Stanley Crouch, music critic and political columnist, once credited jazz with existing for people interested in the exploration of “real emotion.” While Crouch is certainly correct, his assessment is too narrow. Jazz is far from the only genre giving ample opportunity to artists of authentic expression.
Mike Munson, a singer/songwriter from Winona, Minnesota, works within the blues and folk traditions to tell stories and sing songs of clear ideas and genuine feeling, imbuing his sense of artistry with an organic and primal passion. His latest record, Rose Hill (Blue Front Records), is summons the specters of American music – from Robert Johnson to Hank Williams – to both possess and exorcise the listener of that which is most elemental: love, fear, hate, hope, and regret.
Munson’s dark and moody guitar picking coalesces with his rich and emotive voice to transport his audience back to the Delta, but the true gift and essence of blues and folk music is that, unlike so much that is trendy and superficial, it remains ageless and timeless. “Sinner,” one of the highlights of Rose Hill, is timely and relevant to the human experience in 2019, just as it would have communicated with great urgency in any decade since the invention of the blues.
The outstanding cover Fred McDowell’s “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” not only demonstrates Munson’s guitar skills, but also operates as evidence for how well he settles into milieu of traditional music.
Mike Munson will bring his talent to Joliet, Illinois on January 13th for a special show in the music room at Elder Brewing Company. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Munson.
How did you discover your passion for music and your particular style and identity?
I grew up in a household that loved listening to music, but no one really played it. I can remember hearing Chuck Berry for the first time and just being hit over the head by the swagger and the power, and the coolness. I also remember seeing The Blues Brothers movie when I was eight or so and that scene of John Lee Hooker playing on the street was my favorite part of that whole movie. He’s only singing “Boom Boom” for about 15 seconds, but the influence was endless. My passion for music manifested as an insatiable appetite to hear what was possible with sound. I’d listen to anything just to hear it. I was 12 years old and jumping between Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Soundgarden and Skip James. It all made my head spin. Then when I got my hands on a guitar, to feel that possibility was amazing.
What about blues and folk music do you find so powerful and inspiring?
Initially I was drawn to the players who could accomplish the most with the least. Son House’s emotion while singing “John the Revelator” is earth shattering with just his clapping hands! Skip James could be so spooky and otherworldly singing “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” with just an acoustic guitar. And then there’s John Lee Hooker’s super funky guitar that was so full sounding he didn’t need a band. I couldn’t articulate it when I was a teenager but I always really loved music by people who had limited resources with which to create. Hearing The White Album for the first time was cool, but for me the feeling and power from Muddy Waters’ guitar on “Like a Rolling Stone” was somehow far more moving because his instrument was all he had to work with. Folk music from around the world is always so elemental and direct and it usually serves a purpose.
You play an organic and authentic form of emotional expression. How do you contrast what you are doing with so much of pop culture that has become overly polished and produced?
I appreciate you saying that about emotional expression. I figure I can’t be polished and I can’t be produced but I can be genuine and try to convey my feelings musically. My impressions of pop culture are that it is often troublesome and confusing for people and generally makes people feel bad about themselves. I’m not interested in that. Not that I’m really all that “in touch”. I live in a small town in Southern Minnesota and my only real window into pop culture has been a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine that my mom got me. Haha. I’ve noticed that I often feel crappy after looking at it. Alternatives are always present and always have been. Pop culture has always existed but people have always lived and made art outside of it too.
What can the attendees of your upcoming show in Joliet, Il expect to hear from you?
I’ll play a lot of music from my newest album, “Rose Hill” and talk about Bentonia, Mississippi. This whole album came about because I met Jimmy “Duck” Holmes at the Blue Front Cafe seven years ago which has led to a friendship and mentorship. I’ll play some Bentonia style blues by Skip James and Jack Owens and also lots of my own songs.
“Rose Hill” review from Elmore Magazine:
Blues have long been associated with the upper parts of the Mississippi River as well as the Delta. The Minneapolis area was home to the legendary trio of Koerner, Ray & Glover, Willie Murphy, and today’s Charlie Parr. Count Mike Munson in this group as well. Munson is stepping out with his first album in five years on Blue Front Records, the Bentonia, MS-based label that takes its name from the country’s oldest juke joint, the Blue Front Café, owned and operated by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. Munson’s Rose Hill was recorded live in the unassuming, cinder-block venue, which operates as a studio, bar, and even sometimes a barber shop, basically whatever the need calls for.
“It’s not like crafting a studio work. There’s no overdubbing, no second chances. No editing out Jimmy [Holmes] moving chairs around or people talking. It’s all there,” Munson explained. “This album is the sound of that day at the Blue Front. It’s a snapshot of not only what was musically happening, but listening to it, I can be transported back to that place”
Holmes is today’s leading progenitor of the Bentonia Blues, a unique style of guitar open D-minor and E-minor tuning. It was developed by Henry Stuckey, who learned it from British soldiers from Trinidad who were stationed in France with Stuckey during World War I. Stuckey brought the style back to Bentonia and taught it to the legendary Skip James, Jack Owens, Jacob Stuckey, Bud Spires, Cornelius Bright, Tommy West and others. As the style evolved through collaboration among these players, the lyrics and music took on a haunting, dark, quality that to this day remains mesmerizing and trance-like.
