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SongFarmers 'not about selling things' but instead seeks to 'do things with music'

Larry Neuzel
Michael Johnathon, creator and host of the WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour, offers a song during the filming before a live audience at the Lyric Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky.

The gathering of SongFarmers at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in Rockcastle County on Friday and Saturday, April 29-30, marks the sixth year of the event.

Folksinger Michael Johnathon, who is creator and host of the WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour, which is produced in Lexington, also created SongFarmers.

Both WoodSongs and SongFarmers are part of the mission Johnathon identified for himself when he was in his 20s and went to eastern Kentucky with a guitar and banjo to learn songs from people who were often strumming or pickin’' with family and friends.

“I believe in the spirit of America’s front porch. I believe that never before in the history in modern times, especially in America, has the spirit of the front porch been so needed,” said Johnathon. “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.”

"I don’t want to sell a million records. I want to move a million hearts.”
Michael Johnathon

He has long been clear about his vision.

“My whole career has been to do things with the music, not sell things.”

Six years ago, Johnathon launched SongFarmers, an organization dedicated to growing community in towns large and small.

“SongFarmers are artists 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’s starting in Canada, another one’s starting in Australia,” said Johnathon. “What they do is, once a month is gather their family and friends together, they sit in a big circle and sing songs for an hour or two, as a group. Little tiny Tellico Plains, Tennessee started in a living room.”

Rhonda J. Miller
Perry Brake, a volunteer camera man for WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour, started the fourth SongFarmers group in the nation in 2016, in his hometown of Tellico Plains, Tennessee. population 850.

Perry Brake, the musician who started that chapter in Tellico Plains, is a volunteer camera man at WoodSongs when it’s filmed at the Lyric Theatre on a recent Monday evening.

Brake launched SongFarmers in 2016 in his town of 850 people located between Knoxville and Chattanooga.

“Once a month I invite anybody in the community to come down to our local community center and play music together,” said Brake. “We might have anywhere between 20-35 people playing music together and other people listening.”

The people who come range in age from three to a 101-year-old lady who joins in the singing.

Perry said the songs are kept simple so everyone can join in, but the impact is powerful.

“Music is therapy. There’s been many, many times where I’m in a sour mood, lots of stuff on my mind, and I don’t want to go play music,” said Brake. “But I’ll go play music and everything is better.”

The power of music to bring healing and joy will be growing this weekend when SongFarmers gather 35 miles northeast of Somerset in the town of Renfro Valley.

Daytime activities like films, music circles and workshops will be limited to about 200 members, due to the continuing unpredictability of the pandemic.

But Friday and Saturday evening concerts are open to the public, and there’s no charge because, as Michael Johnathan says, it’s not about selling things, it’s about doing things with the music.