Human Interest Story No. 9 of 2013: 'WoodSongs' global radio show comes to Ozark Folk Festival

Friday, December 27, 2013 ~ Updated 2:46 PM
Chip Ford / Lovely County Citizen

The Auditorium in Eureka Springs is packed for a performance and live recording of the internationally broadcast radio and TV program, "WoodSongs."

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Michael Johnathon's "WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour" headlined this year's Ozark Folk Festival, which took place Oct. 23 through 27.

It was not Johnathon's first stop at The Aud.

"I was there about a year and a half ago, and I did a concert at The Aud," he said, before calling the Eureka Springs' downtown area "adorable."

"I loved the people, I loved the music," Johnathon added. "Eureka Springs is a perfect place for WoodSongs to come."

Johnathon said City Advertising and Promotion Commissioner Charles Ragsdell and other Eureka tourism officials approached him a year and a half ago at a WoodSongs recording in Little Rock about coming to the folk festival.

"They said, 'Please give us some time so we can bring it to Eureka Springs,'" Johnathon said.

On Oct. 26 at The Aud, WoodSongs taped two shows for listeners (and online viewers) on radio stations around the world (including KUAF in Fayetteville), the American Forces Radio Network, Blue Highways TV Network and public TV stations nationwide.

The shows recorded at The Aud featured a celebration of Ozark folk music, and Johnathon encouraged locals -- especially families -- to come out and enjoy the performances.

"Parents should bring their children to this," he said before the recordings. "It should give them a real sense of pride in being from the Ozarks."

Johnathon said they received hundreds of submissions from Ozarks-based musicians to perform on WoodSongs at The Aud.

"Anybody and everybody with a CD sent it in," he said. "We got a huge pile of CDs, and we picked what I thought were the best."

For the smaller bands performing on the show, this meant exposure on a national level. WoodSongs has over 500 radio affiliates and is carried on Armed Forces Radio Network. The show has more than 2 million listeners each week, and its accompanying TV show is carried on the Public Broadcasting System, with each show being broadcast twice.

WoodSongs has recorded more than 700 shows since the program began in 1999, on Georgetown College's WRZG radio station in Georgetown, Ky.

"We used to give them the show on cassette tape," Johnathon laughed.

"We've gone from 15 to 20 people crammed in that studio to a 500-person theater in Lexington, Ky.," he added. "It just grew really fast."

Johnathon started his days as a radio DJ just after graduating from high school, when a friend gave him a line on a job at KVOZ in Texas.

"A friend of mine thought I would have fun with it," he said. "Like many 18-year-olds, I was just looking for something to get me out of my parents' house."

So Johnathon drove 44 hours straight, from his hometown of Beacon, N.Y., to Laredo, Texas.

One night, he played "Turn, Turn, Turn" by the '60s folk-rock group The Byrds. As the song played, he recalled seeing the songwriter, his Beacon neighbor Pete Seeger, performing in his hometown in New York.

"I didn't even know he was Pete Seeger," Johnathon recalled of his childhood.

By the time the song had ended that night in Texas, he decided to pursue a career as a folk singer.

Shortly after that night, Johnathon moved to Mousy, Ky., and explored the folk music scene.

"I started playing music with my neighbors there," he said.

Johnathon said he and his fellow musicians started to notice that it was harder to get on the radio, giving him the idea to start WoodSongs.

"We needed a gateway to the audience that would respect the art," Johnathon said. "That's all I want WoodSongs to be about -- who's good."

Ahead of the WoodSongs show, Johnathon and other festival acts gave a free show at Basin Spring Park on Oct. 25.

"I'm excited about playing at the folk festival Friday night," he said earlier that week.

For more information about the Ozark Folk Festival or WoodSongs, visit www.OzarkFolkFestival.com or www.WoodSongs.com.

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