is the grass any bluer...

is the grass any bluer...
on the other side?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Michael Johnathon Talks Schedules, Strings and Sauce

J.D. Crowe credits Johnathon as being an innovative 
promoter with a different approach. Crowe once told me the 
most remarkable aspect of WoodSongs is that it is done extremely 
professionally, even back in the early days, when he remembers 
performing "in a little old studio somewhere off Broadway, 
crowded with people. Now it's in the beautiful Kentucky Theater 
with audiences who don't just like one kind of music.  
About Johnathon, Crowe says, "Mike sure has one heckuva clientele; 
he must be doing SOMETHING right...but one thing's for sure, 
Michael's a dyed-in-the-wool folkie!"  

There's a buzz going around town about a project to find the "Connectors" in our area, people who are the conduit between creative forces and fruition.  While the cynic in me fears that the think tank assigned to find and define those Connectors will most likely have a lot of meetings, dissect the process and accordingly, miss the proverbial boat, the optimistic Kimmy hopes that indeed, they will identify a number of people who quietly and diligently work as matchmakers who form the networks that serve as social search engines, if you will, for our region.

Johnathon & the Hippy Chick Strings on the WoodSongs set

Photos by Larry Nuezel, Dr. Bob DeMattina, Larry Stuer
c2011/WoodSongs/Rachel Aubrey Music Inc
To me, nobody embodies the meaning of connecting more than Michael Johnathon, artistically speaking, that is.  Johnathon's brainchild, WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour has been connecting Lexington (and world-wide) audiences for over a decade with scads of artists whose music otherwise might never reach the Bluegrass, and beyond.  

For those of you who have never had the pleasure, you should know that every Monday at the Kentucky Theater, Johnathon and his all-volunteer crew put together an hour-long program that not only consistently delivers unique performances by grassroots musicians as well as seasoned veterans to the in-house audience, but it is simultaneously is broadcast worldwide on the internet, where millions of viewers enjoy the sparkling conversation and lively music.  Yes...right here in Lexington, Kentucky, every week, on Monday night!  The price is cheap, especially if you are a WoodSongs partner -- oh, and if you miss a show, you can go to the user-friendly website - - and click on "Archives" to see any of the shows from the past.  So, go ahead, think of a group or individual you've always wanted to see and check if they've been on WoodSongs, or take a peek into the archives and you'll discover all sorts of artists, like Hayseed Dixseed, a band who did AC/DC covers, bluegrass style (for those of you in the KISS Army, they also did an album called Kiss My Bluegrass) and da Vinci's Notebook, an a cappella group who can sing all the parts to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band...even the instruments!  I've seen all sorts of bands - Blind Boys of Alabama, and hundreds of others over the years, Wanda Jackson and Billy Bragg most recently.  Another memorable time was the show that followed 9/11, when Michael's guests included a punk bagpipe band that provided a surprising respite and welcome distraction from the grief of the week prior.  For those reasons and so many more, WoodSongs is sometimes the one and only reason to look forward to Mondays.  At $10 or less, it's a reasonable price for outrageously fantastic music and clever banter from Michael with his cast, crew and the artists who appear.  The only catch is you have to call 252.8888 and make a reservation, then get your gimlet rump (as my Mom would've said :) into your seat before 6:45pm.  Thereafter, let MJ and his cast and crew take over your evening as you sit back and enjoy the musical splendor that is WoodSongs.

So back to Michael Johnathon, who also is the force behind the Troubadour Concert Series.  I caught up with him recently and asked him what's going on with him and what new and exciting projects was he working on?  Johnathan says, "A few things. The next book, WoodSongs III will get packaged with my next album called Front Porch. I'm writing an opera about the day Woody Guthrie wrote This Land Is Your Land that should be ready to film later this year and be shown on public television during the 2012 Woody Guthrie Centennial. The WoodSongs Roots Music festival could be ready to launch in May of next year at the Cardome Center in Georgetown. Lots of stuff."

 Michael says, "I like this one: Glenn Wilson
finally receíves the GLENN WILSON
He gets breakfast at Josie's Cafe,
a plaque and a hug from Roz."

With some big acts coming up on WoodSongs and Troubadour, I wondered if they had sold out those shows yet, and Johnathon confirmed my worst/best fears/hopes.  "Steve Martin sold out in two days. Emmylou Harris sold out in two days. There are still some tickets for Randy Newman February 23 at the Opera House. I hope to have Bruce Hornsby, Tony Rice, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lucinda Williams lined up for Troubadour this year as well."

Talk about WoodSongs, what makes it endure?  

"WoodSongs is an extremely popular well kept secret around Lexington. It takes all the volunteers, WEKU, the artists who come on the show, Insight, KET and nice folks like you that write about it. That's why it lasts."

Do you envision WoodSongs still being produced 10 or 20 years from now?

"Sure, but not with me at the helm."  As far as changes to the WoodSongs location or otherwise, Johnathon embraces WoodSongs' current location, but is always open to new ways to provide the show in its best format. "
The Kentucky Theater is our home for as long as they will let us stay. The biggest change for the show is our conversion to high definition TV."