As told by co-producer Michael Schulze, “We had been luring Mike to record his next album under Blue Front Records ever since Mike opened for Jimmy during a tour of Minnesota and Wisconsin in July 2015. Appropriately, that first show was in Mike’s hometown of Winona, MN along the banks of the Mississippi River just off US 61—the Blues Highway. When Mike opened his set with a Jack Owens song, Jimmy stopped what he was doing, listened intently and then leaned over to me and said, “Listen to that. He plays that like Jack. I’ve never heard anyone else who could play it like that.” At the end of the song, he turned and said, “He’s got to be our next record. Talk to him. Make it happen.” Three years later, we have only the second album on the label, following Holmes’ 2016 It Is What It is. Munson has become a regular and crowd favorite in the past few years at the annual Bentonia Blues Festival, hosted by Holmes.
The album title and instrumental track Rose Hill takes its name from the dusty dirt road that Jack Owens used to walk to his home. The concept of the album was to fuse Minnesota-style blues with tradition, as Munson mixes seven originals and Mississippi classics from Owens, Holmes, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Booker White, and Skip James. Munson wanted to pay homage to the musical roots of the area while also showcasing his own work which is haunting, stunning, and often riveting. From the swampy opening track “Rot Gut Devil” to the eerie instrumental to the brooding “Sinner” and lyrically compelling “Good As Good May Be” Munson proves to be a melodic and complex picker, haunting slide player, and emotive singer.
He honors his inspirers with James’ “Illinois Blues,” McDowell’s “Keep Your Lams Trimmed and Burning” and appropriately Owens with “Jack Ain’t Had No Water,” where Holmes joins on harp. The spontaneity of informality of the session reaches a peak when Munson and Libby Rae Watson started singing “Big Black.” Holmes walked in, sat down and started singing “Broke & Hungry.” When asked about it, Duck responded, “I liked what they were doing so I joined in.”
You’ll like what they’re doing too. This is as authentic as blues gets. Munson reaches deep.
“Live At Ed’s” review from Hymie’s Records:
This live album from Ed’s No Name Bar in Winona has been a house favorite here at Hymie’s for months. Ironically, it was recorded at the release show for Mike Munson’s debut disc. We’ve always maintained live albums have a magic lost in studio recordings, and Munson’s too-good-to-be-true slide guitar and wry delivery give cuts like the opener “Rattle Can Black” an irresistible swagger. His songs are often mistaken for Charlie Parr’s, which carries a lot of weight around here at Hymie’s –this disc brings bluesies to the counter asking what they’ve been hearing and gets just about everyone else interested. Even the laziest numbers on Live at Ed’s provide a showcase for Munson and virtuoso percussionist Mikkel Beckmen — the six-minute slow drag of “Over Now” in the center showing no slack and offers no rest for your hips, knees and feet. The third party in this performance, the crowd at Ed’s that September evening, makes itself most heard halfway through “Good Gal Said,” in which Munson has been listing all the people who tell him to “quit his guitar playin’.” When Beckmen begins pounding a tambourine before the third chorus the crowd roars its approval. We feel it.
Noisy Neighbor “Live At Ed’s” review by Adam Wiltgen
Winona blues musician Mike Munson’s new live album successfully incorporates many of the desirable qualities of live recordings and very few of the downsides. Solid audio quality, impassioned performances, new arrangements, extended versions, delightful improvisation, a cohesive choice of songs that includes previously unreleased tracks, and a masterfully tasteful dose of ambiance from the audience, not to mention the wonderful washboard rhythms of guest percussionist Mikkel Beckmen, all reinforce the overwhelming feeling that Live at Ed’s was simply done right. The result is a satisfying reproduction of the live Mike Munson concert experience.
And what an experience it is! Recorded at a much-hyped Saturday night release party for Munson’s self-titled studio debut on November 9th of last year (the liner notes incorrectly say November 8th), this live album is filled with energy, both from the stage and the crowd. A raucous rendition of Good Gal Gone, whose lyrics run through all the different folks that proclaim Munson’s narrator will end up dead if he “don’t quit his guitar playin’” (save his “good gal” of course), is a particularly apt example. At around 3 minutes into the song, at which point Munson is wailing about discouragement dished out by his very own sister, Beckmen opens things up considerably by ditching his washboard in favor of a tambourine and prompts the crowd to appropriately let out collective hoots and yelps of approval.
