Image courtesy of Woodsongs dot com and Michael Johnathon. Photo by Larry Neuzel.
From humble beginnings in 1998, from a small venue that sat just 20 people in the audience, Michael Johnathon has built the Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour into a public broadcasting colossus. Woodsongs is heard and seen around the globe each week from its current home in the Lyric Theatre, Lexington KY.
The program showcases bands, performers and troupes from across the broad spectrum of bluegrass, Americana, roots, acoustic and alt-country, and a few others around the blurred edges of folk.
It’s a 100% community and volunteeer-run operation, making its longevity and sustainability all the more remarkable. And laudable.
It gets even better than that – but you’ll have to listen to the interview for the part that rocked me back on my heels.
And upturned kayak.
The show has reached an eye-watering 750+ episodes as of April 2014, many of which are freely available from the Woodsongs website in audio and video formats. Apart from its legion of individual listeners, Woodsongs has spawned a string of coffeehouse groups which meet to experience the show as a community.
And it’s not like Michael has anything else to do with his spare time.
Like being a singer-songwriter of many years standing. Or touring. Or arranging other concerts. Or building a log cabin and surrounding structures plus landscaping and bridges etc. bare-handed. Or being a father of two adult children (and two more on the way in one hit).
No, I lied. He’s all of that and more.
An just get a load of where he got his folk beginnings from. I can only interpret my silence at hearing who his neighbour was in upstate New York as a little mild shock and awe.
On a chilly autumnal morning in Sydney, I stepped off the Manly* Ferry and found a suitable-ish place to record an interview over the shaky airwaves from Australia to Lexington, Kentucky. A picture of my luxurious chair in the ‘recording studio’ appears below.
* For international audiences, ‘Manly’ refers to a suburb and location on the north side of Sydney Harbour named ‘Manly’. We don’t believe in forcing gender stereotypes onto our aquatic transport vessels. Actually, if anything, we refer to them as ‘her‘ for the most part.
The audio interview appears here in two parts as the facilities of the international multi-media conglomerate that is Overheard Productions do not currently run to a recording studio where I can pretty the sound files up.
Also, my international phone card very inconveniently ran out towards the end, so please pardon the slight administrative glitch. I was just too tuned into the discussion to hear the telltale low credit beeps.
*** Audio files will be removed at the end of February 2020 ***
Bill Quinn: For Overheard Productions and Timber and Steel, it’s just gone 7am on Anzac Day, and for anyone who’s [reading] from outside Australia and New Zealand, that stands for Australia New Zealand Armed Corps. It looms large in the Australian psyche, there’s a lot of things going on today, but we’re not here to talk about that.
I’m sitting here on Manly Wharf but I’m linked via phone to Lexington, Kentucky, and I can say hello Michael Johnathon and thanks for joining us.
MJ: Bill, it’s nice to hear your voice and thanks for inviting me to talk to the folks.
BQ: Michael, there’s so many things I want to ask you about music, but I’m just going to go off piste a little bit to start off with. You’re about to become a father again.
MJ: A father again. Yes, my lovely bride announced that we’re not just having a baby, we’re having twins, so come this fall it’s going to be quite busy around the log cabin.
BQ: You’ve already got two lovely children, how do you feel about starting again with nappies – or diapers, in your language – and all of that stuff? Does that not freak you out a little?
MJ: No, not at all. I’ve always been very family-oriented. I love kids and I love being a dad. It’s going to be a very musical time, there’s going to be a lot of songs from it. And I enjoy the idea of running around the apple orchard, or in the wintertime sitting around the fireplace with a banjo and watching the kids grow up. It’s gonna be fun!
BQ: Wow. I’ve got an 18 and a 17 year old and to think about starting again just blows my mind.
But let’s talk about the log cabin. We’re talking middle America, Kentucky. Tell me about the log cabin, the banjo, sitting on the front porch.
MJ: Well, I grew up in the country in upstate New York. I was right on the Hudson River about an hour and half north of New York City, very much the country. And my neighbour was a log-dwelling banjo player, but I was a typical suburban rock and roller kid from New York. But I was very impressed with this guy who lived next door. And he claimed to be a musician and he played the banjo, and to me that did not compute as a young kid.
And one day, I got to play a song by Roger McGuinn and The Byrds, a song called ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ and I noticed that the song was written by my crazy neighbour. And I thought, “Ooh, that’s who Pete Seeger is!”
BQ: Ooooooh, man!
MJ: So, I had no idea I’d been growing up next to folk royalty, and when I realised that, Pete became a very inspiring presence to me. Maybe not musically, but personally. So the idea of having a big organic garden and an apple orchard and a log cabin, it’s always been a theme with me since I’ve been a kid.
To finally now have it is a dream come true.
I work very hard to take care of it.
BQ: And you worked very hard to create it, because – let’s not mince words – pretty much with your own two hands, you’ve been the cabin, the studio, the guest residence, the bridges. Everything’s pretty much you’ve done it, yeah?
MJ: Yeah, and you know, I didn’t know how to do it before. I grew up pretty much without a dad so I never had that male presence in my life to teach me how to use tools or work on things. So I just had to learn as I went and I actually found it a lot of fun because I had to teach myself how to play the guitar and the banjo and how to write; I never wrote a play before but I wrote Walden. I never wrote an opera before, so I wrote the Woody Guthrie opera.
You know, you see things in life and you have to tell yourself that there is no barrier but you. You’re the only one who decides that you cannot do something. And when it came even to physical things like building a home, trying to figure out how to make a gable roof. I never did it before.
But thank god for Youtube!
