Folk banjo player to premiere concert with Ohio Valley Symphony
When it comes to taking the nine-pound hammer to musical boundaries, and sharing a pure front-porch Pete Seeger-like love of folk music, few the world over have spread the gospel like Michael Johnathon.
On about 44 Mondays out of the year, the Hudson River, New York-raised, and long-time Lexington, Kentucky-based folk singer plays host to one of the world’s most widespread public radio and TV shows, “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.”
The volunteer, non-profit run show has grassroots built a radio audience of more than two million listeners each week on 500 public radio stations, public television coast-to-coast, plus American Forces Radio Network in 173 nations and now Friday evenings on RFD-TV.
While that would be enough to keep anyone busy, when he is not on stage as a host, Michael Johnathon, the artist, is bound to ramble and explore fertile musical fields.
In his spare time, and when not also booking and hosting the popular Troubadour Concert Series, Johnathon has among a stack of CD projects, written a folk opera about Woody Guthrie, several books (including “Mousie HiWay,” a new music-themed children’s book) and Walden Pond, a musical shown on nationwide TV on PBS stations and has registered for performances more than 8,700 times in 42 countries.
For his latest exploration, Johnathon, who plays banjo, and has his own signature model Martin Guitar, is diving back into his exploratory fusion of folk and classical music with a new symphony called “Songs of Rural America.” This show will make its world premiere with the 45-piece Ohio Valley Symphony (OVS) at the historic Ariel Opera House in Gallipolis, Ohio, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6. The production will be taped for national public television and radio broadcast, including worldwide on the American Forces Radio Network.
Tickets are $28 and can be reserved by calling 740-446-ARTS or by visiting ArielOperahouse.org. For more information about the production, visit michaeljohnathon.com/symphony/.
Johnathon, who recorded his folk song, “The Dream” with a 61-piece Lexington Orchestra back in 1997, said he kept thinking of the idea of bridging the gap between folk and classical music. Then he got together with Joshua Carter, the acclaimed Nashville-based string arranger and programmer who often works with singer/songwriter Ben Folds and the Nashville Symphony to help bring his vision to fruition.
“Songs of Rural America” is comprised of 17 songs, including both original and traditional songs, which Johnathon will perform with his Martin guitar and Vega long-neck banjo, backed by the OVS orchestra, under the direction of Tim Berens.
“I hope that the audience is taken on a voyage through the folk music of America, brought to life by a symphony orchestra,” Berens said in a release. “The Ariel Opera House is the perfect setting for this voyage. Its acoustics are so magnificent that the building itself is a musical instrument that is played by the orchestra.”
Johnathon, who said he has always “danced around classical music,” (his Woodsongs often has a string quartet on stage), said he began pulling together songs that celebrated “Rural America.”
He cherry picked some of his original songs such as “Front Porch,” as well as digging into America’s archive to pull out songs and stories that shaped a nation like gems such as the Civil War-era tune, “Aura Lee,” that traveled through the ages from barbershop at the turn of the century to the melody for such hits as “Love Me Tender,” which Elvis made famous.
“It is this full symphonic front porch presentation of the spirit of Rural America, and what made America this artistic garden that we now miss very much,” Johnathon said by phone from Lexington, where he was recording a new album. “The theme song ‘Front Porch,’ I had already written and the song looks at the literal front porch, the emotional front porch where you find your love and the life you live, and the front porch between nations. That is all captured in a 3 1/2 minute song and adding a symphony to it makes it majestic.”
While Johnathon could have easily stayed in Lexington to record the world premiere. He specifically sought out Gallipolis, a historic French town on the Ohio River.
“It is in the heart of rural American and it was the most beautiful place to launch,” Johnathon said. “Gallipolis was chosen for the premiere, because it so ideally represents the community spirit that merges rural culture with the classical world.” Lora Snow, executive director of the Ohio Valley Symphony and the Ariel Opera House, said they immediately jumped on board when Johnathon approached them about the unique collaboration.
“You would not expect to have a symphony of this caliber in a community this size,” said Lora Snow, executive director of the Ohio Valley Symphony and the Ariel Opera House. “We have attracted excellent musicians from seven states and Canada. When Michael approached me about doing this, I was excited. I love folk music, we are in rural America and we are in Appalachia.”
Johnathon said he is excited about helping the OVS as well, since most of the country’s symphonies are, like musicians everywhere, struggling to survive.
The production will be taped for national public television and radio broadcast, including worldwide on the American Forces Radio Network.
And Johnathon is currently in talks to perform “Songs of Rural America” with other orchestras throughout the United States next year.
“To me it doesn’t matter what music bins you are in because there are no more bins,” Johnathon said. “A lot of the categories of music are almost gone.We are reintroducing the world of symphony to a massive roots music audience so what I am hoping is that other artists like myself will take the invitation to do this with an orchestra on their own. The classical symphony orchestras are struggling just like everybody else. The great movement and investment for the art has to be the audience. It’s not corporate underwriting or government grants, it is invigorating the audience and enticing them to show up.”
If You Go
WHAT: The world premiere of “Songs of Rural America,” 17 songs, including both original and traditional songs, that fuse folk music and symphonic music. Composed by Lexington, Ky.-based folk artist Michael Johnathon and Joshua Carter, the acclaimed Nashville-based string arranger and programmer. Johnathon will perform with his Martin guitar and Vega long-neck banjo, backed by the 45-piece Ohio Valley Orchestra, under the direction of Tim Berens.
WHERE: The Ariel Opera House at the Ariel-Ann Carson Dater Performing Arts Center, 426 Second Avenue, Gallipolis, Ohio.
WHEN: At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6.
GET TICKETS: Tickets are $28 and can be reserved by calling 740-446-ARTS or by visiting ArielOperahouse.org.
ON THE WEB: For more information about the production, visit michaeljohnathon.com/symphony/.
OVER THE AIRWAVES: “Songs of Rural America,” will be taped with five H-D cameras to be aired nationwide over public television affiliates, RFD-TV, American Forces Radio Network in 173 nations and on more than 500 radio stations worldwide.These are the stations that regularly carry Johnathon’s “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, ” a volunteer, non-profit run show based out of Lexington, Ky. Produced 44 Mondays a year, Woodsongs airs on 515 radio stations from Australia to Boston to Dublin, Ireland. It also airs on American Forces Radio Network twice each weekend in 173 nations, every military base and US Naval ship in the world. The shows airs coast-to-coast in millions of TV homes as a public TV series. Now Friday and Wednesday’s on RFD-TV. Go online at http://www.woodsongs.com/ to find more about Woodsongs.