Socially Engaged Eco-Musicians Hit All The Right Notes in Lansing

It's a Saturday evening in East Lansing, and a rousing concert by a group of homegrown Michigan musicians is coming to a close. The venue is a bit unconventional—the auditorium of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing, on Grove Street in downtown East Lansing, that gets converted into a concert space every Saturday night.

But the standing-room-only crowd is loving every minute of it.

As the show approaches its finale, the stage is full of notable members of the Michigan folk, roots, and singer-songwriter community, including Daisy May, Seth Bernard, Brandon Foote and Laura Bates, and Drew Howard.  

Daisy May leads the group, with a vocal delivery that effortlessly bridges neo-retro and real-retro (think Gillian Welch meets Patsy Cline), while the rest of the musicians lend support on guitar, mandolin, dobro, and a full chorus of harmonies. 

"Shine on," goes the refrain, and the sound is sweet and sure, world-weary with a hopeful edge. By the final chorus, most of the audience is singing along too.

The camaraderie and chemistry on stage are unmistakable, and should come as no surprise. All of these artists are longtime friends and musical allies, and they are also fellow members of a Michigan-based group called Earthwork Music

Musicians with a mission

Part musical collective, part environmental awareness movement, part extended family, Earthwork Music members join forces to organize shows and other events throughout the state, as well as support each other's various musical projects.   

"[We] use art and music as a tool to help communities in Michigan cultivate a joyful renewal of local culture," says Andrea Moreno-Beals, Earthwork member and singer for the trio, Breathe Owl Breathe.

The East Lansing concert is a typical Earthwork event—a benefit to raise money for a local group. In this case, it's the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council, a Lansing-based non-profit organization that focuses on the health of area rivers and other local environmental issues.

Keeping with their theme of environmental action, Earthwork Music recently recruited nationally known singer-songwriter Greg Brown to help with their efforts on behalf of the Yellow Dog River in northern Michigan.

Brown, whose accolades include two Grammy nominations and a profile in The New Yorker, was happy to help. He played a free concert (supported by an ensemble of Earthwork musicians) and even gave the organization permission to release a live CD of the show.

Lansing roots

Musicians from all over Michigan are part of the Earthwork network, but Lansing serves as the group's home base and center of gravity.

Many of its members live in the area, and musicians throughout the state come to Lansing for occasional meetings of the entire group, usually held at the Eastside home of visual artist and Earthwork member John Lindenmayer.

Part of the reason can be found by talking to Earthworker Rachael Davis, who originally cut her teeth on the U.S. East Coast's folk music circuit. There, she earned recognition as Boston's best new singer-songwriter in 2001, and played shows with the likes of Dar Williams, Little Feat, and Chris Smither.

Last year, she relocated to Bath, Michigan, just outside Lansing.

"The artist community here has deep roots and real staying power, and musicians and artists recognize that," Davis says of the Lansing area. "And because of organizations like Elderly Instruments and Ten Pound Fiddle, musicians have been drawn to this area for decades."

Ten Pound Fiddle organizes and promotes acoustic concerts at various venues in the Lansing area. Elderly Instruments, a nationally-renown music store, specializes in acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, and other instruments essential to folk and roots musicians.  Over its 30-year history, the store has also served as a reliable "day job" for dozens of talented local musicians.

Another Earthwork member particularly active in the Lansing area is Josh Davis, who performs as a solo artist and as the frontman for the Americana-eclectic outfit, Steppin In It.

One of the most popular bands in Lansing, Steppin In It regularly performs throughout the region, including their weekly Monday night gig at The Green Door on Michigan Avenue in Lansing's thriving Eastside nieghborhood.

Davis also resides on the city's Eastside, and finds Lansing to be a very arts (and artists)-friendly town.

"There's really an incredible community of musicians here, a real quantity of great players and songwriters. You don't find areas like this very often."  

Like most working musicians, Davis and his band-mates spend a lot of time on the road, especially touring cities and towns throughout the Midwest.

"A great thing about Lansing is that it's very central," he points out. "I love Traverse City. I love Marquette. But those towns are another three to six hours from where we're going to go."

City as inspiration

For Earthwork member and Lansing resident Jen Sygit, Lansing not only makes a good home base, it also provides artistic inspiration and rich raw material to work with as a songwriter.

"Everything inspires me—the people, the places, the events that affect this community," she says. "I'm a member of the community, too—[my songs] are just my embellished versions of the story." 

Sygit's recently released album Leaving Marshall Street makes specific reference to that Lansing location, where she lived until recently relocating to the northwest side of the city.

"I try to draw inspiration from my surroundings whenever possible. I believe it's the little details that go unnoticed in the bustle of the everyday which ultimately lend authenticity to a writer's words."

Sygit tours both regionally and nationally. When in town, she also hosts an acoustic open mic at Dagwood's Tavern on Eastside Lansing's Kalamazoo Street, where emerging and established songwriters gather to test-drive new material for a friendly audience.

The members of Earthwork Music have done a lot to cultivate a vital original music scene in Lansing, and these artists look forward to even brighter days ahead as our area continues to grow as a vibrant center of cultural life.

"There's an attitude of rebuilding," says Josh Davis of Lansing. "There's a lot of forward motion, which is great to see."

More information on all the musicians mentioned in this article can be
found here.

Jonathan Ritz's essays, articles, and short-stories have appeared in many regional and national publications. He teaches writing at Michigan State University and can be reached here.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Rachael Davis

Josh Davis

Drew Howard

Drew playing

Josh Davis at the Green Door with Steppin In It

Jen Sygit

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie
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