Reviewed by Art Menius for Bluegrass Unlimited 1998
Shady Grove Over the Mountain Colista’s Jam Mountains O’Mourne Summer Honeymoon Weaver & the Wood Blackberry Blossom Mr. Bojangles New Wood WoodSong Pastures of Plenty Shenandoah Garden Song Careless Love Shady Grove (reprise) Mousie HiWay (live)
Michael Johnathon, WoodSongs: A Folksinger’s Social Commentary, Cook Manual & Song Book (Lexington: PoetMan Records USA, 1997), 176 pp., $16.95.
You have to figure that an emerging artist who can get J.D. Crowe, Homer Ledford, Odetta, Ruth McClain Smith, and Jean Ritchie involved with his CD has to have something substantial to offer. You also have to figure that much of it is not bluegrass. Both statements are true for Michael Johnathon’s latest, “WoodSongs.”
The album includes old-time, bluegrass, Celtic-influenced, folk, and singer-songwriter music, all well performed and recorded. While not well known to bluegrass and old-time fans, Johnathon has built a large following by playing colleges and schools by means of corporate underwriting. All his projects exhibit major league packaging, production values, and marketing. A Kentuckian by choice, Johnathon calls himself a folksinger, rather than singer/songwriter, to demonstrate his respect for traditional music. “WoodSongs” completes what he self-consciously calls his “Folk Trilogy” and shows him rich at the roots. His book makes it clear that he deeply loves Dave Evans, Hylo Brown, and J.D. He also believes – and argues his case convincingly in the accompanying book – that tradition doesn’t stand still unless it falls into the hands of big record companies.
Johnathon uses mainstream production values, sometimes including drums and all the latest engineering wonders, but not electric instruments, to record traditionally based acoustic music. Bluegrass Unlimited readers will be struck in both positive and negative ways by how radio friendly “WoodSongs” sounds. The couple of bluegrass cuts sound pretty darn good to me. Johnathon also employs modern cover art and graphics that seem, like certain aspects of the package, a tad pretentious by roots standards.
Johnathon sings and mostly plays guitar. He handles well the long neck, open back 5-string banjo on the three old-time influenced cuts, while J.D. plays on the opening “Shady Grove” and the only fully bluegrass selection, “Colista’s Jam.” Ledford picks mandolin on this delightful Johnathon original named for Homer’s wife. It could do well on bluegrass radio, as would the cut of Ledford playing “Blackberry Blossom” all by himself. Jean Ritchie also solos on the reprise of “Shady Grove.” Johnathon’s “Mousie HiWay” brings the project to a fun conclusion. All told, “WoodSongs” contains five original compositions, six traditional tunes, and four covers. The latter seem the most problematic. Si Kahn’s “New Wood” receives a stunning treatment with Odetta but the others, especially “Mr. Bojangles,” add absolutely nothing to previous recordings. Most of “WoodSongs” works, however, and Johnathon clearly demonstrates that he possesses talent, intelligence, and the willingness to work hard. He may possess, on the other hand, a bit too much vision to let his recorded music breathe and flow to maximum effect.
Then we have a 176 page book, “WoodSongs: A Folksinger’s Social Commentary, Cook Manual & Song Book.” The volume details, among many other things, Johnathon’s debt to and admiration for Pete Seeger. It reminds me in many ways of Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” book or Ken Kesey’s “Garage Sale.” As the title promises, the volume mixes autobiography, recipes, songs, and essays about playing music and such figures as Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Ritchie, Bill Monroe, even Doug Hutchens. Some of this proves entertaining and thought provoking reading, especially Johnathon’s reflections on such direct and indirect mentors and the history of Alice Lloyd College. Other parts are strange, alternately boring or disturbing, overtly sexist or simply too personal to maintain this reader’s interest. That could be ageist, however. The lives and reflections of a person ten years younger than oneself hardly proves as interesting as that of someone ten years senior. The book should play well with the college and school market also receptive to the witty and controversial, but sometimes shallow lyrics of Ani Difranco or Dan Bern.
(Poetman Records USA; P.O. Box 24187; Lexington, KY 40524) AM