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Volume 26, Number 7 — July 2019

Mary Munsey writes songs from the heart

Mary Munsey and Barlow Gin in the studio of Studio One
Mary Munsey and Barlow Gin in the studio of Studio One

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | April 30, 2014

You could say Mary Munsey's songwriting began when she was just a child, because she just couldn't remember lyrics.

"As a small child, I loved music," she says. "My family was musical, and we sang in the car on road trips. My parents sang harmony, and it came naturally to me. I could always readily remember and repeat melodies, but words were hard for me to memorize. I often took tunes I heard and made up my own words at age 6 or 7. As I learned piano, I enjoyed making up my own chord patterns and progressions and melodies. At 16 I started learning guitar basics from my father, and the melodies and words starting coming together."

Since then she has completed more than 100 songs and has ideas, choruses, scratched-out verses and rewrites in notebooks for others. She says her first songs of any substance were written in her late teens and early 20s.

From those early lyrics to her more substantial songs, her deepest lifelong passion has been songwriting. She says her songs, coupled with teaching music, playing and singing with others, are her "real connection with others."

Her song, "Nine Days Old," won the Woody Guthrie International Songwriting Competition in 2010. That same year, she received an honorable mention in the Gurhtrie contest for "Time to Go," a song she wrote about her father's last day, and in 2012, she placed third with "Nothin' New." She has won numerous other awards including first place at the Neuse River Songwriting contest, first runner-up at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival in Hartford, Conn., second in the Wisconsin state contest, placed in the ETSU CASS contest, was a finalist in the Gathering in the Gap in Big Stone Gap, Va., and placed at the Smoky Mountain contest.

"Winning the internationally-known prestigious Woody Guthrie Songwriting contest has finally quieted a small voice inside that always wondered if I really was a good songwriter," Munsey says. "It is one thing to please your family and friends with your writing but to be measured against writers from around the world is gratifying. Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land' and more than 1,000 other songs that described his life, his perceptions of the world, injustices, funny happenings, painful events and ordinary things that happen to all of us. He was a simple man born in 1912 in Oklahoma who lived through the Depression, the Dust Bowl and two world wars. He changed the world with a guitar and some thoughts put to music. That is the magic, mystery and power of songwriting. I feel like my talent and writing, be it ever so humble, may influence others in positive ways too."

Like Guthrie, Munsey is inspired by life. "I hear a phrase or a story, and it starts to percolate. Sometimes the ideas come to fruition quickly, and sometimes I let them simmer. Tragedies, personal events, funny situations and untold stories that need to be told are all reasons for me to write. My greatest influences are the singer songwriters I heard growing up and the legends I have learned about throughout my journey. Dan Fogelberg, John Denver, Simon and Garfunkel, Woody Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Sr., Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard, Bobby Braddock and many others are excellent songwriters who have written ordinary and extraordinary songs that have inspired me. There are many other sacred, classical and jazz songwriters whose works have also encouraged me musically. It has always been as important to me to know who wrote a song as who performed it. To me, the songwriters are craftsmen."

If you run into Munsey, she will most likely be humming a tune, which may be the beginning of a new song. "Some find their way into melodies, and others are just melodies I like. I can pick up a guitar or sit at a keyboard and play around until I find something. Most of the time these days, I have a story in mind before I get to the instrument. It used to be that I had a lot more leisure time to just let the creative side take over. I have to find time and take time to listen inside to what I need to hear and write."

Her songs are similar in theme to her favorite songs written by others. "It would be impossible to name my favorite songs, but there are a few that come to mind such as Willie Nelson's "Crazy,' Arthur Harrison's "Cry Me a River' and Gershwin's "Summertime.' I like songs with good, memorable melodies, poignant lyrics and songs that can make us laugh or cry when we need to.

