Photo by Sarah Squires
Winona knows Sam Brown as a music man. The founder of the Mid West Music Fest (MWMF), Brown has dedicated himself to the task of facilitating music and art in Winona. He brings us the bands, he sets the stage, he's the man behind the curtain.
But Brown's fingers have calluses rough as the best of them, worn by the strings of his guitar. Under the moniker "Bo Monro," Brown has released his first full-length, studio-recorded album called "Third and Franklin."
Local legend Steve Kukowski is featured on the washboard, shaker, and hand drum, providing a steady beat for the smooth melodies of Brown's guitar work. The rhythmically-looped tracks build into complex arrangements that pull listeners into a story woven into each of the eight songs.
"I call it progressive, instrumental rock," said Brown of the style he's developed since he first picked up the guitar at 16. "Progressive because it builds on itself. It starts with one simple riff, and by the end, it's a wall of sound."
Over the years, Brown's musical style has evolved. These days he improvises on the guitar frequently, playing tunes that he'll never play the same way again. He doesn't write down his songs; instead, they become part of him. "As far as the song-writing process goes — I don't really have one," he explained. "It kind of happens organically."
Brown uses a looping pedal when he plays, weaving musical loops together and building a full, intricate sound. When he recorded the new album at Ghost In My House Studio in Onalaska, he had to dissect those looped layers for the first time.
"Threnody," a track that begins with Brown's guitar picking in his custom-tailored, "Bo Monro" -tuned guitar, is a complex piece that he wrote during a difficult time. The word threnody — from the Greek, is a song that laments the dead, and while Brown says it is a song of mourning, it is also full of hope.
"Memorial to Barns (with a eulogy by the mississippi)" begins with a hand drum beat that grows more complex as Brown's guitar begins to speak. Brown said that the two big bluffs surrounding Red Wing, where he grew up, are called Memorial Bluff and Barn Bluff. He has also long been drawn to the sight of old, dilapidated barns in the country, falling down. "It's like the old model of agriculture has changed," he said of the metaphor.
The album cover features an etching that Brown created in a print-making class at Winona State University — the scene at Third and Franklin streets that the album was named for. Brown said the album title and cover pay homage to Ed Hoffman, owner of Ed's No Name Bar, where Brown has collaborated and become an integral part of the local music scene. "I decided to call it Third and Franklin because it's been a really important intersection for my development as an artist, kind of coming into my own," he explained. After living in Oregon for six years, "to come back and participate and play in the scene of my home state meant a lot to me."
Without lyrics, the songs are steeped in opportunities for reflection, the kind of music that can open a mind, that can pull cars across states as drivers are submerged in meditation to melody. Brown hopes that his music will lift spirits and send listeners running to start their own masterpieces. "Hopefully, they're inspired to create something of their own, because there's some kind of energy you get from creating music and art," he explained. "I think it's a really positive thing that I hope people are willing to explore."
What's next for one of Winona's most prolific downtown arts and music supporters? Brown said he's thinking about experimenting with studio recording on his own in an effort to make local music more accessible to people, along with continuing his work at future MWMF events.
"Third and Franklin" can be heard at bomonro.bandcamp.com. Brown's album release party will be held at Ed's No Name Bar on June 6 at 9 p.m.