When Susan Munson was a kid growing up in Charlottesville, any time she had something to tell somebody, she’d write them a poem. She’d give it to them too, either hand-delivering the written verse or reading it to them herself.
It was the earliest manifestation of Munson’s songwriting impulse, which has her writing more songs than she can record—she has a new 13-song album out, Halfway to Anywhere, and she says there are “at least 50 more” songs ready to go, ones that didn’t make it onto the new album or her 2015 solo debut, Promise on the Moonrise.
Durty Nelly’s Pub
“I just have all these songs that keep coming and coming. I keep writing all this stuff; I just want to get it out,” Munson says of her 1960s and ’70s-esque country-blues-rock sound. She’s always ready to embrace inspiration, carrying around a handheld recorder to capture lyrics and melodies when they occur (which is usually when she’s driving).
Munson picked up the guitar at 21, when she was participating in a songwriters’ circle. Initially, she’d just sing one of her songs while other musicians tried to interpret what she was hearing in her mind. “Is it like this?” they’d ask, picking out a chord progression. “No, it’s like this,” Munson would say again and again, until she decided to learn guitar so she could play the melodies and chords on her own.
Munson might be in more bands than any other musician in the Charlottesville area. In addition to recording and releasing solo material, she currently plays in Jeebus, a self-described “slightly off-kilter rockin’ swing grass alt-country shuffle”; Mojo Pie; Oh Wow Boy! and Mama Tried, an offshoot of another of Munson’s bands, Alligator, widely regarded as one of Virginia’s best Grateful Dead tribute bands for going on two decades. She’s played just about every stage in town, too, from regular gigs at Durty Nelly’s Pub, Blue Moon Diner and local wineries, to one-offs at The Southern Café and Music Hall, the Jefferson Theater and the Sprint Pavilion.
Munson’s a regular at the weekly songwriter nights at The Local in Belmont, where host Michael Clem gives participants a prompt to work from—a number of tracks on Halfway to Anywhere came from these sessions Munson says. The opener, “Peace Pipe,” was in response to Clem asking, “Write a song with a famous person’s name in the first line.” One night, while driving home from a Mojo Pie gig she’d played with longtime collaborator Frank Bechter, Munson heard Alabama Shakes’ “Don’t Wanna Fight” on the radio, with frontwoman Brittany Howard belting out the song’s refrain, “I don’t wanna fight no more” over and over until her exhaustion is clear. Inspired, Munson came up with the first line of her own song: “Brittany Howard, she’s tired of fighting, and baby, so am I.” From there, it developed quickly, Munson says, into a song about rising above anger and pain by getting back to your roots and talking out whatever’s bugging you…it’s about smoking the metaphorical peace pipe.
Prompt or no prompt, Munson is constantly inspired by the things she experiences and the people she encounters. She wrote “Chasing Dragons” after seeing New Orleans-based jam band Galactic at the Jefferson, and “Second Line” after visiting New Orleans in the wake of her friend’s father’s death to see a brass band parade on Easter weekend.
“Red-Headed Man” budded at a Haiti benefit show at The Ante Room, when Munson’s tall, red-headed friend, Meg, asked someone to waltz to a song with her. Munson remembers the song, performed by Ante Room bartender Luke Smith, included a lyric about the lights at the truck stop. Inspired by the whole scene, Munson jotted down some notes and when she got home began working on a song called “Red-Headed Meg,” but “man” was easier to sing than “Meg,” and the song turned into a story about a man watching Meg dance to Smith’s song. Munson later found out that Smith, who died unexpectedly in January 2017, performed at the Haiti benefit after another artist had dropped off the bill, so it was only by chance that she got the song. “It’s bizarre!” Munson exclaims, and it’s beautiful. It’s why she can’t stop writing songs.
At her album release show at Durty Nelly’s on November 17, Munson will play a good chunk of songs from Halfway to Anywhere, but she’ll play some even fresher ones, too, like one that works rapper Kendrick Lamar and funk bassist Thundercat—two of Munson’s daughter’s favorite artists—into the lyrics and makes a case for music as a great equalizer in our lives.
“She listens to Kendrick, thinks his words are magical / I just don’t see it myself, but to each his own,” the song begins. “She also listens to Talking Heads, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and The Dead. / Thundercat has got his claws in too, I must admit his bass lines / Walk on through my mind when I’m riding… / Catching riffs so we can all sing along,” Munson sings.
The idea of music as a unifying force is a hallmark of Munson’s, it’s where her songs come from and it’s what her songs put out into the world.