"I also like ballads that tell stories we can relate to or find interesting. I wrote a song, "The Streets of This Town,' 10 years ago about a homeless Vietnam veteran in Bristol who wore black, was barefoot and had dogs that walked with him everywhere. His name was Lou Perna. When he died two years ago, I was privileged to be allowed to sing it at his funeral. That song was a gift I gave to his life and memory. Last year I wrote a follow-up song about his last dog, "Lulu,' who walked back to search for him 14 months after she had been sent away. He knew he was dying, and he found good folks to take her. I had a friend suggest that I write a song about the experience. That song has become the one most folks ask for now when I play."

Munsey plays a variety of instruments and performs with several different groups. She plays acoustic guitar and sings her original songs with Barbara Walton in their folk duo, Rosewood Emerald. She plays keyboard and sax with the Bristol-based rockabilly/jazz group, Barlow Gin. She also plays and sings with her variety group, Tennessee Green, and recently began playing bassoon with the newly formed Stateline Wind Symphony. She's also played the bassoon with the Johnson City and Oak Ridge symphonies.

"Saxophone is by far my favorite melody instrument. For some reason, I can play it by ear comfortably and with ease. I really enjoy jamming with area groups and at area jam sessions on sax. Guitar is my favorite accompaniment instrument for my songs, because it is comfortable to hold, portable and accessible. Piano is my favorite to play in a group setting that requires me to read music or to play chords and fill-ins by ear. I can play the basics on most woodwinds, brass and string instruments. I am not exceptional on anything but can play okay on several instruments. I have recently had to learn to play old-time banjo in order to teach it to my old-time banjo players at Virginia Highlands Community College."

She is finishing her third year as the full-time director of music at VHCC in Abingdon, Va. She accompanied and/or sang with the women's VHCC Madrigals off and on for the past 20 years. She also taught several adjunct summer classes before becoming the director of music.

Munsey took over the management this year of the Spencer-Miller Memorial Concert Series after the retirement of Ben Jennings who founded the series. It is a monthly classical music series held at the Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church in Abingdon, Va. It is part of the larger Arts Array community cultural outreach of VHCC.

"Music has been my life force since I was a child," she says. "It always made life better and more interesting. One of my mottos is "Music, art and literature are the icing on the cake of life.' Children who study music are better-rounded and open-minded humans. They are allowed to think beyond the ordinary and are introduced to the artistic side of life that benefits us all. Civilizations value, protect and hand down their musical and artistic legacies as well as their architectural, mathematical, scientific and linguistic traits. The music I introduce my Music Appreciation students to helps them see the various cultures of the worlds in history more completely. Knowing that Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin played instruments and wrote music helps to see them more as real people than just names in the past.

"My hope for music education is that it will thrive as an integral, necessary part of humanity. There are many studies that show that brain activity increases in infants that are exposed to music just as it improves functioning in patients with Alzheimer's disease. Music study uses the whole brain and causes people to focus and develop skills they won't have without it. Students who are active in middle, high school and college musical groups do better intellectually and are less likely to fall between the cracks of those who achieve and those who don't. Medical schools find many successful entrants have received high levels of musical training. From Kindermusik through high school and college choral and performance groups, skill building, teamwork and confidence building are just some of the byproducts attained by inclusion and education in music classes. I hope society will continue to be appreciative and supportive of music and art education."

Even Munsey's lesson plans have won awards. She placed second in the International Bluegrass Music Associations lesson plan contests in 2009 and 2010 and presented her elementary bluegrass plans at the IBMA conference in 2010. She has taught elementary, middle and high school students, and still teaches private piano, voice, guitar and woodwind lessons. In additional to her local groups, she has performed at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, the York County Bluegrass Festival in Pennsylvania, Silver Dollar Music Park in North Carolina and at Woody Fest in Oklahoma.

If you'd like to hear Munsey's original songs, she will be performing during the Richard Leigh Songwriting Festival at VHCC.


- Meet VHCC alumni and songwriter Richard Leigh

Topics: Music