Aged in Kentucky: Creator of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour goal is 'to move a million hearts'
This is Aged in Kentucky, a series of stories about people and places that have been in the Bluegrass State a few years or many decades. Each one has a unique spirit.
Michael Johnathon is a folksinger and creator and host of the ‘WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.’ It’s a radio and TV show recorded weekly in front of a live audience at the Lyric Theatre in Lexington and broadcast on more than 500 radio stations, Armed Forces Radio network and PBS stations across America.
More than 1,000 WoodSongs shows have been recorded, so far, all produced completely by volunteers.
Michael Johnathon grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley. His neighbor was the legendary folksinger Pete Seeger.
Johnathon came to Kentucky more than 30 years ago and planted deep roots in the Bluegrass State.
The WoodSongs community has grown into network of ‘front porch pickers’ and listeners who enjoy grassroots and Americana music.
WKU Public Radio reporter Rhonda Miller talked with Michael Johnathon on a Monday evening in April 2022 at the taping of a WoodSongs show.
"My whole career has been to do things with music, not sell things."Michael Johnathon
Johnathon: I grew up in New York, born there. And my family moved to upstate along the Hudson River, a little town called Beacon, New York right along 90. The Hudson River was about a mile wide. And our neighbor was a very interesting fella. He was an older guy, but he claimed to be a musician, but he played the banjo, and to us little rock and roll kids, you know, unless you can plug it in, it's not a real instrument. So that was all fine and good. I graduated high school and a friend of mine says “Hey, come to the Mexican border where I am and we can hang out.” So, I left New York and went to Laredo, Texas right on the Rio Grande. I was anticipating seeing this amazing Rio Grande River where people are coming across and swimming to freedom, into their new life in America. And I don't know, where I was the Hudson River was a mile wide and I finally get to the Rio Grande River, it's a creek. They're walking across this thing and I was like, Oh my gosh. So, I got a little job at a radio station, midnight to 6am in Laredo, Texas, KVOZ- AM. And a few months into it, I had to play what they call an oldies song. And I pulled out by happenstance, Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, a song called “Turn, Turn, Turn,” to everything turn, turn, turn, there is... And I noticed on the song information that it was written by my neighbor. And I was like, oh, that's who Pete Seeger is. And so I called him up and I said, “Pete, I said, I just found out you're Pete Seeger.” And he's like, long pause, and he goes, “Well, I have been all my life.”
And we talked about his music and what I saw him do when I was a kid, and I said, “I don't know where the idea came from. It's like a musical evangelical moment. I want to be a folk singer.” And he says, “Well, you need to go to the Appalachian mountains.” He said, “Don't go to school. Don't think you can go on the road. Don't copy anybody. Go to the mountains and learn America's music.”
Miller: How old were you when you had this great awakening?
Johnathon: By that time 21or 22 years old.
Miller: And had you heard Pete Seeger play much when you lived? Was he like, right near you, next door? Where was he compared to where you lived?
Johnathon: He was next door to me, next door in our family on the mountain along 90 in Beacon. And yeah, I saw him as a kid, you know, playing little concerts or school would come out and I thought, we just gonna go see this old guy, you know, to us he was old, you know, with a banjo and I didn't care. It got us out of math class. So, I was fine with it, but it wasn't impacting me in any way. And when I realized who he was, I was like shocked because I knew him. But I didn't know him. Didn't know who he was. And so, we talked and I ended up moving to a little hamlet in the mountains called Mousie, Kentucky M-O-U-S-I-E. Mousie, it's a little hamlet in Knott County. It's a couple mountains away from Minnie, Kentucky.
Miller: Minnie and Mousie, sounds like a couple.
Johnathon: This is real though. I was there for two-and-a-half years. I went up and down the mountains with my guitar and banjo in the all the hollers, knocking on doors and having all these front porch hootenannies and people teaching me their old songs.
"I don't want to sell a million records. I want to move a million hearts."Michael Johnathon
I was harmless. I was just a long-haired kid. I wasn't trying to change anything. I just wanted them to show me their music and they loved that.
Miller: How did you find or how did you pick out Mousie?
Johnathon: Well, I went to visit some friends of mine in Isom, Kentucky in Letcher County and southeast of Hazard, just near Whitesburg. And there's this little place here called Appalshop. So, I went to see Appalshop and they had a film there called “Handbuilt.” And it's a film of a man who gets up in the morning, makes his coffee, goes out in the woods with an axe, beats on a bunch of trees and you watch him and he's making a rocking chair. And by the end of this 30-minute film, you realize that you're sitting in the rocking chair that he was making in the film. And I was like, I'm living a page out of Mother Earth News. This is amazing. And a friend of mine and I went out to dinner and we passed by a sign that said Mousie on route 80. And I was like, I want to be Michael Jonathan, the unknown folk singer from Mousie, Kentucky. And I achieved my dream.