Good Gal Said is followed by a traditional, Rosie, to close out the album. Both are swampy, caterwauling stompers that are well suited for curtain calls. The rest of Live at Ed’s is more balanced. Munson’s driving electric adaptation of the Delta blues (which interweaves bass and melody lines à la John Lee Hooker), along with his more humble and unaffected vocals, are bolstered by Beckmen’s remarkably reliable rhythms. Their chemistry on tracks like Too Far Gone, Blackbird and Wanda’s Farm help bring the songs a notch above the self-titled in the intensity column, while at the same time also anchoring the music and making dynamic and emotional shifts seem effortless.
Which brings me to my personal favorite, Over Now. At six and a half minutes long (nearly double the length of the version on the self-titled), Munson’s live rendition of Over Now features plenty of variation, including lengthy improvisational intros and interludes. The song is still pleasantly sad and somber; but trading in the studio version’s acoustic timbre for the same electric guitar tone used on the rest of Live at Ed’s gives Munson’s droning slide guitar parts a freshness and weightiness that is disarming, complex, and beautiful. Add in Munson’s melodic vocal lines and Beckmen’s galloping, meditative pounding on the hand drum and the sum product is really easy to get lost in.
In summary, Live at Ed’s is a genuine treat. Munson’s ubiquity, skill, and good character has helped make his music a part of the quintessential Winona experience. And thanks to good fortune, and some really talented audio engineers, this is the definitive document of that experience. Gaze upon the bluffs and enjoy it, people!
“Mike Munson’s New Mississippi Blues”
Rich Larson – southernminn.com
Someone once said “the blues ain’t nothin’ but a good man feelin’ bad.” It’s a nice thought, and a great quote, but it’s nowhere near that simple. This is not to say Mike Munson is not a good man, because he is. And he may well be feeling bad – you’d have to ask him. But on his debut album, Munson has given us ten original compositions – and one traditional – that are far from simple twelve bar “Woke up this morning” blues songs. Munson’s album is a master class in creative blues composition and performance, full of unique twists and turns, but never losing sight his art form and the music’s roots.
Hailing from the river town of Winona, MN, Munson writes music that is definitely rooted in the Delta Blues. A solitary performer playing either an acoustic or an electric guitar, he’s a man who clearly has no problem accompanying himself. Munson has two very gifted hands. His ability to pick a rhythm and a base line with his right hand, while keeping things interesting with and without the slide on his left is a rare combination. On songs like Empire Builder, Good Gal Said and Black Bird, Munson bounces us along telling as much of the story with his guitar as he does with his lyrics.
One of the more intriguing aspects of both Munson’s playing and writing is his use of melody. To be sure, the use of a riff is nothing new, but Munson has an ability to create a guitar line, and then match it perfectly with vocals. Counterpoint isn’t something one normally hears in the blues, yet there it is on All Over Now and Too Far Gone. Rather than the simple call and response of John Lee Hooker or Willie Dixon, Munson is able to integrate his guitar with his vocals creating a far more complex sound. While this too is hardly groundbreaking, in the lone bluesman tradition, it is far from typical.
While he’s clearly a very good musician, he equals himself as a lyricist. The themes (loss, frustration, travelin’) are not new, but again, Munson is able to frame these things in a unique context. Shortly before the recording of this album, Munson made the decision to quit his day job and give things a go as a full time musician. He uses that decision in Good Gal Said, hearing the same things over and over from his mother, his sister, his doctor “If you don’t quit that guitar playing/You’re bound to wind up dead”, however, it’s his wife who tells him “Soon as you quit that guitar playing/You’re bound to wind up dead.” His song about the Amtrak line that runs through Winona, Empire Builder, turns on the line “It’s called the Empire Builder/Mostly runs on time/It’ll take you anywhere/’Cept where there ain’t no line.” One of his better moments on the album is at the very end. With All Over Now, through delivery and simple words, Munson makes the blues sadder and lonelier than ever, singing “One night only/This night for sure/Tonight I’m longing/And not oversold/I’m getting tired/And a little unnerved/Tell me a story that I’ve never heard/It’s all over now”. Perhaps the entire album can be summed up in the song What’s the Matter. All of his strengths are on display here– a twelve bar line followed by a quick two bar shuffle, and lyrics that are both clever and thought provoking, mostly concerning Jesus finding various reasons to question his own faith and getting out of Dodge.
If there is any sort of misfire on this album, it’s the lack of a backing band. His ability to play as a lone minstrel is impressive, of this there is no doubt, however there is a lot of power in Munson’s songs that feels held back at times. Every now and then a dramatic cymbal crash or a bass guitar to free his up his playing a little bit would be really great for his songs. Nevertheless, as a one-man operation, Munson is far more than satisfactory. In fact, he’s damn good.
On this album, Mike Munson introduces us to his unique perspective set against a traditional form. It’s hard to know whether or not a label should be affixed to his music (Indie Blues? Modern Blues? Alt.blues?), so that will be left to the listener to decide. What is for sure is that Munson has found a way to re-invigorate – if not re-invent – the blues. Where he goes from here will be fascinating to watch.