By Kate Habrel
Stephen Jones didn’t initially set out to put together an album of songs about modern life in Midwestern America.
But that is exactly what he did.
Jones is a retired journalist and current history professor at Central Michigan University. He’s also been a songwriter since high school.
His most recent record, “The Road We Build,” features songs that capture moments of his experience living in the Midwest. They also discuss contemporary social events.
The title comes from the first song on the album.
“That song kind of captured an idea that I was interested in,” Jones said. “To one extent or another, nearly all these songs embodied this idea of, ‘the world is what we make it.’”
Jones sings and plays acoustic guitar throughout the album. He is joined by his friend George Brown on guitar, upright bass and synthesizer. Dan Hazlett, who recorded and mixed the record, also provides instrumental backing.
The result is folk music that captures moods both energetic and contemplative.
Jones’s previous records were made up of strike songs, some of them parodies of existing music. In 1999, he wrote a song called “Marquette Range,” inspired by a conversation he had with a miner in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“That song is not his precise words, but it’s my recollection of the essence of our conversation,” Jones said. “It was sort of a quantum leap over the other songs that I’d written before. That was the first what I would call ‘real’ song that I wrote.”
“Marquette Range” became a songwriting springboard. It was picked up by folk singer Lee Murdock and featured in his album “Standing at the Wheel.” It was also the first time Jones said he felt he captured a moment of his experience in the world.
The rest of “The Road We Build” came in bits and pieces. As the years went by, Jones kept composing as the world around him kept changing.
Every song tells a unique story. “Marquette Range” expresses a miner’s struggle to support his family as the mining industry changes. From the song:
“A few more years, I’ve heard them say, they’ll shut it down and move away,
Kicking us aside like dogs with mange
Played-out hearts upon this Marquette Range.”
Many of the other tracks also discuss current events through a personal perspective. “Standing With Standing Rock” came from Jones’s experience going to the protests about the Dakota Access Pipeline at North Dakota’s Standing Rock Indian Reservation in November 2016.
His time there gave him an appreciation for the effort to peacefully protect both the water and the rights of the indigenous people, Jones said. The song developed out of what he saw and heard there.
In a similar vein, “The Albatross” looks at the Flint water crisis through a unique lens.
The song is an homage to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In it, Coleridge tells the story of an old sailor who, after killing an albatross, watches his crewmates die. His only chance at redemption is to tell other people what he did — and warn them against repeating his mistakes.
“It struck me that ‘water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink’ was what Flint was about,” Jones said. “This tremendous injustice that had been done to the people of Flint, especially the children, who are more susceptible than anybody to the impact of lead contamination.”
The track “The Andersons Don’t Live Here Any More” describes how many families lost their homes when the housing bubble burst in 2008.
Jones saw houses vacated and payments rising in his own Detroit neighborhood. It’s only now starting to bounce back, he said.
Each song is inspired from a different event. Trying to single one out is, according to Jones, like asking a parent which of their children is their favorite.
But it’s what he calls the “moral dimension” that binds the record together.
“There really is only one lesson to learn in life: pay attention,” Jones said. “Everything else is just context. I’m trying to let the experience of the world bounce off me in a way where it can lead somebody to think about things in a different way, or see an angle they hadn’t considered.”