Miller: Oh my gosh, did you play guitar like in high school or with bands? Or you said you were like a rock-and-roll kid, did you? What started you, your parents or anybody?
Johnathon: An injury, an injury in my stepfather's garden shop. And I fell and reached against the wall to brace my fall and I ran my left arm down a tree saw. And it shredded the nerve in my left hand and the doctor prescribed the guitar as physical therapy for a teenage kid who didn't want to do physical therapy.
Miller: What a brilliant doctor.
Johnathon: He started everything for me. I don't remember his name, but that's how it happened.
Miller: Wow. That's interesting. So when you went to Mousie, and you know you were going up and down with your guitar and banjo, did people welcome you? Because, you know, as I heard you say on one show, you're from New York, and don't hold that against you. I mean, did people welcome you?
Johnathon: Completely. Yeah, yeah. You know, what I learned, living in the mountains that these are, these are hard- orking, brilliant. They may not be educated, but they are brilliant. They have been through a lot. They've learned to design a life in a mountain culture that most people could not survive. And that takes a lot of motivation and intelligence and hard work. And I discovered a story that I wrote a movie script and has just been optioned as a motion picture, the story of Alice Lloyd. If you go to CaneyCreekmovie.com. She went to the mountains in 1915. As an outsider from Boston, she went there to die. She moved south to a warmer climate to maybe live longer. And she started a little school. A mountain man named Bisha Johnson heard that this outsider woman moved into Knott County and he had a dream that he she would teach his children to read. And he woke up from his dream in February in the middle of the night, barefoot crossed two mountains, barefoot because his shoes fell off while he was going over the mountains in a snowstorm, collapses through her door, begs her to come to Caney Creek, and if she does, he would give her his land as payment to teach his children. Today, a Bisha Johnson's land is the campus property of Alice Lloyd College. And what happened to them over the course of time, it culminated on the school being saved on national television on NBC, in 1955, on a show called “This Is Your Life,” run by Ralph Edwards. And at the end of the show, he turns to the audience and for the first time in TV history says, “Send her a dollar.” And that saved Alice Lloyd College. And it showed her thing was be so proud of your home that you don't leave. And she appealed to the core love of the people in Appalachia. You know, they're presenting the Caney Creek movie as the “Dances with Wolves of Appalachia,” and that it doesn't make fun of people in Kentucky. It does not have cliches. It does not present them as hillbillies or inbred people. These are these are brilliant, hard-working, there was a reason for them to do what they did to survive. And the Caney Creek movie is a praise of the Appalachian people through the story of Alice Lloyd.
Miller: So, you wrote a movie script?
Johnathon: Yes. Go to CaneyCreekmovie.com and you get to see the clip of her on “This Is Your Life.”
Miller: Oh, that's gonna be fun. Did you ever go back to New York? Or did you stay in Kentucky? Or how has Kentucky sort of kept you here?
Johnathon: You know, I believe in the spirit of America's front porch. I believe that never before in the history and modern times, especially in America, has the spirit of the front porch been so needed. And that's what I was learning in those East Kentucky mountains. And I started singing about the earth and the environment and tradition and nature and seeing the reaction of people who by their own legacy loved those things in an American culture that was urban, that did not appreciate those things. And I was like, that should be the theme of my career. I don't want to sell a million records. I want to move a million hearts. And my whole career has been to do things with the music, not sell things. And so WoodSongs is a good example. It's worldwide, based in Lexington, and along the foothills of Appalachian, but it's all volunteer, nobody in WoodSongs gets paid a penny, you know, not even the artists who come on the show. And as we're taping this, John McEuen, co-founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is on the show. He's not getting a penny. You know, all the artists that have been on the show, whether it's a Bela Fleck or Judy Collins or Roger McGuinn or Chris Thile has been on seven times, you know, none of them get paid a penny. So WoodSongs is a gift and it goes free to radio, it's free to all our affiliates and over 500 radio stations.
Miller: How did you come up with WoodSongs? You're the creator of it. Like what was the sort of moment you thought this is it, this is the show I'm going to do and it's going to be, you know, recorded once a week?
Johnathon: It's a two-fold answer. I was on tour with Judy Collins. I was her opening act and we were doing these major outdoor amphitheaters. We were going to the Lavinia Amphitheater in Chicago, which was a brilliant place, was the day after a Baryshnikov danced. So, it was very exciting. And on the way there in the Town Car that was driving us, they had on the radio station,a show called “Prairie Home Companion.” And a friend of mine was on the show, fella named Sam Bush.
