Q & A with Michael Johnathon of Woodsongs



By Donald Mason

The great thing about local music festivals is that they seem to have many local artists perform. Festivals such as Forecastle as well as HullabaLOU feature several Lexington acts. One of the most notable Lexington acts that will be playing at HullabaLOU is Michael Johnathon, founder and host of the Woodsongs Radio Hour.

Johnathon is an accomplished musician, with nine albums, including the upcoming release “Ravenwood,” and is a prolific writer, with the play “Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau” firmly under his belt.

Johnathon sat down with the Kernel as he was getting things ready for Joan Baez to take the Opera House stage for a Troubadour Series concert, the 299th of the series.

Q. How did HullabaLOU target you to be on the lineup?

A. They called my agent and made it happen. Looking to make an interesting day of it. I am a folk singer that plays the banjo with a string quartet, so they thought that would liven up the Bluegrass stage, not straight Bluegrass.

Q. Who are you excited to see at HullabaLOU?

A. I’ve worked with the Avett Brothers, they’ve been on Woodsongs three times. Rhonda Vincent has been on Woodsongs five times and is coming back in October. These are all friends of mine. Ben Sollee used to be my cellist on the broadcast, you know, and I am so proud he is taking off the way he is. I think because the classic nature of what she represents, I think Loretta Lynn is a special, that’s a special performance. This is a uniquely rare moment to see something of true legacy.

Q. How do you see the current generation absorbing their music, and how does a festival like HullabaLOU give an outlet?

A. Life moves at cyber speed. This is the first generation that is receiving all of their art in a two-dimensional art form. Young kids today don’t experience three-dimensional art. They hear an artist through their ear buds on their iPods and iPads and go check them out on YouTube, (they) don’t go check them out at a club. I think events like HullabaLOU is a great opportunity for families to enjoy music as a three-dimensional art form. A lot of it.

Q. Talking about your new album “Ravenwood” coming out soon, you wanted to make an album that felt like you were playing in a cabin in the woods. How did you get to the mindset to go to that good place?

A. I just came off of doing the big “Walden” play production, which was a play I wrote about Henry David Thoreau’s final two days in a cabin at Walden woods before he left. He was there for two years, two months and two days, so the play is the final two days before he left Walden pond.

I am a tree hugger by nature, not the political kind, just the kind that loves the Earth. “Ravenwood” is the cabin in your heart; it’s the cabin in your mind, no matter where you live. It’s the cottage in the woods of your spirit, even though you may be living in an urban condo, third-floor high-rise. We need that centered place.

Q. You performed the song “Cars” on Woodsongs and infused comedy with musicianship. What kind of response or feedback have you had from that?

A. “Cars” has gone viral, cool internet song, radio is catching up with it. The national syndicated show “Car Talk” just featured the song on the air for the second time. As of this week, it’s on the New Music Weekly Top 30 for country radio, so its getting commercial country airplay, which is strange because I’m not a country artist.

It features JP Pennington, the founding member of Exile, which is a country band, and John McEuen from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. To me, the song “Cars” is an ironic way to prais the greenness of the modern car. If you listen to the song, it’s praising the efficiency of the modern car and lamenting the fact that they’re just not cool anymore.

Nothing compares to a 1968 Mustang 4-speed convertible. Nothing will. The era of the fun, sexy car is gone, as it should be, but it’s a shame. It’s a shame that we haven’t managed our resources in a way so we can still have fun.

Q. Any surprises from the new album being received?

A. I was interested that XM Radio has picked up “The Ballad of Bojangles” because that is a complete rewrite of the classic Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” It’s taking his story and completely rewriting it, from scratch. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had the original hit of “Mr. Bojangles” and John MeEuen of the NGDB is performing with me on the rewritten ballad of Bojangles, validating the effort.

I was a little concerned. It’s like doing a complete rewrite of “Stairway to Heaven.” You know, who in the heck do you think you are? It’s a tribute to Jerry Jeff Walker, one of our finest Texan songwriters. It’s an American classic song and the fact that it’s number three on XM Radio is a validation for me as a songwriter.

Q. Have any other festivals or projects this summer?

A. I just came back from the Gamble Rogers Folk Festival in St. Augustine, just did the Florida Folk Festival, doing HullabaLOU. I do about 70 concert dates a year, 44 Woodsongs, record an album, do a “Walden” play. It’s pretty busy, but it’s fun.

Q. You wouldn’t change it for the world, I’m sure.

A. Not hardly, not hardly at all.