The Howls of Raw Feeling: Mike Munson and The Blues

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.   

David Masciotra is the author of four books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing, 2017).

Artist Mike Munson
Other tags bluesfolk