Music Stars Making A Social Impact: Why & How Michael Johnathon of WoodSongs Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan


Stay in tune. Never play for the money. Be kind and honest to all.

As a part of our series about music stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michael Johnathon.

Among the throngs of artists in the music world, few have elevated “dreaming” to such a high art form as folk singer Michael Johnathon. Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised upstate near Beacon, Michael relocated to outside of Lexington, Kentucky in 1995. He recently won the prestigious Milner Award of the Arts in 2020, presented by Governor Andy Beshear in Kentucky. He is also the screenwriter for the upcoming Caney Creek motion picture, a touring songwriter, author of five published books, playwright of the Walden Play performed in 42 countries, composer of the opera, Woody: For the People, organizer of the national association of front porch musicians called SongFarmers, the full symphony performances of SONGS OF RURAL AMERICA and as the creator and host of the live audience broadcast of the WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour with a radio audience of over two million listeners each week on 500 public radio stations, public television coast-to-coast, American Forces Radio Network in 173 nations and now on the RFD-TV Network nationwide. As Bob Spear of Heartland Review once wrote, “Take the inventiveness of Bob Dylan, the melodic voice of John Denver, add the showmanship of Garrison Keillor … and that’s Michael Johnathon.”

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

It’s great to meet you, thank you for being interested. I grew up along the Hudson River in upstate New York with a troubled, broken family. My neighbor was a nice older fellow who claimed to be a musician … but he played the banjo.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My neighbor had a lot to do with it. After high school, a friend called me up and said, “Dude, do you want to be a DJ at a radio station along the Mexican border?” So I hopped in my little car and drove 44 hours straight to Laredo, Texas. After a few months on the air I had to play an “oldie” which by chance was Roger McGuinn and the Byrds “Turn, Turn, Turn.” As the song played, I noticed on the information card it was written by my neighbor. And I said to myself, “Oh, so THAT’s who Pete Seeger is …”

My banjo-playing neighbor was famous and I didn’t realize it. To a red-blooded teenager with raging hormones, we didn’t consider it a “real” instrument” unless you could plug it in. Pete Seeger changed my opinion. I now play guitar and banjo, as did Pete.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

After I called up Pete and said I finally realized who he was, I told him I wanted to be a folksinger. I didn’t really know what that was, but he told me to move into the Appalachian mountains. I settled in a tiny mountain hamlet called “Mousie, KY.”, I moved into the mountains of Appalachia after talking to Pete Seeger on the phone. I roamed the mountains worth my guitar and banjo learning everything I could about the music and traditions.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Easy. When I landed in the mountains to become a folk singer the first thing I found out was there are no places to play. No jobs. No gigs. Nothing. So I had to create my own. I decided to perform in schools and created a simple concert set about the Earth and environment. I went to my first school, scared to death, talked to the headmaster who liked the idea and he asked how much I would charge. I didn’t know and responded, “What do you suggest?” His answer was, “Two dollars.” At first, I was humiliated and then figured I never performed in public before so I best shut my mouth, put my ego aside, take the $2 gig and get through it. I was terrible. Horrible. After the concert, he calls me into his office to settle up. Reaches down and pulls up a big paper bag and I say, “What’s that?” I was a bag full of cash, $2 times 860 students. I made over $1,600 in 25 minutes sucking to high heaven. In short, I ended up paying over 4,000 Earth Concerts across Appalachia in just four years.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

During the pandemic, I started oil painting and studying the style of Vincent van Gogh. I sold enough to finance the recording of The Painter album. My screenplay for “Caney Creek ( was officially optioned by a movie studio, so I thought I might write a book about Van Gogh, WoodSongs 5 ( which comes out next week. Since the first screenplay was optioned and my album and book about van Gogh was done, I thought I might write a movie about Van Gogh somehow coming back in modern times to see all the work that was rejected while he was alive to be so valued and prized now, and that script has a producer now as well. WoodSongs completed its 1000th broadcast taping and is back in production and we have officially optioned a new TV series called WoodSongs Kids to begin soon.

Did I mention we have 7-year-old twins?

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

• The world is not white.

• The world doesn’t belong to one political party.

• The world doesn’t believe in God the same.

A garden grows best when it has a variety of flowers. That is why single-crop farming needs so much poison to exist. The same with people, when communities try to be the same, they need moral poison to feel validated.

Artists, performers, songwriters can take the lead in this because we tend to have an audience. We should use that privilege to balance the idea of “privilege.”

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t suck.
  2. Stay in tune.
  3. Never play for the money.
  4. Be kind and honest to all.
  5. And don’t suck.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

“Free” is the new business model. Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter are worth billions because they give their platforms away for free. The arts need to embrace the new way of reaching the audience and recognize that the “Golden Ring” of yesteryear is gone. Hanging on to the old, traditional music business model is like clinging to the rotary phone in a wireless world.

WoodSongs is a good example of that. It is a completely volunteer-run production and goes out free to all radio and TV stations worldwide. In exchange, it has created a massive global audience.

The point here is to use “FREE” carefully and by design. So many of my friends are spinning their wheels, “burning out” from frustration and exhaustion because they are fighting an uphill battle without being truly honest with themselves about what is REALLY happening to the world of music and art.

Most important is the industry itself needs to change so artists can make a living again. BMI, ASCAP and SESAC need to get rid of venue licensing and convert to artist licensing instead, allowing artists and songwriters to start working and getting paid.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I already started it with nearly 100 active chapters celebrating the spirit of the “front porch” in all communities and nations.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My father. He died 5 days before I was born. My greatest craving as a young boy is wishing I knew the sound of his voice when he called my name. It gave me a deep inner need to belong to something, to have a past, a tradition. It led me to folk music and the career I have today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have three:

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” — John F Kennedy

“Every artist dips his brush into his own soul and paints his own nature into his pictures” — Henry Ward Beecher

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of Arts.” — Henry David Thoreau

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Without a doubt, Michaele O’Neill, President of BMI, so I could explain how, as helpful as BMI and ASCAP are to so many for so many years, the old school “rotary phone” business model they are using is killing the music world and tens of thousands of smaller artists are struggling because of it. What good is pouring your heart and soul into a song, and a career, when the industry that is supposedly there to help you is actually preventing that from happening?

I would show him this:

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!



Edward Sylvan CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group
Authority Magazine

Edward Sylvan is the Founder and CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc. He is committed to telling stories that speak to equity, diversity, and inclusion.