Dayton-area musician Dave Munsick is a self-proclaimed “storyteller” — a man who has made an impact through the lyrics he’s written and sung for nearly 50 years.
But it has not always been so.
“I didn’t talk until I was 3 years old,” Munsick said. “I liked to internalize things. But then I started writing poetry and songs when I was a teenager. From the beginning, music was how I felt emotion.
Indeed, music can have a lot of power, for both performers and audiences, according to musician and songwriter Sarah Sample. That’s why she’s been writing songs since she was in elementary school.
“All good songs tell the truth,” Sample said. “They touch on a universal truth and help people see themselves or the world in a new way. That’s the power of music.
Even after years of successful songwriting, locals like Sample and Munsick say it’s an art, not a science. Songwriters will have hits and misses, they said, and there’s a lot to learn from both.
Pay attention to your surroundings
Sample’s sixth album, “Redwing”, was inspired by his move to Sheridan County. She had just left the religion of her upbringing, and in Wyoming “the wide open spaces felt like open arms to me — the endless skies and horizons leave room for everyone,” Sample said.
“The song ‘Redwing’ I wrote after my first day at Sheridan,” Sample said. “I had taken a drive up to Soldier Ridge Trail and pulled over on the side of the road. There were redbirds flying around. The hills were so green and there were so many open spaces and wildlife surrounding me. I just thought, ‘I could belong here.’
Likewise, Munsick drew a lot of inspiration from his home in Wyoming.
“My inner soul was stirred by Western culture – the mountains and the people,” Munsick said. “I’ve been playing music for weddings, funerals and dances in Sheridan County for 40 years, and in that time I’ve come to know the stories of many people. I’m a songwriter , but I’m also a storyteller, and sometimes I think that story is best told in song.
Malik Grant, songwriter of the alternative folk rock band from Wyoming, also draws inspiration from his home. As a minority in Sheridan County, her songs reflect her experiences of feeling different in a small community in Wyoming.
“For me, most of my songs are about being that kid growing up in small town Wyoming and feeling a little bit different,” Grant said.
Inspiration can come from anywhere
While Munsick often drew inspiration from his Wyoming home, that’s far from his only source.
“It’s a big open field,” Munsick said. “It can be love lost or love found. It can be coming to terms with something or someone from your past. Sometimes it’s the death of a friend. Sometimes it’s a place or someone you fell in love with.
Chad Riegler, songwriter for rock and roll band The Jackalope Jockeys, agreed.
“Each song has a different inspiration,” Riegler said. “It could be from a conversation with a friend or something you see on TV or something you see in the community.”
One of Riegler’s favorite songs, “Slow Burn,” came to him while he was watching television.
“I was watching the news during the pandemic (COVID-19) and every channel I switched to, everyone was saying the exact same thing,” Riegler said. “…I wrote an angry song about it. Anytime you feel a strong emotion like that, there’s probably a song out there somewhere.
set yourself limits
In addition to writing songs, Munsick also writes books and contributes columns for The Sheridan Press. When he started writing, he quickly discovered that his rambling storytelling style was losing readers.
“When you’re not harnessed as a storyteller, you’ll quickly find people walking out the door running away from your stories,” Munsick said. “One of the best things about my newspaper columns was having a word limit. It was a great thing the newspaper did for me because it forced me to ask, ‘Did I really need that to tell the story?”
The same goes for songwriting, Sample said.
“It’s a bit counterintuitive, but the more limits we give ourselves, the easier it is to write,” Sample said. “Limitations of specific chords or a particular rhyme scheme or something are really helpful.”
Munsick said that while boundaries may seem like a hindrance, they can actually improve the quality of your writing.
“As a songwriter, not only are your words limited, but your syllables are also limited,” Munsick said. “You have very defined parameters. This may seem like a hindrance at first, but it’s a plus because it helps you focus on the story you’re trying to tell through the music.
Pay attention to what you like
There’s a long tradition of singer-songwriters, Sample said, and you shouldn’t be afraid to learn from the ones you love.
“It’s important in songwriting to emulate what other great songs do,” Sample said. “Deconstruct your favorite songs: What is the structure of the song? On which strings does the chorus begin? There are many things we can learn just by listening.
Munsick said every songwriter should ask themselves questions about which songs they like.
“Why do you like this song? Munsick asked. “What connects you to this song? How could you do such a thing? Try to copy the songs you like. Use the same melody and rewrite the words. You can learn a lot from those who came before you.
Don’t be afraid of failure.
Munsick hoped his song “Forever West” – a song he describes as “a love letter to Wyoming” – would be used in a local tourism campaign. He was rejected, but years later was asked to perform the song at the inauguration of Governor Mark Gordon.
“It was tough when it got rejected, because the song meant so much to me,” Munsick said. “But rejection often leads to success.”
Indeed, failure can often lead to something better, Grant said.
“When I started writing songs, I would just delete the bad songs, but now I save them,” Grant said. “Usually there is a good rhythm behind it or a good idea somewhere. My theory is that eventually there will be a time and a place where you will want to come back to it.
Sample said that often a “bad song is the tributary that can lead you to a great song”.
“My advice is not to overprotect new songs,” Sample said. “The first draft may not be where you land. But if you’re open to it, the song will take you to a place where you can get in tune with what you want to say.
Riegler acknowledged that it can be difficult to open up to the possibility of failure. It’s important to be tough and not worry too much about other people’s opinions, he said.
“Every time you write something, whether it’s a song, a book, or a newspaper article, you’re showing off with your words,” Riegler said. “Don’t let that bother you. Make sure you don’t write your songs for other people. Write them for yourself because you think it’s fun. The general public may or may not like them, but ultimately it doesn’t matter as long as you’re having fun. •