The founding trio — Joshua Davis, Dominic John Davis (no relation) and Andy Wilson — met in the late ‘90s at Michigan State University and started playing house parties around 1998. Andy Wilson’s twin brother, Joe Wilson, moved to Lansing about a year later, and the core of Steppin’ In It was complete.
In the early 2000s, the band started its regular Monday night gig at the Green Door. The four guys quit their jobs and hit the road, touring as a bluegrass quartet during the week and hitting the stage at the Green Door every Monday as an electric sixpiece.
The band recorded five albums, including its final 2011 release, “At the Green Door,” recorded live at one of the group’s Monday night gigs in December 2009. Since the last Green Door performance, the band has played a handful of gigs, including a twonight reunion at Lansing Brewing Co. in July. Joshua Davis returns to Lansing Brewing Co. Sunday with his trio, which features percussionist Mike Shimmin and keyboardist Mike “the Reverend” Lynch, a fixture at Steppin’ In It’s Green Door gigs.
City Pulse caught up the guys from Steppin’ In It to see what they’ve been up to in the three years since the last Green Door show.
— Ty Forquer
Joshua Davis Trio
8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12
$20/$25 reserved seating
Lansing Brewing Co.
518 Shiawassee St., Lansing
(517) 371-2600, facebook.com/lansingbrewing
Shortly after the end of Steppin’ In It, Joshua Davis, 38, was approached by NBC’s “The Voice,” a reality show singing competition. Davis appeared on the show’s eighth season, eventually winning third place on the May 19, 2015, finale. Since the end of his run on “The Voice,” Davis released a 7” vinyl/digital single featuring two original songs, “Always Going To Be Here” and “Let Me In.” He is finishing work on a full-length album.
How important were those Monday nights at the Green Door to your development as a musician?
That was the gig. I always tell younger musicians, that’s what really made us tighter as a band, having that weekly gig. It’s where I really learned to play guitar and to sing — to be an entertainer.
I always tried to surround myself with better people. Those guys were so good. I had to work my tail off to hang with them. But it was also about playing on the fly and learning things quickly. We were learning new tunes all the time, because the same people were coming to hear us every week, and they didn’t want to hear the same things.
Do you feel like Steppin’ In It was ahead of its time? A lot of indie folk bands hit it big about the time you guys were wrapping up.
I think we were either ahead of our time or way behind our time. (Laughs.) All these newer bands — Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, those kind of bands — they have this mystique. We were just dorks. We were dorks for this music, this American roots music.
Steppin’ In It was a band that had very little ego. That’s something I loved about it, and I don’t want to say that it held us back, but it wasn’t about that for us.
The end of your run on “The Voice” was almost two years ago. Why didn’t you put out an album right away to capitalize on the show?
After “The Voice,” I wanted to get on the road and play a bunch of places in Michigan. I wanted to say thank you to everybody who supported me. I also wanted to get in front of people again. I missed that. The show was very isolated, and as a performer, I missed being in front of an audience.
I didn’t have a bunch of tunes ready when I went on “The Voice,” and I didn’t want to rush out and make an album I wouldn’t be proud of. So I’ve been writing for a while — I have a very high filter, so it takes me a while. A lot of ideas go in the trash. But I finally got some songs together, and we’re looking at a spring release for the next album.
What can we expect from this album?
Steve Berlin of Los Lobos produced the album. That was a new experience; I’m not used to giving that much control up to someone. But he was really great and really pushed me.
And it’s great to record this music with my friends — Dominic (Davis), Mike Lynch and Michael Shimmin are all on this record. Jen Sygit and Laura Bates and May Erlewine are singing on the record. It’s a big Michigan record.
Have you noticed a change in your audiences since “The Voice”?
There’s definitely different people showing up. It’s weird, because I grew up in a community where it was a real grassroots thing. You played shows, and you built up an audience, and you’d know about how many people you could draw somewhere. Right after “The Voice,” I’d fly across the country to play these shows, and I’d have no idea how many people would show up. So that caused some anxiety for me. But I would play somewhere I’d never been, and 500 people would show up.