I wondered if there was anyone Johnathon ever wanted to have as a guest, but it just didn't work out for them to appear -- or did have them as a guest, and that's when things didn't quite go as expected?  "Everyone I ever wanted to come on the show has either been on more than once already or is planning to visit.  Each artist has been so gracious, kind and supportive.  It really is amazing."

As one can imagine, producing a live multi-media show like WoodSongs every week provides a stage that is ripe for bloopers or awkward moments, but Michael's WoodSongs takes it all in stride.  A few years back, I was at a Riders In The Sky appearance and suddenly in the middle of one of their songs, the fire alarm went off and a high pitched siren filled the room.  The band simply found the note, started fiddling and playing a song around it and turned it into one of those sublime moments of unexpected laughter.  Johnathon explained later that as it turned out, a little boy had seen the alarm, and since the instructions said "PULL," well...he did :)  
Roni Stoneman in her Hee Haw days. She once joked
that she'd had so many kids, she'd had her uterus bronzed...
The occasional surprise doesn't cause the usually unflappable host more than a raised eyebrow, however that doesn't stop the rollercoaster from attempting to leap off the tracks. "This past Monday night, Roni Stoneman from Hee Haw was on the show and spent the entire night trying to throw me curve balls and get me off my game ... in a fun and bantering sort of way -- until I decided it was time to bring up her bronzed uterus. 'nuff said on that :)"

When I asked him what his plans for his personal career were and if he had any new recordings to be released anytime soon, he replied, "Ravenwood is doing great, even though you don't hear it on the air around here. The next album, Front Porch should be recorded this summer and it will have some of the songs from the Woody Guthrie Opera on it."

Finally, what we've all been waiting to hear is whether or not Michael Johnathon has a secret talent to share with my readers? 

"I make pasta sauce as a hobby and hand it out to friends as a gift -- organic fire-roasted tomatoes that simmer for 16 hours. It's good :) "

Here's Monday's line-up:

WoodSongs Monday Feb. 7
Please be seated by 6:45PM      GEN PUBLIC $10      STUDENT ID $5      WOODSONG PARTNERS FREE 
Greensky BluegrassGREENSKY BLUEGRASS is earning recognition nationwide as a growing force in bluegrass and acoustic roots music. This Michigan band won the 2006 Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition. Newcomers to the bluegrass scene, the band defines their music within the framework of bluegrass favorites while establishing a voice of their own through an array of influences and varied musical backgrounds. Greensky Bluegrass is touring in support of their recently released fourth album, "Five Interstates."

Eden BrentEDEN BRENT is a masterful blues pianist and vocal stylist. Her piano playing and singing style ranges from a melancholic whisper to a full-blown juke joint holler. This Mississippi Delta native is a three-time blues music award winner when she won the 2011 Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year. Her acclaimed album "Mississippi Number One" on Yellow Dog Records is a tribute to her home on Mississippi State Highway 1.

ABOUT WoodSongs (and totally pinched from Wikipedia) - 
The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, produced and hosted by folksinger Michael Johnathon is listened to by over 1 Million radio listeners on over 493 radio stations each week all over the world.[2] It is provided free of charge to public and community radio stations anywhere in the world. It is also available nationwide on XM-15 The Village on XM Satellite radio.[3] It had been available nationally as a TV program on the cable network Blue Highways as early as 2005[4]. In 2007 selected programs also became available throughout the U.S. as television programs to all PBS television stations. In 2008 mp4 podcasts were added to the already existing mp3 podcasts. The program has recently been added to the AMERICAN FORCES RADIO NETWORK, broadcasting into 180 nations and every United States Naval ship at sea.
The show tapes over 40 shows a year almost every Monday at the Kentucky Theater in Lexington, Kentucky. He occasionally takes the show on the road and then webcasts live with artists from that location. Those with high speed internet can watch the show as it is being taped from 6:45 pm to approx 8:20 pm. The music that is featured is a very wide variety of folk music from all over the world. It is very unusual in that everyone associated with the show is a volunteer. Even Mr. Johnathon and the other performers who come from all over the world are not paid. Between musical and sometimes dance performances the performers are interviewed by Michael. The show is both entertaining and educational. The show started from a very humble beginning. It was first produced in a small recording studio which could only seat twenty people[5]. It was initially carried by a single college radio station.
The Woodsongs website contains one of the largest bluegrass and independent artist live music archives available on the web, all available at no charge. The audio archives are the radio programs. The video archives contain in addition to the first hour, the audio of which will be used as the radio show; an encore section that features additional performances. 

If you are a music lover, have a spark of being part of a grassroots music movement, love to experience new bands, but you don't want to take out a loan or pawn your Aunt Flossie's gold earrings to muster up enough cash so you can buy tickets to attend a concert, then take this advice I hand you like an earth mother,  do what the crowd that fills up the Kentucky Theater every Monday night does: treat yourself and get thee to the Kentucky by 6:30pm, then sit back and wait for the musical ride of your life.   My dear bluegrass buttercups, the best thing that could happen to you on a Monday night is to treat yourself to an inexpensive but always very entertaining show, to hear musicians you never knew play songs you've never heard.  It happens right here, in Lexington, every week and if you haven't been to see at least one WoodSongs show, you are missing out on the stars of tomorrow! 
pray for peace, y'all,

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