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What it means to be a Kentucky Song Farmer

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Peeking through the window of a door at the back of St. Lawrence Catholic Church you can see a few people moving metal chairs and tables around.

On this crisp November evening in Lawrenceburg, Annette Brady Fugal and Dan Kelly are preparing for another night of playing music with the Song Farmers of Anderson County.

It’s a group of people who love playing music with other people. Fugal says Song Farmers is bringing back that time years ago when people would gather on their front porch, pull out the fiddle and guitar, and start playing.

“I went to Renfro Valley two years ago to the WoodsSongs annual gathering, and they had a class on how to start a Song Farmers group. And the point was to build a front porch around the world to sort of reclaim what we lost during COVID. And what the music world has lost because of digital music, where there's not a lot of knee to knee, arm to arm, laughing, conversing, playing music together.”

Fugal grew up in Idaho where her family played music, and later moved to Kentucky where they learned about bluegrass music.

“So, all of the older half of the family are classical pianists to one degree or another. And the younger ones. Fortunately, we moved to Kentucky, and they became bluegrassers, and the older ones are a little jealous. But anyway, there must be music in my blood and my DNA because I can't get by without it.”

Kelly was in college when his love affair with music began. He says it was a struggle learning how to play the guitar, but he didn’t give up.

His passion for playing music even found its way into the Kentucky State Capital in Frankfort. Kelly was a state senator from Washington County from 1991 to 2019.

It wasn’t unusual to hear music coming from his legislative office. Kelly learned a cameraman from KET also enjoyed playing music.

“So, I asked him to bring his guitar and play with me. Several other staff people who could play would come in and join us. And before long, before every session started, and I was the floor leader, which is you know, a lot of pressure and stress. And I'd come there, and we'd play that music, and I was just like, ah, I'm ready to go and we did that for a long time and people enjoyed it.”

Back in Lawrenceburg, as Kelly and Fugal set up a circle of chairs for a night of playing music, people of all ages and musical abilities begin coming in and unpacking their instruments.

At Song Farmers the instruments include guitars, fiddles, the mandolin, a standup bass, and harmonicas. The first hour is dedicated to teaching less experienced musicians a few chords so they can join in. It’s very informal and relaxed. And you don’t have to have any experience to join the group.

Fugal says all you need is the willingness to learn.

“If you can't play, if you think you're not good enough, then you are the perfect person for Song Farmers. Because I've never been in a group where everyone was the same. There have been some who are fantastic and others of us that are just struggling along, and you never get good if you're not with a group.”

At Song Farmers they play American folk music with some bluegrass and country tunes thrown in. Josh Hall and his wife Judy are here for their first Song Farmers session.

“I think it's kind of something that needs to be brought back. It's something I've always wanted to do. So just good old-fashioned fun.”

Bethany Sawyer also brought her guitar to Song Farmers. She says it’s fun playing what she calls old timey music on the porch.

“Yeah, that's what it's supposed to be. Let's just instead of like worrying about performing or just trying to, like make a splash. It's just you play for fun, just for the heck of it.”

About two dozen players sit and stand in a circle and begin with the classic song, “Boil them cabbage down.” Fugal has passed around song books with chords and lyrics to help everyone. She hopes new musicians feel welcome to join them.

“I hope that more people will come of all ages. So, we can do what used to be done in Kentucky which was pass it on to the next generation and then the next generation and to have people who are grandparents sitting next to grandkids, or teenagers next to people their parents ages so that they can all move forward together. I want people who may have emotional trauma or mental trauma or isolation. I think, as well as if we're together, and we're playing music, and we're genuinely with friends. And we generally don't want it to end.”

Song Farmers was created by Kentucky folksinger Michael Jonathan who is the host of WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour. There are chapters of Song Farmers around the world.

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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.
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