Often, I wonder what artists music lovers think of when they hear the word “Winona.” Perhaps on-the-rise Nick Elstad and his sunny band Sleeping Jesus, or maybe the late great Weathered Heads? Who could forget folk-rockers the Heavy Set? Then, of course, you have indie bands galore: Driftwood Bones, the Ultrasounds, Karate Chop Silence, and Sheep for Wheat — just to name a few.
At the heart of it all is Mike Munson, a powerful blues guitarist and foreman of the current music scene in Winona — and, as of recent years, a full-time rocker. I caught up with Munson, who will venture north to play the Turf Club tonight along with Night Moves and Black-Eyed Snakes, as he reflected on some of the triumphs as well as challenges of the transformative process from part-time to full-time rocker.
“It’s like jumping in a lake,” laughed Munson. “You tell yourself the water is cold and you know there are a lot of fish swimming out there, but once you decide to jump in, the water isn’t so bad — it’s fun.”
Notorious for fast-moving slide guitar, Munson made the jump, he recalled, three or four years ago, when he decided to leave his day job as the produce manager at Bluff Country Co-op. Munson talked about how the position required lots of late nights and early mornings. As a result of devoting a majority of his energy towards his occupation, Munson’s dream of pursuing music full-time was suffering. Something had to give, Munson said, and though he enjoyed his work, he needed to re-structure how he spent his time.
“Once you make that switch, there is no other choice other than to play more, write more and learn more,” said Munson. “You’ve got to just do it: you’ll make time once you commit to it. Commitment is honored by people.”
Munson’s commitment to his work over the years has been well received by the community, a community that has welcomed him with open arms. To date, Munson’s involvement in the community has had no limits. When he’s not playing at music festivals — including Boats and Bluegrass and the Mid West Music Fest — he’s progressing the arts through other projects, like his involvement with the Great River Shakespeare Festival’s production of Romeo and Juliet in 2015, when he composed original scores and made his acting debut as a live musician at a party.
Last month, Munson took part in the 12th annual Frozen River Film Festival, performing a set at Ed’s No Name Bar before a screening of John Latsch: The Man and his River, a film he provided the soundtrack for. This occasion didn’t mark the first time Munson and the community have celebrated together.
Munson’s 2014 album Live at Ed’s teleports listeners from the couches in their living rooms to Ed’s No Name Bar, where on that particular evening Munson and friends celebrated the release of his self-titled debut album — work that had been recorded one year prior to the release.
“I had been playing a residency at Ed’s for a couple of years, and I wanted to thank everyone for their support,” said Munson. The live recording not only captures the uniqueness and originality of Munson and his raw abilities, but also highlights an emotional evening full of unexpected twists and turns.
At the end of “Too Far Gone,” concert attendees can be heard giving their approval of Munson, whooping and hollering over the sound of bottles clanging together. “Communication was such a two-way street,” said Munson. “The evening was so heartfelt and amazing.”
One of Munson’s latest projects includes a new album; it’s freshly recorded, but not yet released. In addition to his solo work, Munson has recently collaborated with Jake Ilika, a long-time Winonan and the leader of the Heavy Set. Together, the duo go by the name Land at Last, and in January they released their debut, six-track EP I Found A Way.
Munson said he would like to continue to play as much as he has been able to. He enjoys meeting new faces and learning from older musicians. His next goal is to start making enough to be able to afford to bring his wife on the road with him.
“Building mutual trust within the community and working for something good in the arts has taken me to crazy places I otherwise wouldn’t have gone,” said Munson. “I’m very fortunate and humbled to do these things.”
Michael Flicek is a student at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.