When Steppin’ In It played its last show at the Green Door, founding bassist Dominic Davis, 41, was not in the house. Davis had already left the band in the fall of 2012 to record and tour with rocker Jack White, formerly of quirky indie rock duo the White Stripes. While White is on a touring hiatus, Davis has kept busy recording for White’s Third Man Records label and picking up other side projects, like writing music for ABC television drama “Nashville” and playing in the house band for “American Epic.” Produced by T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White, the four-part, six-hour PBS series explores the roots of blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
How did you connect with Jack White? I went to grade school and high school with him. His family was my musical mentoring; there were no musicians in my family. We’ve been playing music together for a long time. When I moved to Lansing to go to school, we kept playing for a couple years, but then he started touring nationally with a bunch of bands.
How did you reconnect with him? We always stayed in touch. It wasn’t until he moved to Nashville and started producing other people’s records that we started reconnecting musically. That was maybe 2006 or 2007. I went down there to work on something. Then gradually it was a little more and a little more.
What was it like to get that phone call when he asked you to go on tour?
It was super last minute. That’s the way most of the business works, but with him it’s really last minute. So in three weeks I had to learn 90 songs, songs that are really wild. The White Stripes were a duo, so a lot of those songs are just loose. We rehearsed for a long time to get that same freedom, so he could go anywhere and we could follow.
What are you working on while he’s taking a break from touring?
I’m still playing on a bunch of things at his place — I’m working on a Dwight Yoakam record with him and Lily May (Rische)’s record — she was our touring fiddle player.
I also somehow got mixed up in the Buddy Miller camp, which is fun. I’ve been a huge fan of his for a long time. So for the last three seasons, I’ve worked on the music for the “Nashville” TV show, which was a lot of work. And then I did some tours with him — Buddy’s known for putting together house bands and backing a bunch of different folks. So we did that at a couple festivals, and I played the Americana Awards with him.
And I’ve also been playing with the North Mississippi All-Stars, this band from west of Memphis. That’s what I just got done with last week. North Mississippi All-Stars was opening for the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and we did a week of shows.
How did you connect with the Steppin’ In It guys?
I moved from Detroit, from playing with Jack. So in Lansing, it took me a long time to find folks to play with. That’s when I started thinking, “Hey, maybe Jack was really good.” I hadn’t had anything else to compare him to.
When I met Andy (Wilson), we shared a lot of old blues sensibilities and listened to a lot of the same stuff. Then we bounced around together with a drummer for a long time, trying to find someone else to play with. When we met Josh (Davis), that felt like the perfect match for us. He liked a lot of folk stuff, but also a lot of old time blues and the Allman Brothers Band. When we started, he said that he was more of a rhythm guitarist and didn’t really want to sing. So we forced him to sing.
What was it like to have a regular gig like the Green Door for so long?
Talking to guys in Nashville, guys I do sessions with, we all miss having a gig like that.
You get to play for a long time, and you get to play loud. You work your sound up week after week. We played there for so long, and I miss having a place where we could do that.
We entertain the idea of doing a show, having it be a benefit show. Crash a Monday night, you know? Maybe we’ll be able to put it together.
Of the Steppin’ In It core quartet, Andy Wilson, 41, is the only one still living in the Lansing area. Wilson, who works on the sales floor at Elderly Instruments, still appears on stages around Michigan with a variety of folk and blues groups.
What have you been doing musically since Steppin’ In It ended?
I’m busier with family than I was back then. I had a kid. So what I’m really doing is focusing on the kind of shows that I enjoy doing the most, which are folk societies and festivals. I’ll do those with my wife, Julianna — we have a band called the Springtails — and I play with my brother. We call it the Wilson Brothers. And there’s random side projects that come up. Back in November, I did a 10-night gig with the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit. They needed a harmonica player who could read music and follow a conductor. So I get interesting gigs like that.
I do two or three shows a month. When Steppin’ In It was going strong, we were doing 300 shows a year. So I’m picking and choosing.
You and your brother are multi-instrumentalists. Does that run in your family?
