Growing up just north of Saint Paul, Mike Munson says music found him.
“A guitar eventually made its way into my life, and it became a major outlet for me and a few friends of mine,” Munson said in an interview with Southern Minnesota Scene a few years back, adding that as a group, he and his friends were always playing and learning together.
Since that discovery, Munson has become a Southern Minnesota favorite, pulling from Mississippi and Midwestern styles to create unique tunes for audiences at many local joints and festivals.
When he isn’t playing boot-stomping, soulful music, Munson can be found cooking, gardening, biking around Winona, and canoeing the Mississippi River. But it’s his lifelong musical passion that keeps him motivated.
Munson’s latest album, Rose Hill, which is out now, pulls from a deep tradition of Mississippi Blues, and features blues legend Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. Munson has been a regular at Holmes’ studio and performance space for a few years, dating back to when Holmes first heard Munson’s skills.
Learn more about Munson and Rose Hill from his recent Q&A interview with The Scene below.
What made you want to perform live music? And what makes you want to continue doing it?
Well, I don’t suppose I set out to perform music, though I always wanted to play music. Through wanting to play as much as possible there’s no choice but to perform. Most days it doesn’t really matter if anyone is listening.
That said, I have really come to love performing for people who come to listen, dance and participate. Stylistically speaking, country blues and hill country blues are art forms meant to bring people together socially. This is dance music. In Minnesota that doesn’t necessarily always happen, but in Mississippi, dancing always happens. Seeing that was such an important lesson in my understanding of the music.
What is it like to perform on stage, and what is your favorite part?
There is a lot to that question. Some nights it can really be transporting. I know that sounds a little out there but that’s the best I can explain it. You take off, and then eventually you land.
How would you describe your music style? What influences this style?
My first trip to Mississippi was eight or nine years ago, and since then I have been visiting as often as twice a year. Though I go to various places throughout the state, I always go to the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, MS. The entire album, Rose Hill, is influenced by the “Bentonia Blues” tradition. Such players as Jack Owens, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, and Skip James are all from Bentonia and have much in common in the way they play guitar, construct songs, tune their instruments, and use common analogies or characters in their songs.
My own personal music style comes through in songs that are not directly associated with “Bentonia style,” but the influence of blues fingerpicking and slide playing is always right there. Even though songs like “Sinner” and “Rose Hill” are quite far from what people think of as blues, they are what I have come to call “Minnesota blues,” a combination of my style and the styles I have studied and heard in Mississippi.
I understand your new album, Rose Hill, has some connections to Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. What’s that connection, and what’s the album like? What influenced this new album?
Rose Hill was recorded at Jimmy’s place in Bentonia, Mississippi, the Blue Front Cafe. It’s the oldest juke joint in the country that was started by Jimmy’s parents over 70 years ago. I have had the opportunity to play with Jimmy there a few times.
As for the album, Jimmy sings on “Broke and Hungry” and plays harmonica on “Jack Ain’t Had No Water,” an amazing song by Jack Owens. Playing with Jimmy on that song was really crazy for me because Jimmy had known Jack Owens well while he was alive; for Jimmy to want to play that song with me was really amazing.
From what I can tell, it feels like Winona is a big part of your life and your music. What is it about this river town that means so much to you? How does Winona show in your music?
You are totally right! Winona is a big part of my music and life. I really love living here. There are so many amazing people here trying to make Winona better, more interesting, more fun, and more weird. I think Winona shows in my music in this mix of Mississippi blues and Midwest winter. In addition to that, Highway 61 and the Mississippi River are two direct connections between Minnesota, Mississippi, the people and so much history.
Winona is known for being a little artistic hub in southeastern Minnesota. How does it motivate you as an artist? What events or regular performances do you take part in?
Living in Winona is great motivation. There is a great sense of community and support amongst many artists, not just those who play music. There is such encouragement to do interesting artistic projects for the sake of experimentation, creation, and risk that rises above other common motivators.
Ed’s (no name) Bar is hands down my favorite place to play music, see other bands, and just hang out! Boats and Bluegrass and Mid West Music Fest have been amazing to participate in as a player and a listener, but for me Winona really excels at one time events in unassuming spaces, house shows, odd parties, random get-togethers, and stuff like that.
Learn more about Mike Munsun, his style, and his new album, Rose Hill, and stay up-to-date on his performance schedule online at www.mikemunson.net/?page_id=10. You can also find him on Facebook.
By Samantha Stetzer