Folk music is certainly a hard genre to peg down. From
traditional folk sung by a solo artist with a guitar, to Americana and
folk roots artists who mix in bluegrass, to newer and more exploratory
forms like indie folk, the definition varies.
In Lansing, it’s easy for music fans to experience the
traditional styles as well as the edgier forms. The up-and-coming
indie-folk musicians often play shows at (SCENE) Metrospace, Basement
414, Mac’s Bar, The Loft and even intimate spaces like coffee shops and
house venues. Other venues like The Pump House, a community center in
East Lansing, consistently feature national, local alt-country and
Americana acts. Art Alley, a new art space in REO Town, is also starting
to book local and national songwriters.
People rooted in traditional folk often lean toward shows
at the Ten Pound Fiddle, a concert series that’s hosted national folk
acts for over 35 years in various East Lansing locations. From
world-class banjo players to Irish and bluegrass artists, the Fiddle has
evolved with the genre since its first show in 1975.
Ten Pound Fiddle booking manager Sally Potter said the
concert series has achieved longevity through consistency and a
dedication to finding personable performers.
“Folk music is all about communication; it’s not
necessarily about showing how well you can play guitar,” Potter said.
“Folk music in general is about the topic in the room — are we talking
about love, politics, situations or history? We tend to find performers
who acknowledge the audience, talk with them and have an ongoing
discussion with them through the music. When you do that, people come
Potter, who’s been with the Ten Pound Fiddle since 1984
and usually books about 25 shows annually, said trying to sell tickets
is not even a question for the group.
“If we have the country’s best banjo player, it’ll only
draw 80 people, and we know that,” Potter said. “But they are so good
that we’re going to book them. We’ll pay them most of the door and just
cover our expenses. We are more of a service than (an organization)
trying to pack the house every night with 250 people.”
As for the folk scene in general, Potter said having a communal vibe makes Lansing thrive.
“If we’re not good friends, we’re warm acquaintances with
each other,” Potter said. “It’s small, but we all realize we are a part
of the community. Jen Sygit hosts an open mic on Tuesdays at Dagwood’s.
She is a huge part of getting people on that stage. She not only is a
performer but a producer. We’re all wholly involved, and you put that
all together and you have probably the strongest folk music scene per
capita outside of Boston.”
The long-standing local traditions established by the Ten
Pound Fiddle organizers and the musicians they’ve hosted have built a
sturdy home for traditional folk in mid-Michigan.
“The Lansing folk scene is one that’s
very rooted in traditional music,” said Dominic Suchyta, stand-up
bassist for Steppin’ In It, a veteran local American roots band. “There
are currently a lot of acoustic guitars out there and a lot of indie
folk, but Lansing has been a hotbed for folk music since the 1970s. You
go to a Joel Mabus show and you leave wanting to play clawhammer banjo —
at least that’s what happened to me.”
“I think that’s what sets Michigan musicians apart,”
Suchyta added. “We’re out there playing original material in the folk
idiom at our shows, and after hours we’re all playing fiddle tunes and
old country-blues numbers. It’s that bridge between the old and the new
that’s missing from a lot of what people are calling folk music today.”
Sygit, a local Americana singer and
songwriter, agrees there’s an abundance of roots-inspired musicians in
the capitol city, but she feels there’s room to grow.
“I think we are producing some of the best music in
Michigan right now,” Sygit said. “There’s a really strong scene here.
I’ve played all over the country, and the caliber of musicianship (in
the area) is just as good, if not better, than a lot of the places I’ve
been. I think there are a lot of rock and blues venues, but I don’t
think there are enough venues to accommodate (folk) musicians in this
town. I hope the scene continues to draw attention, and that will
Frontier Ruckus, a band that first began making waves
nationally while the members still were attending Michigan State
University, has acted as a catalyst for the Michigan folk-rock scene.
Frontier Ruckus was mentioned in Rolling Stone Magazine as an “essential
act” to see at the 2010 Bonnaroo music festival, and has been touring
non-stop for the last few years.
Frontier Ruckus songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Matthew
Milia said encouragement from the Lansing community has kept the band
going strong since 2003.
“Without the enthusiasm for folk music that exists in the
Lansing area, I can’t really see Frontier Ruckus being a band today,”
Milia said. “The encouragement we received early on by the community
there of patient listeners and appreciators of raw, song-based delivery
was crucial to our confidence and creative identity. It’s a tradition I
am pleased to see younger bands continue in contribution to the robust
folk scene across the state.”
Frontier Ruckus’ hard work has inspired aspiring songwriters, including Carter Moulton, 21, an MSU journalism and film student.
“Frontier Ruckus deserves a huge amount of recognition for
making the folk scene in Lansing what it is,” Moulton said. “They’ve
had a lot of success around the country, but I think because they’ve
stayed true to Lansing and called it their home, it’s really inspired a
lot of people to create in this area.”
Moulton, now a senior at MSU, started playing music as a
freshman and never looked back. He and his friends Kevin Pritchard and
Dave Suchanek even launched a new artist collective, Bigger Brush Media
that has released a number of digital releases by local favorites such
as Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers, Double Saginaw Familiarity and
Moulton said he was inspired by the positive energy
surrounding the shows and people. “The folk scene in Lansing feels
natural and unforced. There is so much talent in this area. I was just
at a show with Doug Mains & The City Folk and Liz McDaniel at
(SCENE) Metrospace last night, and it was packed. People were standing
in the back and along the walls. A few photographers and film crews were
there shooting. I think people look forward to going to folk shows in
Lansing because they know it’s going to be a stress-free night spent
listening to some really talented people.”
(SCENE) Metrospace director/curator Tim Lane said the art
gallery and all-ages music venue is a hotbed for local emerging folk
songwriters that often attract sizable crowds.
“Indie-folk musicians, such as Chris Dorman and Steven
Leaf, have had big draws at (SCENE),” Lane said. “Gifts or Creatures has
a lot of community support as well, as do Sam Corbin & Jen Sygit.
All of the Earthwork Music (a Michigan artist collective) musicians seem
to have great support, as well as Jeremy Quentin of Small Houses, Theme
and Variation, the Bigger Brush Media folks, Red Tail Ring, and Seth
Bernard & Daisy May — the list goes on.”
Lane said he feels both the musicians and audiences appreciate the peaceful listening atmosphere of the (SCENE) gallery.
“The crowd is always very attentive. Everyone comes to
listen,” Lane said. “The musicians appreciate this more than anything, I
think. The crowd is supportive and plugged in. They listen to the
stories, laugh at the jokes and stage banter. Socializing occurs, but
the shows are very listener- and musician-friendly — there’s a vibe of
social awareness and creativity.”