It’s a steep climb to the Harkin Store from the road nestled along the Minnesota River below. But, the folksy melodies echoing from high above compel feet to bound up the stairs.
Once there, the music’s source is easy to spot. With rain in the forecast, the five siblings, who comprise Carver Creek bluegrass band, use the historic store’s wooden porch as a makeshift stage. Clutching the bluegrass tools of the trade, such as a banjo and a fiddle, Rich and Linda Monsen’s children look and sound at home amid the 1870s general store’s rustic setting nine miles northwest of New Ulm.
Standing bunched near a microphone are Sherry Zeisel, 26, (guitar), Tom, 24, (banjo), Julie, 23, (bass), and Mary, 16, (fiddle). Off to their side is Jim, 11, slapping the front of a wooden box drum called a cajón while he sits on it.
Sibling harmony shines on their faces and in every note they play. Sherry is the lead singer, but they all take turns at the mic. Each has an integral role to play as the band smoothly swaps instruments and genres. It’s the kind of teamwork forged passing the time singing while washing dishes.
Music and family deeply intertwine for the homeschooled rural Carver natives. While learning how to get along with each other, the Monsens, essentially, taught themselves how to be musicians.
“They’re just an amazing family—how they interact at home and on stage with each other,” says bluegrass musician Gary Froiland, a family friend, who guided band members when they were starting out. “They love each other, and that shows.”
Since playing their first gig in 2011, at the Harkin Store, the Monsens have grown taller and their playlist longer. Carver Creek performs bluegrass, but also gospel, Irish, country and old-time songs primarily at such southern Minnesota venues as threshing bees, county fairs and church events. In June, their fifth CD came out. The band has played the Harkin Store—part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s network of historic sites and museum—every year since their first performance.
“It’s the stuff we listen to,” Sherry says of what they play, mostly covers, though Tom has written a couple of songs. “I would call it aesthetically bluegrass because we use the bluegrass instruments, so anything we do is going to come out having a slight bluegrass sound.”
The Monsens’ close sibling bonds are evident. They readily offer encouragement and appreciation to each other, providing insights only a sibling would know. For instance, Jim mentions his passion for stamp collecting. “How long has that been going on?” asks Tom. “About two weeks,” Jim says. As his siblings point out, Jim recently was passionate about collecting coins and threshing bee buttons. Jim, they say, has a short attention span—something all of them had. “We’ve discovered that the attention span usually grows in at the age of 12,” Sherry says. Tom used it to his advantage musically during his high school years. “I didn’t want to go do math for more than 20 minutes at a stretch, so I would go pick up a guitar,” he says.
Every story has an origin. The Monsens’ path into music has about a half-dozen.
The first to strike a note goes way back, to when they were babies. All, except Tom, had colic, and music soothed them. “Science has later shown that if you play music to babies, they understand music better when they grow up,” Sherry says. “Tom was a calm baby. He hardly ever cried. [Mother, Linda] didn’t have to play any music for him. And he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket until he was 10 years old.”
“Apparently, music deprivation doesn’t have too many long-term effects, though, because I can play a lot of instruments now,” says Tom. That includes anything with strings—guitar, banjo, mandolin—as well as the penny whistle and musical saw. “With varying degrees of skill, let us add that caveat,” Julie jokes.
They also remember how the entire family served as the choir—singing a cappella—for the 8 a.m. Mass at its church. The family would turn around in the first pew and lead the singing without an organist. “From the time the kids were born, they didn’t know any different than standing in front of a group of people and singing,” says father, Rich.
Another turning point happened when the three older siblings took down the musical instruments adorning the wall of their parent’s house. Over the years, Rich bought them in hopes of learning how to play them himself. He didn’t, but they did. “If you were to ask Dad how we got started, he would say it’s because he had all these musical instruments on the wall,” Sherry says. “[It was] subliminal messaging from a very young age that, ‘You kids are going be a bluegrass band.’”
