WoodSongs celebrates 1000 shows 

The Lexington, Kentucky-based WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour staged its 1000th show with a taping on Tuesday, November 19, 2019. Special guests on this historic occasion were the two-time Grammy award-winning Riders In The Sky.

Riders In The Sky’s founder member and guitarist Ranger Doug loves the show .. 

“I think Woodsongs is kind of a magical experience, especially since the staff is largely volunteer. Whether you call it folk music or roots music or Americana or traditional music, this show has featured grassroots artists and supported their careers for years. We were proud to have played their 1,000th show, and have appeared on the program at least four times, probably more.  We hope to appear on their 2.000th show, their 2,500th etc etc. Long may they wave.”

The idea for WoodSongs was born in bluegrass musician and luthier Homer Ledford’s tiny basement workshop in Winchester, Virginia, “somewhere in the conversation, amidst the wood chips and the musical instruments and linseed oil, a new word popped into my head, WoodSong,” folksinger and show host Michael Johnathon told Kentucky Living magazine. 

About this time Johnathon wrote a song, Colista’s Jam, named after Ledford’s wife. 


An instrumental version is used during the broadcasts. 

Johnathon started the show in 1998 in a tiny off-Broadway recording studio, that barely accommodated 12 people. At the time, one small college station – WRVG in Georgetown, Kentucky – broadcast the show.      

In 1999 WoodSongs moved to a 150-seat room at the Lexington Public Library. The show then moved to a larger studio in Versailles but, after just six weeks that venue was outgrown and the production was moved back to Lexington; at the Farris Theatre in the Central Library from where WoodSongs played for 57 sold-out weeks before there was a further move – in 2000 – to the Kentucky Theatre. 

Since January 2013 the show has been staged at the 540-seat Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, also in Lexington.

By 2005 WoodSongs was being aired on 320 radio stations, and by 2013 on 509 radio stations across north America and internationally. 

The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour occasionally takes the show on the road and in July 2013, assisted by Alltech, Kentucky Tourism, Lexington Tourism, and Tourism Ireland, Johnathon and the WoodSongs crew visited The Convention Centre Dublin, in Ireland, organizing two shows – one spotlighting the connection between traditional Irish music and American bluegrass, featuring We Banjo 3, three members of the Land’s End Bluegrass Band; Niall Toner; Tom Hanway; Cup O’Joe; and Evan Lyons (#722) – the other featuring Irish music legend Mary Black and songwriter Paul Brady (#723). 

Later the shows were shown on DISH TV Network, adding 14 million USA television homes to the public broadcast of this show. 

Also in 2013, the WoodSongs show was taken to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, to celebrate the music of the Ozarks. Almost 1,000 fans attended, selling out the historic auditorium, as Ozark musicians of many cultural backgrounds shared their music with listeners nationwide. 

WoodSongs is different from most other live audience broadcasts, such as the Grand Ole Opry, where the concert is set to the theatre and the radio audience listens. Or Austin City Limits, where the TV audience is watching. 

WoodSongs includes conversation with the artist, and the audience gets to know them, gets to understand them, gets to hear their history and hear what makes them love what they are doing. “The stories of the artists are as powerful and important as the music,” Johnathon stresses.

Another difference is the fact that WoodSongs is and has been from the very beginning run by volunteers with some of the crew becoming engaged after being members of the audience. “You have volunteers that have done 994 of these shows for free,” says Johnathon, who believes “that Kentucky is probably one of the only places in America that would have given birth to anything like WoodSongs. It’s the kind of people and the attitude. Where else in America are you going to find a community that invested in their own love of art and in their hometown to do that?”

This is the foundation on which the whole community, including local businesses, works together. “I believe love is the greatest transaction of the arts,” asserts Johnathon. “It is the glue that holds everything together. It seems most of the music industry forgot that and we have seen it morph and decline as the industry focussed on the money instead. I wanted WoodSongs to prove the power of passion, that is why it is completely volunteer run.”

While the 1,000th Woodsongs was on a Tuesday, traditionally the program takes place on a Monday, a day that is usually very quiet for the roots musicians. Johnathon explains, “artists typically perform Wednesday night through to the weekend and they are either on their way back home on Sunday, or stuck in a hotel waiting for their Wednesday show. Likewise, Johnathon, the crew and volunteers, are also available on Monday evening. Hotel rooms, provided free for visiting artists, thanks to the partnership with the Bluegrass Hospitality Association and the City of Lexington, are lightly booked on Monday nights also”.