Seriously. I never hung a door before but I went to Youtube and this dude was on there, in five minutes he shows you how to hang a door, and I’m like, “Ok, here I go!”.
BQ: I was going to say, there’s the saying, “There’s an app for that”, but at our vintage it’s more like let’s go on to Youtube and find out how to do stuff.
MJ: It’s a new age, man! It’s how I learned how to do everything. You can teach yourself how to play the ukulele and the mandolin, whatever you want to do it’s on Youtube. And it’s free.
BQ: Yes, the definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play a ukulele but chooses not to.
MJ: Yep, and the ladies love you for it!
BQ: Now you love to play your banjo on the porch of your beautiful log cabin, but there’s this whole empire, let’s call it an empire, which is called Woodsongs. Just flesh out Woodsongs and what it is.
MJ: Woodsongs is a live audience radio broadcast. It airs around the world on America Armed Forces Radio Network in 173 countries including Australia. There’s about 20 stations in Australia that airs the show. It airs on 509 other independent radio stations around the world. And in America, there’s something called PBS which is the national broadcast and television system, and it’s in about 90 million homes across North America on public television as well.
So it’s got a lot of formats to it. It’s also online. If your [readers] go to woodsongs.com and click on the archives page, there are hundreds of shows that they can watch for free.
And Woodsongs is all volunteer run. The artists who come on the show do not get paid, whether it’s Tommy Emmanuel from Australia or Jake Shimabukuro, who’s one of the finest ukulele players in the world, or the Indigo Girls or Kenny Loggins or whoever it is, none of them are paid a nickel to come on Woodsongs.
Because the currency that we spend is love.
It’s love for the art, love for the music, love for the audience. The entire crew works for free, the engineers, the camera people, me, everybody associated with the show works for free. And it’s a beautiful expression of what music’s really supposed to be like.
And so in my world, we’re trying to turn the whole world into a front porch again.
BQ: Wow, thank you for that because while I appreciated the volunteer nature of the crew, and I love the updates you put on Facebook and show pictures of the dinners that you have and the things that you do around the show, I never knew that the performers are doing it pro bono as well.
That’s amazing. Because you get a very high quality and calibre of performer on the show, don’t you?
MJ: Oh yeah. The artists that submit to be on the broadcast are incredible, from all over the world. Bluegrass bands from Italy, there’s classical players from Canada. Woodsongs is there to represent this entire diamond of music. It’s folk and it’s blues, bluegrass, country, Celtic, old timey. We’ve had everyone from Odetta to Roger McGuinn, some of the classic performers in history: Judy Collins is coming back for the fifth time to be on Woodsongs.
They all come for free, and they’re for the love of music and the audience. And I think that translates to the people that listen to the show.
BQ: It does for me, as an overwhelming sensate, the first interaction I had with Michael Johnathon and Woodsongs was, as a community radio presenter hearing the promos, and you’ve got this wonderful line about being a tree-hugger and this, that and the other and I thought, “Oh, this guy’s interesting”. And then going through the CD collection at the radio station and finding the Acoustic Rainbow CDs and realising he’s not just a presenter, but Michael Johnathon’s a singer-songwriter of his own standing.
So tell me more about Michael Johnathon the performer.
MJ: Well, just next week we come out with my live album called Looking Glass and I have eleven albums out already, I’ve published two books, and I tour constantly. I do Woodsongs one day a week, but the rest of the time, I’m Michael Johnathon the artist. And so writing and producing a record and keeping yourself sharp artistically so that I can do everything else that I do. Which is why I like working with wood and working in the apple orchard and working in the garden because it sharpens the creative side of you when you do stuff like that.
And so I keep a really busy schedule, but I enjoy it.
I do it because I love it, not because I have to.
BQ: How’s being a dad again going to affect your touring schedule?
MJ: Being a dad again is not going to affect my touring schedule, but it’s going to affect Melissa’s ability to come with me. Up until ow, she’s been going with me which I like, I want that. But obviously that’s going to change, at least for a while, and we’re just going to work around it. As many do.
BQ: Michael, just one more question which is my signature question. In 2024 when I’m sat here on Manly Wharf, possibly in the rain, and I’m talking with you while your ten-year-olds are running around the porch, what can you tell me about your life and what’s going on in 2024?
MJ: Well, I’m probably going to be healing from falling off the roof from trying to fix the chimney!
And hopefully by then, the Woody Guthrie opera was fully completed and performed and aired on national television. And the Caney Creek motion picture was produced and I got to do the soundtrack, and we’re releasing the 20th album, and Woodsongs will have reached its 2000th broadcast, and I wish the new host well!
BQ: Michael, you sound like you need to live til about 106 just to fit in everything you want to do in this life, is that about right?
MJ: Wouldn’t that be wonderful? This is a beautiful earth and nobody wants to leave it. If only that was possible, right?
BQ: Michael, on a rather chilly autumnal, rainy, Manly beach morning – evening for you in the springtime in Kentucky – thank you so much for joining us, and as we say in the business, rock on!
MJ: Thank you very much, and as we say in my world, folk on!
*** Audio files will be removed at the end of February 2020 ***
Some other links:
Woodsongs Old Time Music Hour on Facebook
Michael Johnathon’s page on Facebook
Michael Johnathon’s Facebook alternative: FolkBook
And here’s the site where the interview was recorded.
Yes, that would be sound of waves in the background, lapping gently onto the shores of Manly Wharf beach in the early hours of ANZAC Day 2014 in the Antipodes. And yes, that red upturned kayak would be my recording studio chair!