And I was like, well, wouldn't it be neat to have a show like that? But without the stories? What if it was just about the music? And I was like, how hard can it be to start a live audience radio broadcast for syndication? So, I got back to Lexington and we found a little studio. Kevin Johnson, a friend of mine, had a studio and we started on Monday night and we had about 12 people and one radio station willing to air it.
Miller: When was this?
Johnathon: 1999. We're doing show 1040 tonight, so we've been at it for a while, but I will say this. There is no other community in the nation, except the one here in Kentucky, that a broadcast like WoodSongs could exist in the format that it is, with everybody working for free and the artists coming for free and the theater is donated amd the hotel rooms are donated, and it goes free to Public Radio, free to American Forces Radio Network, free to the schools with lesson plans, free to PBS, free to RFD television.
Miller: You send it to schools with lesson plans?
Johnathon: Yes. Go to the classroom page at WoodSongs.com and you'll see a whole array of WoodSongs broadcasts. If you want your kids to find out about the banjo, I got Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. You want them to find out about the guitar, who better than Tommy Emanuel? You know, you want them to find out about the mandolin, Sam Bush. Traditional American jazz, Preservation Hall Jazz Band. And all of these folks have been on WoodSongs and there's lesson plans, middle, high college level classes. During the pandemic thousands and thousands of homeschool parents used WoodSongs because their kids could not get to art and music class, because everybody was staying home.
Miller: That's fantastic. So how long have you been in Kentucky now? And I assume you're pretty deeply rooted here now.
Johnathon: Kentucky is my home. I figure another 30 years I'll be local. But I've been here since 1986 when I moved from Laredo. and my children have been born here. They're Kentuckians. I'm transplanted, but I'm homegrown. And Kentucky to me is the rocking chair of America's front porch. To me Kentucky is the rural representation of the music and the art and the community and culture that built America. It's not in the urban centers. The urban centers were built from what Kentucky is, what West Virginia is, with Tennessee, and southern Indiana. This is the region that built America. And it's the source of its folk music and its legacy. The imagery of Abraham Lincoln in the log cabin, pulling up his bootstraps. It's all here, this is it. This is the area and this is my home.
Miller: How old are you now, may I ask?
Miller: You've been in Kentucky since you were in your 20s?
Johnathon: Yeah, I left Laredo when I was 21. So, you know and Kentucky has been very generous, not just the community that does things like WoodSongs or the Song Farmers community or the Troubadour concert series, my career. You know, it's all coming from here. But, you know, the state of Kentucky gave me the Milner Award, which is that's something that Wendell Berry and Jean Ritchie and people like that get, you know, and they're Kentuckians, I'm not originally from here, but they awarded me the Milner Award, which is a very high honor. It's a very prestigious thing. I'm not saying that to brag, I'm saying that to show the open arms and acceptance Kentucky has for people in their community that are trying to do good things.
Miller: You travel all over the world, I guess, performing?
Johnathon: Yes. Yeah, I am a working, traveling folksinger.
Miller: And when you travel and people ask you about Kentucky, what do you say generally? Is there a sort of a common line or theme you tell them about? I'm sure they asked you what it's like, and they probably imagine, like, I live in Bowling Green and people think I live in Appalachia, you know, because I'm in Kentucky. What do you tell people?
Johnathon: I tell them that I live in a garden called Kentucky. And I tell them that it is the rocking chair of America's front porch. And I live in a log cabin on seven acres. And I would not have any of that if it was not for the culture and community of Kentucky, because this is my home.
Miller: So, I saw that the SongFarmers conference gathering is coming up. Did you start that? I hadn't been aware of that. What is that?
Johnathon: You know, artists come on with songs because it's a gateway to the audience. It's important because there are no music record store chains left in America. They're gone. People don't buy CDs anymore. There's no CD players in cars anymore. There's no CD players in computers anymore. It's hard for musicians to meet their audience. You can get a half page story in a local newspaper, and nobody sees it. I'm not knocking newspapers. I'm trying to demonstrate how important it is that we have them, but we're losing them. It's not a good thing that we're losing them.
Miller: It's really different with CDs not really being in cars or computers anymore.
