If there's one maxim which seems to guide Kentucky-based singer-songwriter Michael Johnathon it would have to be, "How hard can it be to...". For it's that phrase which has lead to the creation of "The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour", a live program heard on 537 public radio stations and the American Forces Radio Network, and seen on public television stations and on the RFD-TV Network. He's also created the new "WoodSongs Kids" program on radio and TV, written a screenplay, a stage play, an opera, six books and founded a national organization called "SongFarmers".
And oh yes, he just released his 20th album, Garden Of Silence. When asked if was surprised he's been able to release this many albums, he replied, "Everybody knows that everything you do costs something. I am shocked we were able to, not just write the songs, but pay to have the darn thing done. This is a difficult market for artists and musicians right now. It's really tough and my heart bleeds for so many of my friends. So to have a 20th album, I feel very lucky to have the support of an audience that allows any artist to do an album."
The title song deals with the day Vincent van Gogh died. It's somewhat of a surprising topic given Michael's last album, The Painter, was itself a musical tribute to the Dutch painter.
"When the pandemic hit I started oil painting," he recalls. "I had to do something creative with my time. I got intrigued with the story of van Gogh and what he went through as an artist. His most famous painting is 'Starry Night' and he tried to give it away three times as a gift. Today it's insured for a billion dollars. So I came out with the book WoodSongs 5 and The Painter album, which was sort of a musical tribute to van Gogh and all artists. When it was time to do the Garden Of Silence album I knew the title song would be the one song I did not write for The Painter."
So Michael had the album title, the artwork and all the songs done. Except the title song. For inspiration he travelled to The Detroit Institute of Arts, the first public museum in the U.S. to purchase a van Gogh painting, to see their exhibition, "Van Gogh In America".
"They had 24 van Gogh paintings," Michael says. "When you're standing in front of the paintings it's awe inspiring. I came home, sat in front of my wood stove and wrote the title cut in 10 minutes."
For 'Seeger Mashup', Michael combined two of his favourite Pete Seeger songs, 'Where Have All The Flowers Gone' and 'Sailing Down My Golden River'.
"I wanted to do something in tribute to Pete and noticed the two songs have the exact same chord patterns. Just different melodies."
Growing up in New York State's Hudson Valley, Michael had aspirations to be a successful cartoonist. Pete Seeger happened to be a neighbour.
"I had a cartoon strip published in 17 newspapers. I wanted to 'be' Charles Schulz," says Michael. "Pete with his kindness and example was very influential for me. Not so much musical as it was career-wise. The concept of doing good things with music."
The idea for "The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour" came to him while touring with Judy Collins and hearing Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" for the first time.
"Judy was talking about how much fun it was when she did it," Michael recalls. "I thought it would be interesting to have a show like that but without the stories. Pete and Toshi Seeger had put together a thing called 'Rainbow Quest' in 1965 and '66 which was kinda the same thing Garrison was doing. Pete would sit around a picnic table in a TV studio and it would be performance and conversation. I thought, 'How hard can it be to create a syndicated live-audience radio show?'. So we created 'The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour'."
Besides the wide avenues of exposure the programs enjoys on radio and TV, it's also available in schools with lesson plans for teachers to use. The newest program Michael has created is the "WoodSongs Kids" show.
"What I started doing several years ago was I'd invite a youngster from somewhere in America to come on and play one song in the presence of the seasoned touring artists who were on 'WoodSongs'. People like Tommy Emmanuel or Roger McGuinn or Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. That segment became hugely popular, especially on TV 'cause these kids are adorable. But they're really good! So I thought, 'How hard can it be to create a second live-audience radio and TV series but only about the kids?'."
"WoodSongs Kids" already runs on public radio and begins airing on public television on May 15th. The amazing thing about both "WoodSongs" programs is they are both completely volunteer-run.
"Nobody's getting paid a penny, not even the artists who come on the show," says Michael. "It goes free to radio, free to TV, free to American Forces Radio Network. Now you know why 'folk' rhymes with 'broke'."
In recognition for all of Michael's work, "The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour" is being inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in Renfro Valley. It will also be the site of The National SongFarmers Gathering on May 12th and 13th.
"It's so hard to be an artist right now because there's so few ways to make a financial transaction," Michael explains. "Cars and computers don't have CD players, the audience has become used to not getting CDs and albums, so it's hard to make a living. I was looking at all these wonderful musicians and songwriters and I thought, 'How hard can it be to create a national organization that brings this community of front porch musicians together to do good work? Not to sell anything, just do good work and gather their friends and families together on the figurative, spiritual front porch. Once a month gather your friends together, sit in a big circle and sing the same songs together as a community."
At the moment there are 91 active chapters stretching from Australia, across the U.S. and reaching all the way to Ireland. Members of the SongFarmers will receive two free tickets for the weekend of the gathering.
"Again...you know why 'folk' rhymes with 'broke'."
It's Michael's commitment to doing good work for the community that lead him to organize relief efforts for musicians in the area who lost instruments because of natural disasters.
"Well I was wondering, 'How hard can it be?'," he laughs, "to take the community that love, build and collect instruments nationwide and hand them out free to the musicians who lost everything in tornadoes and floods. Once they figure out how they're going to drive and where they're going to live, what are they missing in their life? It's the music they used to play. That's what makes home feel like home."
Michael's sense of community all comes down to people gathering together to share music, share stories and finding a common bond.
"I believe in the music of the front porch. That spiritual, emotional, musical stage that represents family, home, neighbours and friends. Every artist and musician should understand that good work is better than a hit record, good work is more important than a hit record and good work is just as valuable as having a hit record."
For more on Michael Johnathon and Garden Of Silence, go to michaeljohnathon.com.