Produced by folksinger Michael Johnathon in Lexington, Kentucky
There’s no other show like it in the world. The weekly live audience broadcast of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, produced and hosted by folksinger Michael Johnathon since 1998, records its 1,000th show on November 19 featuring the legendary cowboys, Riders In The Sky.
Thousands of local and national musicians performing folk and Americana music have graced the stage over the past 20 years.
The idea for WoodSongs was humbly born in the tiny basement workshop of Homer Ledford in Winchester, where he made banjos, mandolins, fiddles and dulcimers. “And somewhere in the conversation, amidst the wood chips and the musical instruments and linseed oil, a new word popped into my head, “WoodSong,” Johnathon says.
The first recording was made in Kevin Johnson’s small recording studio, which seated about 12 people, located off North Broadway in Lexington, nestled behind a little cafe. Johnson became the chief engineer from day one and remained so until his death in 2013. One small college radio station was willing to air WoodSongs in 2002.
Today, WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour airs on 537 radio stations, including 650 AM WSM—home of the Grand Ole Opry—nationwide on PBS television and the RFD TV network, and worldwide in 177 countries on American Forces Radio network. It’s also free with lesson plans to schools and home-schooled students nationwide.
Why WoodSongs is successful
“The fact that it’s happening in middle America, Lexington, Kentucky, instead of a big major city like Nashville, Los Angeles or New York, is pretty incredible,” says Johnathon. “It’s even more incredible that it’s all done by volunteers. Everything associated with the show is volunteer run: the crew, the artists, me, the Lyric Theatre, the hotels the artists stay in, the restaurants that bring full meals for the crew and artists the day of the show. It goes free to public radio, free to public TV and free to the American Forces Radio network.”
Johnathon says the show continues to be successful because nobody does anything in the arts—including the audience—because of marketing. “Love is the greatest transaction of the arts. They do it because they love something,” he says.
WoodSongs is different than all other live audience radio broadcasts, such as the Grand Ole Opry, explains Johnathon, where the concert is set to the theater and the radio audience listens. Or, Austin City Limits, where the TV audience is listening.
“WoodSongs reversed that and we include a conversation to the artist,” Johnathon says. “They get to know them, they get to understand them, they get to hear their history and hear what makes them love what they are doing. The stories of the artists are as powerful and important as the music. When the audience ties those two things together, that’s where the love transaction comes in.”
Johnathon says in a world where there are no more record store chains left in America, the audience now receives their music without even holding anything in their hand, so you cannot separate the artist story from the artist music anymore. It becomes more powerful and more important to understand both, and WoodSongs is different because it provides both.
Every Monday night, 44 times a year, WoodSongs fills the 540-seat Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center in Lexington with all ages. Prior to 2013, WoodSongs was broadcast from Lexington’s Kentucky Theatre and the Central Library.
Why Monday night? Johnathon says, that’s because artists typically perform Wednesday night through the weekend and they are either on their way back home on Sunday or stuck in a hotel waiting for their Wednesday show. Likewise, Johnathon, the crew and volunteers are also available on Monday evening. Hotel rooms, provided free for visiting artists thanks to the partnership with the Bluegrass Hospitality Association and VisitLex.com, are also lightly booked on Monday nights.
Johnathon thinks WoodSongs is excellent for Kentucky tourism because the music is presented in a non-haybale, elegant way, and it presents Kentucky as a center of front porch music.
“I honestly believe that Kentucky is probably one of the only places in America that would have given birth to anything like WoodSongs. It’s the kind of people and the attitude. You have volunteers that have done 994 of these shows for free,” says Johnathon. “Where else in America are you going to find a community that invested in their own love of art and in their hometown to do that?”
Beyond WoodSongs’ live broadcast
Johnathon’s passion for music and the arts pushed him to make the recordings available to teachers and homeschools nationwide. Through a partnership with the University of Kentucky, teachers create lesson plans which are available for free to teachers of middle-, high- and college-level classes through WoodSongs in the Classroom. UK validates the educational nature of the program.
“Kids are everything. Kids should be invited to this musical front porch of ours,” Johnathon says.
“Music and arts still get decimated in school budgets, so this is a way for them to use this program to inspire and encourage kids to not only listen to, but to play music,” he continues.
Because of the Classroom program, for the past four years Johnathon has featured a child musician on every WoodSongs live broadcast, who performs with seasoned touring artists.
“Bringing kid performers on the broadcast is probably one of the biggest changes. Otherwise, the format is exactly the same as it’s always been,” he says.
In October 2018, Johnathon began a tour of live symphony orchestras with a concert theme of Songs of Rural America featuring the front porch songs and stories of America’s music, also available on CD. The 2019 Songs of Rural America, with The Ohio Valley Symphony, will air on PBS and the RFD TV network in late November.
Johnathon also tours and produces music under his label, PoetMan Records USA, and is raising 5-year-old twins with wife, Melissa. Check out his newest CD, Dazed & Confused, ($10) which features songs Log Cabin Twins and Melissa’s Song. His fourth book, WoodSongs 4, which includes the Dazed & Confused CD, ($20) also recently came out under PoetMan Records.
And, with little ones under foot once again (Johnathon has three grown children), it didn’t take long for him to produce a children’s book. Mousie HiWay: The Adventures of Banjo Mouse in the Appalachian Mountains, which came out in early 2018, features an audio reading of the story and music from woodland pals performed by Johnathon and others.
Johnathon’s newest creation is screenwriting and producing an independent major motion picture which tells the moving true story of Alice Lloyd, the founder of Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes. Still in the fundraising stage, it is told in two parallel stories—the historical account in black and white and the 1955 real-time event in color as Lloyd travels by train bound for California to appear on the television show, This is Your Life, which ultimately saves the college. (Go to CaneyCreekMovie.com for more about the movie, Caney Creek: The Ballard of Alice Lloyd.)
The connection: In 1986 Johnathon moved from upstate New York to Mousie, Kentucky, in Knott County; in 1916 Alice Lloyd, of Boston, moved to nearby Hindman and started the small mountain school in Appalachia.
Tickets to the WoodSongs 1,000th show
The 1,000th show is sure to be a memorable night. In order to book the nationally known Riders In The Sky for the 1,000th show, WoodSongs is moving the broadcast to Tuesday night, November 19, instead of the traditional Monday night. Doors will open at 6:20 p.m. for the 6:45 p.m. show (15 minutes earlier than usual) and tickets are $35 general admission; $25 for WoodSongs Partners.
“Of all the artists to celebrate the 1,000th broadcast with, I could not think of any other best to represent the spirit and passion of WoodSongs than Riders In The Sky,” says Johnathon. “They are not only friends who have been on the show before, but they had their own live-audience radio broadcast and perform regularly on the Grand Ole Opry. Plus, they are a lot of fun.”
More about WoodSongs and Michael Johnathon
WoodSongs.com: Listen to archives of more than 800 WoodSongs shows, check the schedule of artists and to purchase tickets to upcoming show, and learn more about the WoodSongs in the Classroom program and 1,000th show.
WoodSongs 1000: Download a free 32-page supplement to WoodSongs 4, which provides the history of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour with photos.
Join WoodSongs Partners: For $95 a year, a couple can become members to support the education program and radio and TV broadcasts, in exchange for coming to over 40 shows a year for free.
For general public tickets, call (859) 280-2218 after 1 p.m. Tickets to the live show production, 44 Mondays a year, are usually $10. Doors open at 6:20 p.m. and the audience must be seated before 6:45 p.m. Live broadcast at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E Third, Lexington KY 40508.
MichaelJohnathon.com: Read Johnathon’s bio, booking information, purchase CDs, books, and more.