Young children are not only encouraged to enjoy the music up-close, with space on stage to accommodate a few, they are actively involved in the proceedings as Johnathon engages some in a conversation. 

Also, the WoodSongs Kids – young musicians given the opportunity to display their burgeoning talent – have for the past four years been featured on every live broadcast. “Bringing kid performers on the broadcast is probably one of the biggest changes,” Johnathon says. “Otherwise, the format is exactly the same as it’s always been.” 

There are WoodSongs Classroom Projects, available with lesson plans for thousands of schools, and it has one of the biggest roots music archives.

Today WoodSongs fills the 500 seat Lyric Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky, and airs on 537 public, community, and commercial stations from Australia to Ireland including WSM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. 

The artists that have graced the WoodSongs stage include the good and the mighty, though “you don’t have to be famous … you just have to be good!” to be invited to appear on the show. 

A broad cross-section of bluegrass artists has featured. These include J.D. Crowe & the New South; Emmylou Harris, Homer Ledford and the Cabin Creek Band; the Dale Ann Bradley Band; The McLain Family Band; Rhonda Vincent & the Rage; Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper; young West Virginia banjo player Marteka Lane; Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver; The Church Sisters; Moore Brothers Band, from North Carolina;  The Cleverlys, the outrageous “family band” from the Ozark Mountains, near Cane Spur, Arkansas; Nathan Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, with Don Rigsby; Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers; mandolin player Sierra Hull; Ron Block; the now-retired Bankesters; The Farm Hands; Sideline; young banjo player Willow Osborne; the Earls of Leicester; Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road; Donna Ulisse; Dan Tyminski; Alison Brown; Frank Solivan; Tim O’Brien; Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley; Italy’s Red Wine; Ronnie Reno and Reno Tradition; Cherryholmes; the Sam Bush Band; Nu-Blu; Darin and Brooke Aldridge; Bobby Osborne; The Spinney Brothers; Della Mae; the U.S. Navy band Country Current; J2B2; and Daily & Vincent. 

Other roots musicians are well represented as well  …. 

Tommy Emmanuel, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; the high-energy Molasses Creek, from Ocracoke Island, North Carolina; Ma Crow and The Lady Slippers; Si Kahn; Mary Gauthier; East Tennessee dulcimer player Sarah Morgan; The Willis Clan; singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins, with Blue Sky Riders; Aoife O’Donovan; Amy Grant, the contemporary Christian music performer; The Deadly Gentlemen, a string band with a decidedly modern 21st century pop, punk, and rock approach to acoustic music; The McCrary Sisters, a Christian Gospel music quartet from Nashville, Tennessee; Celtic roots band, Runa; Fairfield Four; Makem and Spain, the Irish-American folk music band; the Reel World String Band; bluesman Guy Davis; Sarah Jarosz; folk icon Richie Havens;  the Blind Boys of Alabama; The Lindsey Family Band; traditional country artist Darrell Scott; Iris DeMent; Cherish the Ladies; Mark O’Connor and the O’Connor Band; Erin Enderlin, the hard-core country music singer; the Juggernaut Jug Band, noted for their “sound of bourbon and the spirit of Louisville”; Nefesh Mountain; Luke Bulla; Michael Martin Murphy; Abbie Gardner, a slide guitar player/singer and member of the band Red Molly; Camille and Kennerly Kitt, the Harp Twins; Andrea Zonn; Ashley Campbell; Old Crow Medicine Show; Asleep at the Wheel; Jean Ritchie; Fairport Convention; Hot Club of Cowtown; Alejandro Escovedo; BR549;  Ollabelle; The Flatlanders; and The Quebe Sisters; Wanda Jackson; Billy Bragg; Dale Watson; Tom Paxton; Sweet Honey in the Rock; Gretchen Peters; 

WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour is produced on 44 Mondays each year and has public television affiliates all over the U.S.A. 

It can be heard across Australia; and Canada; New Zealand; western and central Europe – France, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Slovenia – various locations in the Caribbean, the Philippines, and the Virgin Islands.  

That adds up to 537 radio stations as well as public services TV that takes WoodSongs into millions of homes from coast-to-coast.

Also, American Forces Radio Network broadcasts the show twice each weekend in 177 nations, every military base and US Naval ship around the world. 

Now on Friday and Wednesday on the RFD-TV Network nationwide, and every Sunday at 7:00pm and 8:00pm on 650 AM WSM, broadcast home of the Grand Ole Opry. 

WoodSongs started for free and it continues for free; a thousand shows,” says Michael Johnathon.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.