Wishing you could just go to a concert, listen to your favorite local bands, and relax on a Saturday night? There’s a new weekly radio show, coming to you from the Beaver Island airwaves, that might just meet your Michigan music needs during this socially distanced time. Out in the middle of Lake Michigan, between the Lower and Upper Peninsulas, a new low-watt radio program called Songs from the Trail is broadcasting on WVBI 100.1 FM. And it’s all about Michigan-centric music.
Musicians Steve Girbach and Jackson Smith are co-hosts for the new program. Girbach, who lives in Manchester and also has a house on Beaver Island, is normally deep in the live music world. He runs his own venue in Manchester and is part of the technical crew at The Ark in Ann Arbor. But since the COVID-19 crisis brought in-person events to a halt, Girbach says he’s been missing live concerts.
Then, he started talking music with his Beaver Island next-door neighbor, who just so happened to be Smith. The two of them devised a plan that would bring Michigan-centric music to listeners who were missing live performances as much as they were. Smith and Girbach pitched a radio program focused on Michigan music to WVBI, a small radio station on Beaver Island. A few weeks later, Girbach and Smith found themselves as co-hosts of Songs from the Trail.
Girbach says “Michigan-connected music” can mean a lot of different things, for the purposes of the program. If a song’s artist, writer, producer, subject matter, or backstory has a relationship to Michigan, it’s game for the show.
“There's just so much music out there that most people are never going to hear. So we really wanted to draw the spotlight on the Michigan scene. And then, you know, in conjunction with that, obviously the island, because we both love the island,” Girbach said. “And I think we live in the coolest, most funky state in the union — and it sheds a little light on that as well.”
Smith is a touring musician, and often plays gigs with his mom, musician Patti Smith. That means in his normally hectic schedule, he doesn’t have much time to discover new music. But with concerts still mostly on hold, and Songs from the Trail playlists to assemble, he says he’s been listening to a lot of new Michigan music.
“I spent most of my life in the Detroit area, and I’ve got to say, the [music] scene there can envelop itself in a bit of a bubble,” Smith said. “So when we started doing this show and I started, you know, myself, researching music to put on, I'm discovering all these artists in Michigan with these big followings. I'm like, how did I not hear about these people?”
Girbach says pandemic-related live event cancellations have had a ripple effect throughout the music industry, both in Michigan and nationally.
“It's easy for people to see all the musicians are out of work, and that's just a bummer. It's just a big bummer,” he said. “But, you know, the musicians are out of work. The venues are out of work. The booking agents are out of work. The caterers are. The stagehands are. It's huge. And it's just, it breaks my heart.”
It’s not clear when live music venues are going to start returning to pre-pandemic style concerts. Smith thinks smaller venues will likely start opening up first, but it might be a while before bands that typically play to the kind of large crowds that feel familiar to them. But if all goes well, he’s expecting late 2021 and beyond to be much busier.
“You know, Steve and I have talked about this. When festivals are really able to go on at, you know, something resembling pre-COVID times, I think it's going to be wild,” he said. “People are going to be chomping at the bit to do these things again. So, you know, when it's ready and it's safe, the floodgates are going to open.”
Songs from the Trail airs on Saturdays at 7:00 p.m. Beaver Island residents can tune in to WVBI 100.1 FM to listen to the show. But if you’re not local, don’t worry — you can tune in from anywhere in the world (Girbach and Smith say they have fans as far away as Australia and Brazil) on WVBI’s website.
For more, listen to the full conversation above.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.