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Songs in the key of Michigan

Jay Stielstra Trio opens Ten Pound Fiddle season


What’s the news from rural Michigan? More of the same. Somewhere, in the woods and fields between Chelsea and Manchester, on a 10-acre plot with a vegetable garden, singer-songwriter Jay Stielstra is soaking up inspiration.

“I step outside sometimes and everything is so beautiful, it’s so green,” Stielstra sighed. “In the winter that snow hangs on the spruce branches. It’s so gorgeous. I love it all.”

For Stielstra, whose trio will help open the Ten Pound Fiddle season Friday, the path to that inspiring plot began on the athletic field. After a decorated high school sports career in Ludington, he came to the University of Michigan for basketball and track.

“I came down here because I was a jock,” he said. “If I can boast a little bit, in 1955 I was the Big Ten long jump champion.”

After college, he coached at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer and Huron high schools. Both schools enshrined him in their athletic halls of fame.

But Stielstra was raised in a musical family. His mother played piano and sang and his brother was an accomplished jazz musician. It was only a matter of time before the jockstrap started to pinch and music called to him.

Besides, you can’t dedicate a forward pass to the Tittabawassee River, and Stielstra wanted to distill the natural beauty of Michigan into song. He still pleases crowds with songs like “Cross Over the Line,” “Manistee Waltz,” “I Love Two Rivers” and many more songs in the key of Michigan. His songs have been covered by a wide range of artists from Joel Mabus to Connie Huber and Cheryl Dawdy of the Chenille Sisters.

Later, he took his work to the musical theater. “I came to theater without a bit of experience,” he said. “I was just a songwriter.” But when he wove some early folk songs into the iconic “North Country Opera,” Michigan’s first folk opera, he found a new fishing hole. Michigan-centered musicals like “Tittabawassee Jane” and “The Prodigals” followed.

In 2008, he put together a portable musical road show, the Jay Stielstra Trio. An unfortunate household accident with a table saw led him to this new chapter in his musical biography.

“I shortened up one of the fingers in my left hand,” he said philosophically. “I was a carpenter for over 20 years, and when you’re a carpenter it’s just a matter of time.”

He had to take time off and learn to play guitar over again, with three fingers instead of four. When he could manage enough chords to accompany himself, he recruited two longtime friends, husband and wife musicians John Sayler (dobro) and Judy Banker (vocals, guitars and mandolin).

Sayler and Banker had never preformed outside of their own living room, but Stielstra didn’t care. “John is quite a talented dobro player, and Judy is a great harmony singer,” Stielstra said. “We put the thing together and we’ve had a lot of fun with it.”

Ten Pound Fiddle opening night

Jay Stielstra Trio with Ralston Bowels, Jen Sygit and Robin Lee Berry. Unitarian Universalist Church, 855 Grove Street, East Lansing 8 p.m. Friday, September 17. $5-$12


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