Except for a couple of group instrument lessons from Froiland, the Monsens are self-taught. They wanted to be like Froiland and his family band, who they saw play at thresher bees. “That’s the only formal education in music we’ve ever had,” Sherry says. “They amaze me, for what they’ve done, for how little directions and lessons and anything else they’ve had [musically],” adds Linda.
Although all of them can read notes, Sherry explains, they play music by ear. “It trains you to memorize things, which a lot of kids who grew up reading music don’t learn how to do,” she says. “You have a basic sense of music theory. You can hear a song and pick out different parts to reconstruct it later. We have a perfect sense of chord progression, what notes go into a chord, how to fit chords together to make them sound good. We don’t know the words for all those things, but we know the theory pretty well.” Mary says, “You can pick out harmonies without having to learn them.”
Froiland, who lives in Stewartville, Minn., says the Monsens didn’t need much help as musicians. “They just pick up their instruments and learned how to play them,” says Froiland, who these days performs in a one-man band. “I coached them a little bit; they did all the work.”
Indeed, learning side-by-side each other is what the homeschooled Monsens have done their entire life. “We were all in the same house all day and got to know each other more than if we were split up in different grades,” Julie says. “They were their classmates,” Rich says. “When we were in school, if there was nobody your age, there was nobody to play with. But, being homeschooled, that doesn’t affect them much. When they go somewhere, they’ll play with older and younger kids just as easily as somebody their age.”
Rich and Linda limited how much TV their children could watch, so the five of them filled their days with music, reading and making crafts. Along the way came the distinctive accent they all have. That, according to Jim, is known as the Monsen language. While working at Fleet Farm in Carver, Julie often is asked by customers if she is from England, Australia or New Zealand.
“It’s mostly because of the vocabulary we picked up from old books, and we read some books written in various English accents,” Tom says. “So, you have a good vocabulary, and you enunciate your speech, and that translates to a foreign accent,” Sherry says.
The Monsens want to keep Carver Creek going for as long as possible. “It keeps the family together, and family is an important thing,” Sherry says. “It’s best to have a good foundation in your extended family because they are the people you can rely on later in life.”
Tom sees the potential for new members to the band as he and his siblings grow their own families. “You’re thinking more like once Andrew (Sherry’s husband) and I can play music?” asks Tom’s wife, Jenna. “Jenna is shy, but she’s a good choir singer,” he says.
One of the prerequisites for being in Carver Creek is that you have to be a Monsen. Related by marriage is close enough. “Music has been such a big part of our lives growing up, and we want to make it part of our kids’ lives,” Jenna says.
Meet the band
Sherry Zeisel, 26, is a part-time math and science teacher at Holy Spirit Academy in Monticello. She lives in Montrose with her husband, Andrew. Zeisel is the band’s lead singer, who plays guitar and mandolin.
Tom, 24, an electroacoustic engineer at Starkey Laboratories in Eden Prairie, lives with his wife, Jenna, and their son, Orrin, in Carver. He is the go-to bass and tenor of the group and plays the banjo, guitar, penny whistle, bodhrán (an Irish frame drum), mandolin and the musical saw. Tom also is sound engineer and music choreographer for the band.
Julie, 23, who graduated (with a 4.0 GPA and no college debt) in May from Minnesota State University in Mankato with a degree in business management, provides the bass sound for the band. She plays a “bass on a stick,” a restrung and re-tuned cello that now plays like a bass. She also is the band’s bookkeeper and booking agent.
Mary, 16, a high school junior taking college-level courses through the Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) programs at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, has been playing the fiddle for eight years. She also provides the baritone for the band.
Jim, 11, a homeschooled sixth-grader, plays the cajón, a wooden box drum. When he’s not performing, he enjoys playing with Legos. On the band’s new CD, they wrote a parody song to the tune Blue Suede Shoes called New Legos. It’s about Jim’s toys. “Don’t you step on my new Legos,” Jim sings.
For more information on the band, visit the website here.