Folksinger and performing arts entrepreneur Michael Johnathon discusses working in the rapidly changing music industry
By Ed Lane
Michael Johnathon is a folksinger, songwriter, concert performer, playwright and author who created and hosts the worldwide broadcast of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. The show is taped each week at the historic Kentucky Theatre in downtown Lexington and has a radio audience of more than a million listeners each week across 173 countries. Johnathon, who grew up in upstate New York, spent a short time in Texas as a DJ before deciding to pursue a career as a folksinger. He eventually settled in Mousie, Ky., and began traveling through the Appalachians to learn the music of the mountain people. Johnathon has performed at hundreds of colleges and fairs and been part of thousands of benefits for the homeless, farm families and women and children’s shelters, prompting Billboard Magazine to dub him as an “UnSung Hero.” Johnathon has been featured on CNN, TNN, CMT, AP, Headline News, NPR, Bravo and the BBC.
Ed Lane: Where were you born and how would you describe your early childhood?
Michael Johnathon: I was born in New York City. Don’t hold that against me. I grew up in upstate New York along the Hudson River. I come from a broken family background – a lot of alcoholism and violence in my family.
When I was a kid, my neighbor was someone we thought was crazy. He claimed to be a musician but played the banjo. He would show up at our school with an ax every time there was a thunderstorm and trees had fallen and help chop up the trees; it was creepy.
When I was 18, I moved to the Mexican border to work at a radio station. About three minutes each morning, I had to play an oldies record. I just happened to pick Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, and they had a song called “Turn! Turn! Turn!” I noticed on the record information the song was written by my crazy neighbor. I said, “Oh, that’s who Pete Seeger is.” I grew up next to a folk music legend and didn’t even know it.
EL: Do you feel like Seeger gave you an imprint that got you interested in folk music?
MJ: It did. For a specific reason, my real father died five days before I was born. I never knew my family or that my dad was not my biological father until I was 12. I always had this inner search for my father for tradition and a sense of from where I came; folk music provided that family and a sense of musical tradition and history. I felt like I belonged to something from a long time ago. For that reason, I gravitated heavily towards folk music, not just for the sound but also for the history of it.
EL: What got you interested in music?
MJ: As a kid I started out as a cartoonist. My hero was Charles Shultz and the “Peanuts” cartoon strip. I actually had a cartoon strip published in 17 newspapers in New York. I injured my left hand in a fall, and the doctor prescribed the guitar as exercise for my left hand. Making the cords was good therapy; that’s how my musical interest started, and I became fascinated with the musical side of myself.
EL: Did you have a god-given talent?
MJ: I sucked so bad. It came from hard work and wanting to.
EL: When did you decide your career was going to be focused on the performing arts?
MJ: When I realized that my neighbor Pete Seeger was a music legend. It was a musical evangelical moment if there could possibly be one, and within a few months I moved from Laredo, Texas, to Mousie, Ky.
I found Mousie by accident. Appalachia is where I wanted to go because that’s the cradle of America’s musical and artistic history. Every major artist made their sojourn to the Appalachian Mountains to learn from the isolation that the mountains had to offer.
Art is born of isolation, and that is why so much art and music comes from the mountains. The sense of family and community: People would sit on their front porches and play. The tradition of singing and playing music was very acceptable. The third element was a lot of the radio and TV signals did not enter the mountains. Reception was very bad, so to fulfill the human need for community and entertainment, the people provided it themselves.
EL: Did you develop a specific goal for your future in music, or did you experiment with a number of options?
MJ: I started going up and down the hollers’ in Mousie with my guitar and banjo knocking on doors. People would pull out their guitars and fiddles and teach me their old songs, I learned, like, 30 different versions of “Shady Grove,” and they’d tell me stories about Bill Monroe first coming through the county or Doctor Ralph Stanley – “He aint no real doctor you know.” And I’d learn about musicians I’d never heard of before like David Akeman, better known as “Stringbean,” and Uncle Dave Macon and folks like that. After about two years, I decided that my education was done.
I needed to get my butt to work, and I noticed a bunch of garbage in the creek. I decided to start singing about the environment. For the next four years, I was fully employed singing in 14 states to about three million people in schools, colleges and county fairs. Earth concerts were something I created, and they were underwritten by natural resource cabinets in the states, Pepsi, Ale 8 and McDonald’s.
If you can play to a thousand seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade kids, you can play to anybody. The concerts helped me hone my ability to stand on stage and not be afraid.
