Woodsongs Engineer Kevin Johnson dies; Memorial Fund established

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In Memory: Kevin “Darth Fader” Johnson
BY MICHAEL JOHNATHON

My friend Kevin Johnson was a big and friendly man, very round in spirit and girth. He had a heart as big as the great outdoors and a body to put it in. Kevin had a big smile, a big handshake, a big voice and had a knowledgeable laugh that had the patina of wisdom embedded in it.

photo RachelAubreyMusic Inc/Larry Steur

Kevin knew a lot about recording and sound. We worked together often and I would demo my songs and recorded a couple albums with Kevin. He had a little recording studio at the time called Planet III, nestled in a garden right behind a little cafe. I had this idea of a radio show and wanted to run it by him, so on this sunny autumn day I rang him up and met him at the Denny’s on Nicholasville Road and told him what I had in mind.

“You’re crazy, you know that,” was his response. “Everybody else will think you’re crazy, too.”

Then he blinked a few seconds and said, “I’m in.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “One of the blessings of good friends is that you can afford to be crazy with them.”

So on that sunny autumn day, we decided to be crazy, and thus was the birth of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. And, like he did with so many of his friends, he committed himself to it and donated the use of his little studio on Monday evenings so we could start producing this volunteer run show.

Let me clear: Kevin was the best audio engineer in the state of Kentucky. Because of his size and booming voice I would joke to him about sounding like Darth Vader on Star Wars. I watched him sit behind his audio board moving the channel faders up and down and soon enough we had his nickname set for life: Darth Fader.

He loved that goofy name.

And show by show, week by week, artist by artist he proved he was the best. Famous musicians like Judy Collins, Exile, Bela Fleck Ralph Stanley, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Kenny Loggins, Neko Case and Brandi Carlile trusted his ear. New artists that no one ever heard of came on the show and bowed to Kevin’s knowledge to make them sound good. Unknowns at the time like Nickel Creek, Jake Shimabukuro, The Kruger Brothers, Avett Brothers, Tommy Emmanuel, JJ Grey, and our friend Ben Sollee who came to WoodSongs as a scrappy, excited skinny 17-year-old kid whose cello was almost as big as he was.

Wherever ever I was performing around the country, on Sunday I would be back in Lexington on Monday for WoodSongs and Kevin “Darth Fader” Johnson was always there too.

Kevin volunteered his time, his Mondays, his heart and his wisdom to make WoodSongs grow and he was so proud of it. For over 700 shows, Kevin’s booming voice could be heard in the Kentucky Theatre and now the Lyric. His health and size didn’t always allow him to celebrate the growth of the show but when WoodSongs went to Ireland this summer, Kevin burst with pride for the ones he personally trained … Bryan Klausing, Brandon Eaves and Jerome “Cyber Boy” Gallt who ran the broadcast in his place. Kevin was very proud of his friends on the WoodSongs crew.

I have learned over the years that people work harder out of passion than they do payment. And Kevin was a very passionate man. Loyal. Committed. Involved. I have also learned that a close sister to passion is stubbornness.

Kevin was, in fact, one of the most stubborn fellows I knew.

But “stubbornness” is the cornerstone of “loyalty,” so my friend was one of the most honest and loyal men I knew as well.

As a technical engineer he was brilliant and, like many engineers, long winded and totally incapable of a simple answer. “Kevin, can I plug this in” would be the question. “What kind of plug? Is it grounded? Is the cable shielded? How many cycles is the power source? Is it a clean line?” would be his response, always ending with the same comment:

“It’s not that simple.”

“Well, dude, I just want to plug the ding-dang thing in,” says I.

Kevin Johnson was my friend, my brother, musical partner. He was my chief critic, number one nemesis, shelter-in-the-storm and most dependable companion.
It was also a sunny autumn day Monday, September 30th. It was 4 in the afternoon and I arrived at the Lyric Theatre, looking forward to seeing my big round friend walk down the aisle. He struggled so hard with his health this past year and we talked often about it. And after years of effort and disappointment, he was finally turning it around. He lost nearly 150 pounds this year. He looked better. He sounded better. His mood was tempered by the fact that he was finally feeling good.

He did it because he loved his son Taylor and wanted to set the right example. How proud he was of his boy, and Kevin beamed with pride when Taylor came with him to WoodSongs just a couple Mondays ago.

For over 732 shows, Kevin was the silent pilot behind the board allowing the world to listen to what WoodSongs had to offer.

But on that one sunny autumn day he didn’t walk down the aisle of the Lyric Theatre as expected. Instead, I got a call from the fire marshal telling me that my dear friend was gone. Kevin’s big heart ended its journey on that sunny autumn afternoon.

To his dad Harry, his mom Peggy, and especially his son Taylor … he loved you all so much. And in turn, you have so much to be proud of with Kevin.

Words do not come with ease right now. The world is so much smaller than it was a few days ago and words will not fill the silence that has fallen over everything at the moment. This week, at the show he helped start and nurtured since day one, Kevin’s friends and fellow crew members filled the theatre with applause in his honor … and the audience gave you a standing ovation. You deserved it.

Emerson also wrote: “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

I believe life exists in the confidence there is a tomorrow … and in the regret that we often miscalculate that. I hope I was as loyal and good a friend to you as you were to me.

This is a nice autumn day as I write this and I miss my friend. I will miss you always.

And yes, Kevin … it’s “that simple.”

Memorial Donations: “our friend Kevin Johnson was rich in friends but poor in material things. Donations are needed to help pay for Kevin’s funeral and, most especially, to set up a fund for his son Taylor. Can you kick in $5, $10 or more to help? In an age of dishonesty I can understand hesitance, so I am letting you all know that I am donating $150 because I know his situation to be true. You can make donations to the KEVIN JOHNSON MEMORIAL in person or by mail c/o Bank of Lexington 761 Corporate Dr Lexington KY 40503 or call (859) 219-2900.” — Michael Johnathon

A Memorial Benefit Concert is currently being organized. To receive information, email office@woodsongs.com, with “Darth Concert” in the subject line.

This article also appears on page 14 of the October 10, 2013 print edition of Ace.

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