We grew up in a musical home, but it was the traditional classical music track. My mother was a piano player and clarinetist, and my father played trumpet and French horn. We took piano lessons, and we had trumpet and trombone lessons. What was different about Joe and I, especially as we got older and into college, was getting into folk music and playing guitars and harmonicas and things like that, stuff that was outside of the classical tradition. So that was unique to us, and I’m not sure exactly how it happened.
I got into harmonica at a very young age and really enjoyed it, partly because it was something I did for my own enjoyment. My parents never made me practice the harmonica. By the time I was 7 or 8, I could get around a harmonica pretty well.
Where did you grow up?
We grew up near Toledo, but in Michigan. A town called Lambertville. We were born in Connecticut but moved there when we were 5 years old or so. For college, I came to Michigan State, and my brother went to the U.P. to study at Michigan Tech. My parents moved to Los Angeles at that time, so we kind of abandoned Toledo, for the most part. Now my parents live in Traverse City, and my brother lives in Lake Leelanau, so we have a home base in that area.
How important was the Green Door to Steppin’ In It’s development?
It was hugely important. To have a weekly gig like that, even if it barely pays anything, can be really important to help you grow. You don’t have to get on the phone and book it. You just show up every week, and you do your thing. We didn’t even have to promote it. When it was going well, there were always people there. Everybody was happy, and we could just run music like crazy.
And that means that when you rehearse, you don’t have to run through songs that you halfway know. Our rehearsals would get it close enough that we could pull it off at the Green Door, then we’d finish it on stage.
When we were really at the peak of our touring days, we’d tour as a four-piece acoustic group, but we played Monday nights as a six-piece electric group. So it was a release. You’d go on the road and play all these folk societies, then you’d come back into town and get the big amps out and have some fun.
Despite moving up to the Traverse City area in the early 2000s, Joe Wilson, 41, continued to make trip to Lansing play Monday nights at the Green Door for several years. A resident of Lake Leelanau, Wilson continues to play and teach music.
How did you end up in Traverse City?
My wife was living here, so I moved up here to be with her. But it’s a lovely place to live. I lived in Houghton before I moved to Lansing, and I really loved Houghton, but it’s a ridiculous place to live. It’s so remote. And there are things I love about Lansing. This is a do-able medium that has some of the things I like about Houghton, but it’s a little more realistic.
What have you been working on since the end of Steppin’ In It?
I spent a fair amount of time with a duo called the True Falsettos. That was a Western swing project with bass player Kevin Gills. We still play a little, but we’re not working as hard as we were. Kevin joined up with Don Julin and Billy Strings about a year and half ago, and when he did that, it ended our project, at least for a while. But now Don and Billy aren’t playing together, so Don and Kevin are back in town, and we do some stuff.
I try to keep pretty local. I get around a little bit, but I’ve got a 7-year-old boy, so I’m trying to stay close to home. I’m doing some teaching, too. What I’m working on mostly is my website, dobro joe.com, which is a dobro instructional website. I do dobro video lessons that anyone can check out. It’s been pretty interesting, and it’s a fun thing I can do without leaving the house.
When did you start playing dobro? Dobro didn’t happen until I moved to Lansing. I grew up playing piano and trombone, jazz and classical stuff, and then I started playing guitar toward the end of high school and into college. In college I was in rock bands, like jam bands. Then I moved to Lansing, and I was still a Phish-head. But I got a little frustrated with the guitar. I was coming from Houghton, where I was a really great guitarist, and when I moved to Lansing, I was just one of so many. So I needed to do something different.
Steppin’ In It had formed about a year before I got to Lansing. I was hanging out with those guys, and I also started working at Elderly Instruments. So I was listening to a lot of bluegrass instruments, and I really liked the dobro. The sound really appealed to me, and I didn’t know anyone who played it. So I bought one and started going at it.
How important were those Monday nights at the Green Door?
It was essential. The big thing that happened was that we had regular money coming in. Getting that solid $100 a week on Mondays and then doing some other work on the weekends was enough that Andy and I went down to part time at Elderly and then we eventually quit.
We played four sets every Monday, trying out new things, so the band was getting better. Then we were able to quit our jobs and focus on it more. We were playing all the time. So having that solid income and rehearsal on Monday nights was huge.