Johnathon: Those are the financial transactions that pay an artist’s rent or put gas in their car, or pays for their motel room, on their way to someplace else. And without that it's hard for them to make a living. So, I created SongFarmers as an alternative for those brilliant, passionate artists who are not going to get signed to a record label because there are no more record labels. They're not going to get signed to a booking agent because the venues are shutting down. They're not going to get famous. They're going to be musicians home, so now what do you do with all that heart and passion? SongFarmers. SongFarmers is what we call people who who want to make their home, their lives, their families, their communities better. And right now, there's 86 active chapters. One just opened up in Cork, Ireland. Another one is starting in Canada and other ones’ starting in Australia. And what they do is once a month gather their family and friends together. They sit in a big circle and they sing songs for an hour or two together as a group. Little tiny Tellico Plains, Tennessee started in a living room. Cabot, Arkansas, a tiny little peanut of a community in Arkansas started in Jim Talbot’s living room with just his friends, and grew so big that the public library's hosting them and the local banks had sent food trucks to accommodate the folks coming. I mean, music is supposed to be free. And it wasn't until we started to sell it that it became a commodity. And the music business outgrew its commodity. And that left artists with no way out.
Miller: So how long have the SongFarmers been going on? Like, when did you start that? And I see that there's a I don't what to call it, a gathering coming up in in April, at the end of April.
Johnathon: Every year, there's a yearly gathering where SongFarmers from all over the nation come and every evening there's a free public concert, anybody can come to it. SongFarmers are brilliant musicians and they're going to put on a big public concert for everybody. But during the day there's workshops and films and song jams and music circles and music lessons for everybody. And the SongFarmers gathering has happened in Kentucky every single year for how many years?
Johnathon: Six years. This is our sixth one.
Miller: You created this too?
Johnathon: I did, on my couch.
Miller: Yeah, so you're creating a lot of gatherings places for people to come and hear music and you have CDs right, several CDs.
Johnathon: My 19th album is just being released, as we're speaking, really It's called “Afterburn: Folk at the Arena Level.” It's me and a rock band and a
61- piece symphony orchestra presenting folk music in a very exciting format. It's to attract the rock audiences to the folk world.
Miller: What kind of songs are on there?
Johnathon: You know, the opening song is called “Techno Folk.” It's a march of America's history. It's a song that makes fun of the news cycle. And it's a remake of “Patty Works the Railroad,” which is an old Irish balla and it's a screamer. But it's just me and my long neck banjo with a rock band and big symphony orchestra
Miller: Sounds like fun. So, anything else you would like to say about music or folk music? Because a lot of people, and when I did a folk music show as a volunteer, they assumed all the folk musicians, the folk music people were old, like they were, you know, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger. And they’d just assume that there weren't new folk musicians coming up.
Johnathon: You know, on every WordSongs broadcast we have a young kid, every single show. Tonight we have a little 12-year-old girl who picks the guitar like Tony Rice. And not only she's going to be the WoodSongs kid, but she's going to play a song with John McEuan, one that you know, “Will the Circle will be Unbroken”? Well, you know, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John McEuen, she's going to get to play with him on a national broadcast. I believe in the passion of America's front porch. And there's nobody that deserves to be welcomed to that front porch more than the kids. Love is the greatest transaction of the arts. It's not money. It's not publicity. It's not sponsorship. It's not your connections. It's love. Love has to be the driving force of everything we do. And if it's not there, you have missed the reason folk music exists, or any art form. Vincent van Gogh tried to give away the Starry Night three times, and was turned down three times, because they didn't like it. The only thing that kept Vincent van Gogh moving forward in his life was that he loved what he did. Whether or not you did or not was not the point. He loved it. And today, the Starry Night is insured for well over $1 billion. But when he was alive, he couldn't even give it away. Couldn't even give it away. And so that is a statement on all of us as artists, no matter what your art form, unless you are based in love for the people who hear you or watch you, your family, your friends, especially your community, then you're not you're not doing it for the right reason.
Miller: How do you think you've found that or felt that or, you know, realize that to keep it going all this time? Well, did it strike you at some point as a teenager or learning music or traveling around Appalachia?
Johnathon: When I realized who Pete Seeger was and I saw what he did with the Clearwater trying to clean up the Hudson River. The idea that you could make a boat and put some singers on it and pull up to a dock somewhere and do a free concert off the dock. Free. And people would come to the shore of the river to see the concert and notice how dirty the river was. That using music for something good would cause reaction. And the clean water line of the Hudson River has moved south over 50 miles because of what Pete Seeger did. And you can do that in Bowling Green. You can do that in Peoria. You can do that in West Virginia or Tucson. You know, love is the driving force of change. And this world needs that love more than ever. It needs the spirit of the front porch. It needs the artists to put money aside and put their heart and people first.
Miller: Well, Michael, thank you so much. That's a great way to look at life.
I've been talking with Michael Jonathan at the Lyric Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky. For Aged in Kentucky, I'm Rhonda Miller