Louisa Branscomb takes Woodsong Farm Songwriter retreats to NC

Founded in 1989, Louisa Branscomb’s Georgia Woodsong Songwriter Retreat is likely the oldest continuous songwriter retreat in the genre, a distinction leading to her current nomination for IBMA Mentor of the Year. In the majestic setting of the farm’s rolling hills, heart pine planks, and winding fences, the mentor/songwriter/performer has helped some 500 children and adult participants transform life through the art of songwriting, most returning year after year. On July 1, Louisa closed the barn doors for the last time and headed to North Carolina, taking the spirit of the Farm and its community of writers with her. That moment is reflected in her song, Riding Double on my Old John Deere: “I turn the key to neutral, and lay this loader down. No engine hum can see me through my tears” (featuring Josh Williams on Louisa’s 2011 Compass release, I’ll Take Love).

As she leaves her beloved home, Louisa’s grief is shared by three decades of others who have found inspiration and guidance at her Woodsong Farm retreats. One four-year participant, Lea Kimbrough, explained, “Louisa’s work transforms the person while transforming their stories into song. I will attend her workshops throughout my life. I wanted a part of the old farm so the barn door we used to have our meals on went with me back to Florida.”

Coming full circle, Louisa is taking the now-honed vision of Woodsong to North Carolina, where she launched her professional music career some forty years ago. The singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist began her musical journey in 1971 in Winston Salem, taking to the road with her band, Boot Hill, co-led with Sam Sanger. It was there she learned banjo, wrote Steel Rails, and began a catalog of over 300 recorded songs, many making history in the hands of artists such as Dale Ann Bradley, Alison Krauss, Claire Lynch, John Denver, Jesse Brock, and countless others.

The 1980s saw Louisa leave North Carolina for Georgia to pursue graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. “I wanted to understand the human spirit – how people transform their lives, what creativity is really for.” It’s the theme of her unique model of songwriting. 

In 1991, her life was unexpectedly touched by Alison Krauss’s ground-breaking hit with Steel Rails, the song credited with bringing an entire new generation to bluegrass. It was in that moment that the dream of an ongoing songwriter retreat was born.

“I was around 40 years old, and I felt I had had more than my share of luck. I thought it was time to give back things I wish I had had in my career to other songwriters. I never had a mentor. I had never known a songwriter up close. I didn’t have a community of songwriters and I had rarely seen a woman songwriter on stage in my formative years. So I founded Woodsong Farm Songwriter Retreat and began to figure out how to create a songwriter community. I didn’t want it to be just my home place, I wanted it to be the home place for every songwriter who came looking for something. And I wanted to make a place for children, too, to find a way to tell their stories through songs.”

With the chance to be a part of her unique artist-focused mentoring model and the vibrant Woodsong community, most Woodsong students come not once, but year after year, to hone their skills under Louisa’s tutelage. Five-year Woodsong veteran Katrina Brake stated, “Louisa has a depth of knowledge matched with gentle, personal guidance on how to write from the depth of one’s true self. It is an unmatched synergy.”

Louisa defers to the farm. “Mostly I just stay out of the way of the farm and trust the process. Something about a farm, the natural beauty – beauty made by hard work, makes it feel like a sanctuary, a place where it all makes sense. You feel the history here and become a part of it; you belong, and you feel like you go back before your time. The land makes a place for you that takes you deeper into your soul. And that’s the source of the song. A farm remembers everything you give to it and it gives back. All these writers have given their songs back to these hills. I somehow think that will always ride on the wind there with all the laughter and connections songwriters have shared.”

Indeed, an astronomical number of songs have been composed or shaped in some 120 retreats in the Farm’s inviting setting. There, Louisa has served four decades of children, many of them with high needs in state custody, giving them a tool to tell their stories. One such family, the Howard boys, began their mentoring seven years ago as small children. Now they have come to Asheville to volunteer their help on the new Woodsong Farm, giving back what they were given through Louisa’s songwriter non-profit, ScreenDoor Songwriter Alliance. They have literally grown up writing and singing songs that inspire others, such as one performed at Louisa’s presentation of her Kidswrite program at IBMA WOB in 2017: “When We See in Color, Not in Black and White.”

Louisa, too, has been nurtured by the farm as an artist. Fans will recognize countless farm-inspired songs, including Dear Sister, written with and recorded by Claire Lynch, about a similar cotton farm in Louisa’s heritage. I’m Gonna Love You, (co-written with Claire Lynch from 2011 Compass Album, I’ll Take Love), tells of coming home to the farm after being on the road. This Side of Heaven, recorded by the Whites on the same album, forecasts the tornado that destroyed the farm in 2011, and required a decade to rebuild.

It’s a labor of hands and heart that is sometimes back breaking, but gratifying beyond words. It also means loss. I have three horses and a donkey, Elmer, buried here,” the IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award winner confessed.

Asked why she made the decision to leave, the once-touring banjo player explained, “I wanted to make the farm into everything it could be, in all its glory, while I’m still able to. I felt the mountains calling. It was time to take the essence of the work and begin a new chapter.”

Prior to her departure, Louisa hosted a reunion of songwriters and pickers who had attended workshops and jams at Woodsong. They played under the old oak tree, sending final melodies into the hills.

The following evening, in the silence that followed 33 years of friends, students, and songs written and played, Louisa feared leaving would be nearly impossible. “I felt my heart was breaking. I couldn’t see me without the farm, or it without me. But I went outside and the whippoorwills started singing all around me across the valley and the frogs were croaking in the pond. And I thought, they are letting me know because if I can’t carry the tune for a minute, they’ve got it, and it’s beautiful, and it will go on even when I’m gone.”

The next day she composed her last song from the farm, with the chorus:

Then the sun sets down on the mountain
and the whippoorwills call all night long
sayin’ you don’t have to worry
you don’t have to weep
’cause even when you can’t keep singing
we’ve got the song.

Having found the heart of the matter in a simple song inspired by a farm, the songwriter and teacher felt ready to make the move. Bound for new topics, new retreats, and new mountains, Louisa carried a scrapbook of remembrances lined with old plows, hillside pastures, and steady streams of songwriters gathered on a hillside. 

The video for Gone captures the freedom of life change with images of the farm itself, co-written with Diane King, featuring Dale Ann Bradley, Tina Adair, Steve Gulley, Casey Campbell, Deanie Richardson, Charlie Cushman, and Missy Raines. All lyrics copyrighted, used by permission.

“The last thing I did was take down the Woodsong Sign in Georgia, and my first official moment in North Carolina, I was hanging the sign in my new farmhouse. I have learned that Woodsong is a spirit; it is something in the hearts of people, and it can go where we go. The ‘new’ old farm has that same Woodsong spirit; it is just a mountain farm rather than an old cotton farm. That brings in a new history and new images for songwriters. It needs a lot of work, but it looks out on the mountains and the sunset. We share our songs and our lives. There’s lots of excitement about what lies ahead.”

Louisa’s first retreat in her new location is scheduled for October 15-17. Back in the old North State, back where her life’s mission began, a string of songs ago.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.