BY KIM THOMAS
In outer space, stars are born all the time. Turbulence from within a dust cloud causes it to collapse, releasing energy, and, in turn, becomes a star. In the music cosmos, the path to stardom is made a bit easier by lights and sound. WoodSongs Old-Time Radio shines a light on countless musicians you might not know (yet). You might have never heard of some of them (yet). But with its all volunteer crew and founder, Michael Johnathon, the show will soon celebrate its 1000th show in Lexington.
In the post-reality-tv landscape of music competition, there are many paths to stardom. Kacey Musgraves was awarded this year’s album of the year, but Woodsongs audiences know her from her performance on the show, along with some unknowns and some famous performers. A regular attendee may have seen Frank Stanley, Rhonda Vincent, Hayseed Dixie, Blind Boys of Alabama —you can name drop all day if you’ve been part of the Monday night crowd.
Every Monday night at the historic Lyric Theater in Lexington, there’s a live show broadcast around the world, and the entire performance is made even better by the work of the all volunteer crew of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. On November 19, 2019, the crew led by WoodSongs’ founder, emcee Michael Johnathon, will broadcast its 1000th episode from the historic Lyric Theatre. WoodSongs celebrates grass roots music, and often the best singer/songwriters in the music business are guests on the best thing that ever happened to Mondays, WoodSongs.
Johnathon reminisces about the modest beginnings of a few bands. “I can think of several. We were one of the first shows to have a little band from the west coast, fresh from appearing at a pizza parlor, called Nickel Creek. They had a really fine mandolin player, a teenager named Chris Thile. They were on the same show with another group no one ever heard of called the Kruger Brothers.”
“Another example was a 16 year old boy who appeared as one of the very first ‘WoodSongs Kids.’ He stayed with WoodSongs as part of our house band until Abigail Washburn snatched him away. Now he is a successful musician and a dad named Ben Sollee.”
He adds, “I guess a third was an Australian guitar player that came on the show because a friend convinced him he should. He is now considered one of the greatest guitar players on earth and he’s been on WoodSongs 11 times, Tommy Emmanuel.”
WoodSongs’ photographer Larry Neuzel admits Emmanuel was a surprise. “The first time that I took some photos at Woodsongs, I didn’t know who the artist was until Michael made the announcement on stage. It was Tommy Emmanuel…and I thought ‘Wow, he was at UK not long ago, and he is pretty famous.’ That was in January of 2010, Neuzel added.
Exile has appeared several times on the show, with local guitarist JP Pennington sitting in with the WoodSongs house band from time to time. Marlon Hargis says, in offering the band’s congratulations for the upcoming milestone, “Can’t speak for the other guys, but Tommy Emmanuel would have to be my favorite artist I’ve seen on the show.”
Asked if their drummer played with Exile when they appear on the acoustic show, Hargis stressed, “We always perform as a full band, but in a more acoustic setting. I’ve always thought the house and broadcast mixes were very good!”
Hargis applauds the team that puts the show together. “The volunteer crew always does a great job.”
In the early days, Riders in the Sky performed through a fire alarm set off by a kid at the Kentucky Theater. Johnathon related another memorable experience. Acts are memorable for different reasons. Johnathon recalls, “I think Jimmy Ray Vaughan would have been the loudest but since we moved into the Lyric Theatre, with a better sound system, a bigger stage and the expertise of Jerome Gallt at the audio desk, it was fine.”
As one thousand shows have come and gone, WoodSongs is a predictable way to experience musical chaos every Monday night if you live in Lexington. The guest artists could be a famous group such as Kentucky’s own Exile or the legendary Wanda Jackson.
The WoodSongs audience is made up of partners, who pay no admission but pay an annual subscription fee at a bargain rate that covers their admission every week. The WoodSongs crew are community leaders and helpful students who want to learn a craft in the music industry. The show is broadcast on over 500 radio stations, can be seen on public television stations, and is transmitted to the entire United States military.
After 9/11, WoodSongs featured a punk bagpipe band from Scotland, offering a welcome diversion at a painful time. Brenda and John Peterson became partners in 2001, “because we love live music. We would walk from our house to the Kentucky Theater every Monday night.” Brenda says her favorite star was Odetta…”but my husband would say the Fairfield Four.” She appreciates the dedication of the fantastic all volunteer crew. “The folks on the stage who make WoodSongs happen may never know what the performance means to people in the audience. After my son’s death, WoodSongs every Monday night was a bright spot during a very bleak time.”
Pamela Tyler was a stage manager for the volunteer crew for over five years, as she worked to earn her PhD at UK. I She “was one of three new volunteers that first night,” after Woodsongs moved from the library to the Kentucky Theatre. She recalls, “the other two new volunteers were Roy Stout (now deceased) and Scott Gettsinger. I was thrilled—and actually quite proud—to become a part of this ‘little gem’ (Woodsongs has grown considerably since then). I recall thinking the Lexington community was incredibly fortunate to have Woodsongs.”
Tyler gives kudos to the team, saying, “It was amazing how different we could be and yet we were all brought together for our love of music and the purpose of making every show a great show. Roy and I were great buddies, especially bonded because we started volunteering on the same night.I rode with him when we took the show to Nashville and we had deep discussions about the world. I found Roy was so much more than I realized during that trip…and learned more yet, reading his obituary. Kevin Johnson was the soul of the show. It’s still hard to believe he is gone. And there have been other special crew members—Larry Steur, Dr. Bob DeMattina… I can just tell you that it is work, make no mistake about it. But we all did it with the knowledge that we were a viable part of the whole; WoodSongs could not be if it wasn’t for us and we took that seriously. My wish is for Woodsongs to keep growing, remain open to new music, and to continue to bring the songs of the world to its stage.”
Bryan Klausing says, “I’ve been with WoodSongs since its very early days when we were at Kevin Johnson’s recording studio on North Broadway. The first show I attended was with Kentucky legend Homer Ledford. During the week I handle booking, advancing the show which means coordinating with tour managers and labels about the logistics for getting artists to Lexington, etc. On show days, I serve as stage and production manager which translates to a little bit everything.”
Some of Klausing’s favorite memories include, “my wife and I providing ground transportation for folk legend Odetta, my first phone chat with Sam Bush during my summer internship, plus Norah Jones, Brandi Carlile, watching a WoodSongs Kid bring down the house, and one of Rick Danko’s final performances at the Farish Theater.”
As for his pride in the team, he says, “Not many could pull off what we do week after week. Case in point,
a sold out Opera House show on Mountain Top Removal that featured Emmylou Harris, Nikky Finney and John Adams from the NRDC that won a Telly Award. Or a complex double broadcast celebration of bluegrass music in Dublin, Ireland featuring multiple artists. Filling the Lyric regularly is a testament to our hometown of Lexington and how passionate we are about music.”
As the 1000 WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour milestone approaches, Lexington has become known for this weekly venue for worldwide exposure, where the motto is, “You don’t have to be famous; you just have to be good!” WoodSongs still lives up to its billing as “the best thing that ever happened to a Monday!
WoodSongs 1000th Show is Tuesday, November 19 at the Lyric Theatre. Audience please be seated by 6:45PM
This article also appears on page 9 of the November 2019 print edition of Ace Weekly.
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