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Encore: Folk singer collects instrument donations after tornado destruction

cathy currier
Cheri Lawson
Cathy Currier, manager and luthier at Currier's Music World in Richmond,Ky.,led a group of volunteers as they cleaned and refurbished instruments.

-This story originally aired in March, 2022. As we look back on the six month anniversary of the storms that swept through western Kentucky, we're bringing this story up as a look back at efforts to recover from the devastation.-

Deadly tornadoes swept through parts of the Midwest and the South in December. Entire neighborhoods in western Kentucky were wiped out. Hundreds of people are still displaced and grieving the loss of loved ones, personal items, and life as they knew it. One initiative started by a folk singer is helping to replace musical instruments, and it's given away more than 700 so far.

Behind large white garage doors at a warehouse turned music venue in Dawson Springs, Ky., Sterling Wallace and his wife Karen stand in awe. They've just been handed a guitar to replace one of theirs that was damaged in the tornado.

“It's just unbelievable. I'd cry for a little bit, you guys, but I'll wait till I get home, then I'll cry,” said Sterling Wallace.

Karen Wallace said when she heard about the tornado instrument relief project, she signed up immediately. The music minister said even though she and her husband lost a lot in the storms and have to rebuild, replacing their instruments is a big deal. Gently strumming the guitar feels comforting to her. It's a small step on the way back to normal.

“ For people who love music and who have music in their life and who lost instruments, this is as much as food and gas and, you know, the house. So, yeah, it really means a lot,” explained Karen Wallace.

The host of the WoodsSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Michael Johnathon, along with dozens of volunteers, sent out requests by email and Facebook, asking people around the country to donate instruments for the tornado survivors.

Cheri Lawson
Michael Johnathon and his wife, Melissa give Karen and Sterling Wallace a guitar to replace the one that was damaged in the tornado.

“ I knew that we couldn't replace water lines or power lines or roofs, but we could replace the music and art,” reported Johnathon.

Steffani Burton's teenage daughters are musicians. Their piano was in storage. A few of their guitars in storage were damaged, and their mandolin was crushed in the tornado. Her kids getting violins today gives her hope.

“ It means everything. Music is such a big part of our home and our life, and the tornado took that,” said an emotional Burton.

Cheri Lawson
Thirteen-year-old Isabella Burton is a musician. Her mandolin was crushed in the tornado. She was very happy to receive a violin.

Instrument donations came from all over North America, and even a few from Australia and England. Music stores from Washington, D.C., to Nashville helped out by collecting from their communities.

Hundreds of instruments, including banjos, guitars, mandolins and flutes, were sent to a music store in Richmond, Ky., where manager Cathy Currier organized volunteers to clean and refurbish them.

Volunteers helped load up a big box truck to haul the instruments nearly 300 miles to western Kentucky where they were distributed.

“ People have just gone above and beyond. It kind of restores your faith in humanity,” said Cathy Currier.

At Graves County Public Library in Mayfield, 73-year-old Ruben Steen was thrilled to be playing the guitar again. He lost his in the tornado in Mayfield.

Pointing to Steen, Michael Johnathon said,” Now, here's a man who deserves a good guitar, right?”

The last person in a line of more than 200 people at the library was Nancy Rambo. She's been playing music for 40 years for quartets and in church. She was overwhelmed with emotion when a brand new keyboard was carried to her car.

“ I never expected it. I mean, you know, I just thought I'd come by and check on a guitar. It's just been so hard on us. We have lost so much,” said Rambo.

Folk singer and organizer Michael Johnathon said he and the volunteers delivered 700 presentation-worthy instruments to western Kentucky.

Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.