Matt Munsey – sometimes heroes play guitar

Photo of Matt Munsey © Angela Richardson-Newman, Littlerocker Photography

Tomorrow is a very special day for Matthew Munsey, founder and mandolinist/guitarist with Monroeville, a popular bluegrass group in east Tennessee. And like most who do spectacular things, he swears it’s no big deal.

On November 9, he travels to Nashville’s Vanderbilt Center where he will be admitted to donate one of his kidneys to his sister, Rachel Munsey Jackson. She is a school teacher in Murfreesboro who has been pursuing an adoption with her husband, though that has been postponed when her kidney began to deteriorate over the summer.

While we may all like to think that we would surely do the same for a sibling, close friend, or family member, it is not a simple surgery, requiring several days in hospital, and typically up to six weeks away from work to recover.

Matt and Rachel grew up in a novel family environment. Their father was a missionary Free Will Baptist preacher, and they moved from east Tennessee to south Texas when he was very young, along with an older sister and Rachel, with their mom and dad. Munsey Sr. set up a ministry there, which spread to a number of churches across the region before long. Rachel was diagnosed quite young with polycystic kidney disease, an illness that causes fluid-filled cysts to grow in the kidneys, and if there are too many, can lead to a degradation in kidney function or outright kidney failure.

Matthew recalls that often his parents would have to go off to the hospital with his sister, though he didn’t really understand why as a boy.

“We knew that eventually she would need a kidney, so this isn’t a big surprise.

We played together as a family band when we were young. We toured around and raised funds for the various pastors in my dad’s ministry. Rachel would sing with us, and she was always such a positive person. At shows she would tell of her medical problems as an encouraging story of survival. At age eight she got a kidney from my dad.

He passed away about a year after that from a brain tumor, and the ministry suffered a huge loss from his passing. We moved back to Tennessee and I began making music with my cousins and my friends. We started a band called Mountain Edge with my cousin, Carter Moore.

Rachel’s been carrying dad’s kidney now for 23 years. Her kidney function has been declining, so we all got tested and I was a match. There is a lot of strenuous testing to be approved for this. My older sister and I both tested positive, but ultimately they chose me. In the end of September I was cleared for a transplant. Rachel was awaiting an adoption and had to postpone everything as she was so sick.

I’ll be so happy to help her to start her own family. We all sort of knew that this was coming. That’s the reality of living with organ transplants.”

Monroeville works as many as six days a week, appearing at the Ole Smoky Distilleries in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN. Though this keeps their outside touring to a minimum, they perform before an astonishing number of people each year, sharing their distinctive brand of bluegrass and acoustic country with visitors who come from all over the world to stay in these popular Smoky Mountain resort towns.

A former bandmate, Chevy Watson, has agreed to come back for a few weeks to keep the group working, and Matthew is hoping to be well enough to return for their shows at Dollywood later this month. Monroeville is booked as part of the Appalachian Christmas shows during Dollywood’s annual Christmas festival.

For Munsey, the pain and recovery from surgery is something he is happy to go through for his sister.

“She’s such a sweet person, and uses her life as a sort of testimony. I don’t really like this kind of attention… it seems like nothing to me.”

Rachel is a very popular teacher at her school, as you can see in this brief video of all the students lining the halls to give her a standing ovation as she left on Thursday afternoon to prepare for surgery.

Should you find yourself at Ole Smoky Distilleries or Dollywood and see Monroeville perform, give Matthew a big pat on the back, both for the quality music, and for facing surgery and recovery for the sake of someone he loves.

Monroeville is back on track this year after a very tough 2020. Like all performers, they were out of work when Ole Smokey shut down their visitors facilities for a full twelve months. Several bands earn a living there and all were laid off when shutdowns predominated.

Munsey said that government programs helped them survive. Monroeville includes his wife, Brittany, along with multi-instrumentalist McCoy Borg, and bassist Kyle Dillow.

“The CARES act helped, and we helped everyone get unemployment and PPP loans. We made it through OK at the end of it. We even recently hired another bluegrass drummer, Joe Stephens.”

For Munsey, Monroeville is more than just a musical group, or a source of income. He feels like it’s part of his family, and how he can continue to persist as an artist.

“Monroeville has always been a no limits sort of band… how I put my music out there. We’ve learned to play whatever we felt like. Right now we’re sticking in that acoustic/bluegrass/country vein.

I’m the kind of person that would rather do what I enjoy, and not worry about being seen, and all the politics of the music business. We play before millions of people every year at Ole Smoky. My wife is a big part of the band now, and I see some really cool stuff for us in the future. She has a beautiful clear voice… she’s just a natural.”

Well done, Matthew Munsey, and best of luck, Rachel!

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.