Showcasing the Arts
2020 Governor's Awards in the Arts award

The 2020 Governor's Awards in the Arts are made by Hopkinsville artist Willie Rascoe from reclaimed cherry wood.


2020 Governor’s Awards in the Arts:

Milner Award

Michael Johnathon

Bourbon County

Folk singer Michael Johnathon is a songwriter, poet, author, screenwriter of the Caney Creek motion picture about Alice Lloyd, playwright of the Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau play performed more than 9,000 times in 42 countries, composer of a traditional opera about Woody Guthrie, and community organizer. He has launched a national association of front porch musicians called SongFarmers, with more than 75 active chapters nationwide.

Michael is executive producer and host of the nationally broadcast “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.” The program airs on more than 500 radio stations, including Armed Forces Radio, across the globe. It is televised on KET and on the RFD television network. This live audience celebration of grassroots music recently recorded its historic 1,000th program. “WoodSongs” has attracted everyone from Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, Norah Jones, Blind Boys of Alabama, Emmylou Harris and scores of others to appear on the show. “WoodSongs” live audience broadcast has been produced in theatres from Arkansas to Ireland and from its home base at Lexington’s historic Lyric Theatre.

A longtime resident of Kentucky, Michael grew up along the Hudson River in upstate New York. One of his neighbors was legendary songwriter Pete Seeger, who encouraged Michael to move to the heart of America’s folk music in Appalachia. After settling in the mountain hamlet of Mousie in Knott County, he began his career traveling the nation with his “Earth Concerts,” musical programs about tradition, which he has performed in more than 4,000 schools in 14 states.

In addition to creating and producing “WoodSongs,” Michael tours America in concert, has released 18 albums and published five books. His latest album, “The Painter,” will be released nationwide in February 2021. He resides in a log cabin in rural Bourbon County.

What does this distinction mean to you?

Of all the honors and awards any artist can receive, it is the ones from the home community that mean the most. It is the acceptance and encouragement of friends and neighbors that are the fuel for any artist … especially now. Because so much of what I do is community and volunteer run, the award helps validate the heart and spirit of so many that make artistic efforts become reality.

What do you see as your role in promoting Kentucky art and creativity?

Kentucky is one of the most fertile artistic gardens in America. Look all the national level artists and authors, dreamers and poets that launched their careers from Kentucky. The role of every artist is to share their stage, share their spotlight and share their audience with fellow artists to keep the Kentucky musical garden growing strong. I believe the power and spirit of Kentucky’s front porch has had great influence worldwide. I believe the brightest spotlight shines on our own living room couch and the greatest audiences are your own children and family. My job as a folksinger is to bring excitement and pride to the greatest of those simple traditions.

Why do you believe the arts are important?

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

The arts are the spirit of Kentucky’s “front porch,” the fuel behind the economy, tourism and education. The arts reflect more than a livelihood, it is the reflection of the quality of life Kentucky offers people worldwide.

When asked if he would remove the arts from the budget to support the war effort, Winston Churchill looked at the reporter and said, “Then what on earth are we fighting for?”

The arts aren’t a minor line item; they are as vital an investment as roads and infrastructure, because it makes people want to travel those roads, to want to visit Kentucky and enjoy everything our commonwealth has to offer.

John F. Kennedy said, “The arts incarnate the creativity of a free people.”

In an era of isolation and frustration, the arts free the human spirit in the ways that transcend politics and economics. It is the poetic wings of the human spirit. It’s not just songs and book, painting and dancing … the arts are the ultimate expression of all the freedoms we enjoy in Kentucky.


Page last updated: December 11, 2020
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