jones even begins to organize the material for a full digital release, he says he has a lot more recording to do. The artists he’s recorded so far have been primarily white rock and folk musicians, and Jones says he wants to seek out musicians who represent the full diversity of Michigan music.

“I can get rock bands,” he says. “No problem. But I need everything else. I need hip-hop ... I would love Arabic music. I need Latino music.”

Jones’ willingness to take his time collecting a variety of music from all corners of the state seems to be slightly at odds with his excitement to make the anthology available to the public. He speaks exuberantly of the “incredible” reactions listening party attendees have had to the material so far. Thoroughness is winning out for now, but Jones is also clearly enthusiastic about the short- and long-term potential for people to listen to, and learn from, his efforts.

“The thing I regret most about the anthology is that somebody might stumble upon it 100 years from now, and I won’t be around to see how excited they get,” he says. “Unless they hate it. That’s something, too. I’ll take it.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.