History In The Making: The River Street Anthology
Matt Jones wears a lot of hats—songwriter and bandleader for Matt Jones & the Reconstruction, drummer for Misty Lyn & the Big Beautiful as well as Loose Teeth, Civil War expert/aspiring Gettysburg National Park Ranger, and EMU Historical Preservation student. Yet his newest hat is the most ambitious. He’s becoming the Alan Lomax of Michigan with his new project The River Street Anthology.
Lomax made extensive field recordings of American Folk Music from the 40’s through the 60’s. He covered a vast range of musical idioms with his recordings. They are not only a major historic document, but an endless font of musical inspiration for generations. From Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes to the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the list of music inspired by these recordings is staggering. Jones aims to do something similar—just a little closer to home—by capturing a multitude of musicians across genres throughout the entire state of Michigan.
The River Street Anthology had humble beginnings in spite of its now ambitious scope. Matt explains:
It started out as a way to get my musician friends together. There aren’t a whole lot of venues in Ypsi. I felt more often than not, I saw my musician friends just sitting around on bar stools—myself included—not playing on stage, and I just wanted something to do. The idea had been there for years—ever since Fred Thomas put his Ypsilanti Folk Singers compilation together back in 2006/¬07. That project was so fun, that I wanted to do the same, and I even asked him if he minded me using the same title (he was happy to let me use it—a sort of Volume II). It started off as a little 10 or 15 person compilation from Ypsi. Within an hour (of posting it to Facebook on February 6, 2015) it turned into 60 people.
It’s turned into my dream job that I don’t get paid for. I want this to be a legitimate historical document. It’s always been my goal to get something into The Library of Congress. I’ve been trying to weasel my way into history for years. This is even better because I can take everybody with me. It’s a way to get everybody on the books.
In the process the project birthed in the basement of his River Street home in Ypsilanti has changed him.
I lost my edge. I think that I had developed a sort of reputation around here for being a little dark, sarcastic, and quick to judge. Quick to plunge the knife in. I don't think that is necessarily ever who I really was, but we settle into playing out roles. Sometimes doing what is expected is easier than showing your real hand—vulnerability and all that. I learned real quick that there was no room for that edge in this project. I realized that to make the RSA, I would have to have support basically growing out of my armpits, up to my eyeballs and I found that I liked it. Then I found that everyone deserves it and that people thrive with it. I sit here, a foot away from people and watch/listen to them do what they love doing most. They are excited about taking part in this project and they play their hearts out. If you can seriously sit there, that close to someone pouring it out, and not love it too, I'd say you just might be a sociopath.
The beauty of Jones’ recordings is his stripped down approach. He uses one inexpensive microphone, a preamp for the mic, and a digital recorder. That’s it. And he doesn’t do a lot of takes. He tells artists it’s one take—even though it’s not always so. The end result is a great—and quick—spontaneous take that leaves him time to record a lot of other artists in a session.
At first, I wanted it to be one mic, one song, one take—I think just because it had a real nice, punk rock ring to it. I still have just the one mic, and I still only want one song... and it would be reeeeallly nice if people could pull it off in one take. But truth be told, I only tell people "one take" anymore so they rehearse before they get to my house. Usually people get in and out in under a half hour, BECAUSE THEY PRACTICED BEFOREHAND. Thing is—I have never really truly enjoyed the recording studio because it's one of those places where I can't have total control all the time. I don't pretend to be a recording engineer—I want to be a historian, not an engineer. I don't want to sit there while you work your parts out, and decide which lyrics to sing, and have second thoughts about that ending or that intro. We aren't making your next record—we are making a historical document of What You Sound Like Today. So hopefully, when I tell people “one take,” it scares ‘em enough to rehearse prior, in order to get that one take, and get themselves down on tape, and hopefully, into history the fastest way possible. History doesn't wait—you either get in it or you don't.
All of which brings us to last Saturday. Matt had his second River Street Anthology Listening Party down the street from his house at Cultivate Coffee & Taphouse on River Street in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town. Alternately insightful and funny, Matt gave the backstory on his project and shared 10 audio recordings as well as several videos done by Charlie Steen and Mostly Midwest from his project so far. To date Matt has recorded over 200 artists in 7-plus towns in both peninsulas of Michigan.
The evening wound up as Matt added another recording to the anthology—live in front of the hushed audience, Jones recorded Erin Zindle of The Ragbirds (along with percussionist Randall Moore) in one beautiful take.
He took about a minute to position the microphone and get the levels right and hit record. The rest is history.
Doug Coombe is an Ann Arbor and Detroit based music and editorial photographer. He's been a photographer for the Detroit's Metro Times, Concentrate Media, and Urban Innovation Exchange Detroit.
This Sunday Jones continues the project, recording 20 musicians in Kalamazoo.