Music project aims to find sound of Michigan

Emily Bingham

Ypsilanti — In a cinder block basement in a little yellow house on River Street, Matt Jones is making Michigan history, one song at a time.

For the past 18 months, Jones has invited musicians from all over the state to descend the narrow concrete stairs into this cramped, humid room, where they then sit or stand in front of a single microphone amidst a tangle of instruments and cables to perform a song while Jones records it live.

It’s all part of an ambitious preservation project called the River Street Anthology — so named for the street Jones’ house sits along — which aims to capture an audible snapshot of the Michigan music scene as it exists right now.

The anthology started as a passion project: Jones, himself a singer-songwriter, had wanted to put together a compilation spotlighting a handful Ypsilanti musicians, but then couldn’t say no when dozens responded to his Facebook call-out for participants. Over time the project grew and expanded beyond Jones’ River Street basement; he began scheduling day-long recording sessions in other parts of the state — a one-room schoolhouse in Mancelona, a church in Kalamazoo, a record store in Hamtramck.

A trip last month took him all the way to the Keweenaw Peninsula, a nine-hour drive. More than 200 songs have been recorded, with no end in sight.

It’s a decidedly epic undertaking, but it makes sense to Jones: a longtime local-music devotee and history buff who, at 38, recently returned to school to study historic preservation.

“Doing this historic preservation stuff in school just really lit a fire under me,” Jones said. “I wanted to do something myself. This was a perfect way to combine the two things that I love the most, which was history and archiving, with music. “

Earlier this year, Jones’ work caught the eye of Michigan state archivist Mark Harvey, who saw the rare opportunity for the Archives of Michigan to tap into history as it’s being made. As of late July, an official partnership between The River Street Anthology and the Archives of Michigan is underway, providing a permanency to the project, new funding opportunities and public accessibility via the state archives’ website,, where the audio files will eventually live.

“Matt Jones is gathering the ‘sounds of Michigan,’ ” Harvey said. “A project like that’s never been done,” Harvey said. “We’re trying to be more aware of things that are going on presently that will be important in the future, and this project is definitely one of them.”

Until the anthology is available for the public at the Archives of Michigan website, there are mainly two ways to sneak peeks of the project’s content: Via The River Street Anthology Facebook page, where Jones posts portraits, recordings and mini-essays about the artists, and at River Street Anthology listening parties, hosted by Jones every few months at venues and festivals around the state.

Jones has worked without any external funding or resources, but he hasn’t worked alone; in addition to the audio component, the recording sessions are documented by a rotating team of other creatives, including photographers Doug Coombe and Misty Lyn Bergeron, videographers Charles Steen and Steven Holmes of Mostly Midwest, and artist Sarah Campbell (Jones’ fiancée). The result is a multimedia package that goes beyond songs and seeks to capture the stories of Michigan’s music scene, too — an important aspect of history and historic preservation, where context is everything, Jones says.