EL: Do any members of your family perform with you or help in running the business?
MJ: My daughter Rachel Aubrey has been on stage with me several times. She makes her living as a guitar teacher, and she’s sort of a bohemian artist. I love her to death and am very proud of her. She went to Bryan Station High School in the Spanish-immersion program. My little boy MichaelB is only 13. He’s a fine little guitar player. He plays a very solid rhythm, and he loves his dog Lilly and the log cabin.
EL: You are probably now best known in Kentucky for your long-term commitment to “WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour,” but the Troubadour Concert Series was your initial gig.
MJ: Troubadour Concert Series came first. I firmly believe every artist who is going to pursue a national career has to contribute something back to their hometown. Artists are very limited on what they can do in their hometown. Nobody is going to spend $20 on a ticket on a Friday night to come see Michael Johnathon when he’s going to be in aisle four of Kroger on Saturday morning. You have to get in your mind that you are a national artist, not a local artist. So to contribute to my hometown, I started the Troubadour Concert Series as a way to bring my friends to Lexington to perform.
Lexington was a venue-starved community that was not on the national touring circuit because there was no theater here large enough to profitably present artists. We used the Kentucky movie theater and have had everyone from Joan Baez to Bill Monroe, Indigo Girls, Merle Haggard; Bruce Hornsby was just there. We’ve produced over 300 concert performances at the Kentucky Theatre, and everyone who works on the series is a volunteer.
At first, Troubadour was underwritten by Budweiser – for about 10 years. Highbridge Springs has been the sole sponsor of the Troubadour Series for the last half decade. It’s a good deal for the sponsor, who gets a $400,000 ad package and sponsorship of the Troubadour Series for a $20,000 investment. It’s important to understand that the Kentucky Theater venue is small, and you can’t make an adequate profit in 700 seats. The upside profit is limited to $1,000, maybe $1,500, but you can lose your tail fast.
EL: What is the difference between Troubadour and WoodSongs?
MJ: WoodSongs attracts musicians from all over the world – guitarists from Australia, bluegrass bands from Japan, blues artists from Czechoslovakia, England, everywhere. They all perform for free.
Here’s how it works. First, I wrote a song called “WoodSongs,” celebrating this grassroots music world that I was in. Then, I wrote a companion book, which sold tens of thousands of copies. So, I knew there was an audience for it. Then I was on tour and listening to “Prairie Home Companion” on the way to a theater; I noticed Garrison Keeler was presenting the kind of music I loved. I thought how hard can it be to start a live audience show if you take the personality out and just focus on the music? So we started WoodSongs in Kevin Johnson’s recording studio behind Flag Fork Herb Farm off Broadway (in Lexington). From experience as a touring performer, I was aware that most artists on Monday are either on their way home from working or they are in a motel in Peoria desperately waiting for Wednesday.
I thought the odds were in my favor that Monday would work, and lo and behold the little recording studio was packed. So we moved to a bigger recording studio. Ultimately, Mayor Pam Miller gave us permission to move into the theater in the public library and it ‘reserved out’ for 57 weeks in a row. WoodSongs then moved to the Kentucky Theatre where it now is. The audience comes to see artists they don’t know sing songs they’ve never heard. The artists who come are flabbergasted to perform to a sold-out audience on a Monday night.
WoodSongs gets several hundred submissions a month. People don’t get on the show just because they are in the area – they have to be good.
EL: Do you have a committee that reviews the submissions for WoodSongs?
MJ: Yes. They bring to me what they think are the best, and I’m the one who is responsible for the final selection.
Only two artists – bands or single artists are on each show. When someone like Judy Collins comes on the show, I’ll devote the entire broadcast to her. Here’s an icon of American music who flys her staff to Lexington for no fee. She is not paid, and she has been to WoodSongs three times.
EL: What kind of feedback do you get from artists after they appear on WoodSongs?
MJ: The reason that top performing artists keep coming back is because WoodSongs works. WoodSongs has become important because of the collapse of the music business. The portals for artists to get in front of large audiences have become limited and difficult. Radio play lists are controlled by consultants, and venues are shutting down all over North America because people don’t go out much anymore.
We’re living among the first generation in human history that gets most of its art and music in a two-dimensional form – ear buds and iPods, IPhones, flat screens, and movies. WoodSongs does both – it gives the regional audience a chance for three-dimensional art. In the two-dimensional broadcast, we’re encouraging the audience to play their own music. The greatest audience in the world is your children – sing to them, teach them to play, let it be a family thing. Your music is just as important as the star’s music.
EL; It appears you have successfully utilized the Internet, webcasts, iTunes, You Tube, XM radio, LinkedIn and other social media to promote your career and business. How has technology changed your business model over the years?
MJ: The WoodSongs audience can go and watch 600 shows on the archive webpage – for free. The business model is barter. The show is sponsored and underwritten by the audience that buys a ticket. Most of the ticket buyers are WoodSongs partners, and they are there for $1.
Commercial radio stations get the show for free; 90 million homes across the United States can watch the show on PBS, public television gets it for free. The American Forces Radio Network reaches 173 nations – every military base and the U.S. Navy at sea. The public can go online and stream it, download it, go to the archive page, sign up for the podcast subscription – also for free. The crew does not get paid. The artists who come on the show come for free at their own expense. The local hotels put them up for free; local restaurants bring meals to the theater and feed them for free. The currency for WoodSongs is love. It was the only business model that would create a juggernaut that would assemble 150-200 million listeners and viewers, which becomes an incredibly valuable property.
The WoodSongs crew is really the biggest story of the “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.” Most of them are students, housewives and normal retired folks and business people who leave their jobs and come to the show and learn how to do what they are doing. The woman who is charge of the national television broadcast is Kamilla Olsen; she initially did not know how to run a TV camera. Kamilla and her crew just won the 2012 National Telly Award for the WoodSongs TV broadcast. Our amateur volunteers beat out all the highly funded professional national shows to win the Telly award.
Tellyawards.com is the television industry’s version of the Grammy.
EL: Based on your efforts as a “performing arts entrepreneur” what recommendations or suggestions would you give a young person who has a dream and desire to create a musical career?
MJ: Love it. Love wins, teaches, overcomes disappointment, and love supersedes “no.” We have all been told “no” a lot, and unless you love what you do “no” will win. But if you love what you do, “no” can’t touch you.
EL: During your two decades in show biz, what was the most difficult issue you had to manage?
MJ: In the early 1990s, I had a record deal and it didn’t work out. I put all my hopes and dreams in that first national release and worked so hard on it. I was doing great before the record deal, and then Billboard Magazine came out with this huge full-page feature story on me, this folk singer roaming the mountains. I had the number five music video on television at the time and making all this noise. The headline was “Unsigned Artist is Unsung Hero.” Every record company in the world came calling, and I signed with an affiliate of Capitol Records. It didn’t work out, and I thought that was the end for me. I was a folk singer, and they were trying to turn me into something I wasn’t.
But what I ended up doing was creating my own record company, Poetman Records USA. So now I’m a successful folk singer with a staff; what the heck – hahaha. But I control everything that I do now – my personal career, publishing, management, publicity, record sales, design, sound, what is recorded and what is not. It is my domain; nobody tells me what to do. Each record sells enough to begat the next album. This is my 11th album. I open every WoodSongs show with one of my songs.
EL: How do you market today?
MJ: Things have really changed; again it’s the collapse of the music business that has made WoodSongs important. Record labels are folding left and right, and even the big labels can’t sign artists because they aren’t selling enough CDs because there’s no stores. But I have something unique – a worldwide commercial called WoodSongs that drives people to our website. And most artists don’t have that. So we’re able to function because we have this huge built-in audience. My new album, “Front Porch,” has been successful. Last year I recorded and released an opera with a full symphony and opera singers. University of Kentucky Director of Opera Everett McCorvey helped me. Singers Greg Turay and Nicholas Provenzale and the opera singers sang the opera. For a folk singer to write a traditional symphonic opera is pretty amazing. Everett has some of the best talent; UK is on the cutting edge of the opera world.
EL: Do you have a closing comment?
MJ: Kentucky is the most fertile, artistic paradise in North America. The untapped potential here is amazing. The WoodSongs crew is incredible, and what the community does to support the arts is not duplicated easily anywhere else in the nation. If WoodSongs converts to a high-definition television program, Kentucky is going to have a worldwide broadcast bigger than a “Prairie Home Companion” and the “Grand Ole Opry” combined. WoodSongs would reach over 120 million TV homes in North America.
Right now WoodSongs on TV is standard-def. The conversion cost to high-definition is about $200,000. The clock is ticking. Growing WoodSongs’ audience by converting to digital TV will further help promote Kentucky and boost tourism in the state. The size of the hall is irrelevant to the size of the media audience. WoodSongs wants 2.5 or 3 million people watching the show each week.
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