On a recent Saturday afternoon, Keith Johns played on a temporary stage under the Brickell Metrorail station as his audience — face-painted children, adults, and costumed dogs — swayed along to his breezy, lazy-afternoon cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.”
Midway through the set, Miami’s capricious weather took a turn from a sunny, bright-blue sky to a drizzle as a cloud rained directly on Johns’ parade. Rather than running to the nearest bar for shelter or hopping on the rail to rush back home, his audience, fussy babies and all, moved their lawn chairs a few feet under the nearest tree and continued to sing along.
It was a small gesture, but to Johns this was an indication of something bigger stirring in the city. This is the level of interest and engagement that Keith Johns has been anxious to foster in the Miami music scene, and as a folk musician, he feels an even greater responsibility to use his music to advance useful causes within the community.
“In this day and age, we're going so quickly,” he reflects. “People's attention spans are shortened and we're also more distant, and I think this feeling of community is up there with, maybe not food and water, but it's this natural need that's ingrained in humans 'cause we're social, and we're losing that. I think that we need that.”
Johns kept these sentiments in mind when it came time to plan for the release of his first full-length album, Grateful Fool, and linked up with Prism Music Group to organize Miami Folk, a mini folk festival taking place at the Wynwood Yard, featuring performances by Raffa Jo Harris, Shira Lee, Richard Korn, Uncle Scotchy, and Robson. Johns will close out the night by performing Grateful Fool in its entirety with a full band and orchestration.
“Music is so important to developing and establishing a culture and a community in a city,” says Pola Bunster of Prism Music Group. “Music is so powerful in our city, especially since so many cultures that are calling Miami home are very closely tied to music. As more spaces like the Wynwood Yard open up, that community is becoming more and more inspired to stay here, to create here, to grow here, to expand here. These artists that are playing there on Friday — people like Keith Johns — these are people who depend on the city that they live in to know their music, and if there aren't opportunities like Miami Folk in the city, then these artists [will] go to another city where there are opportunities.”
Michael Stock, host of WLRN’s Folk & Acoustic Music on 91.3 (WLRN-FM) every Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m., has been spotlighting local folk artists on his radio show since the late '80s. His office, crowned by a poster of his idol and recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, is a veritable folk music warehouse, with folk CDs and vinyl records stacked from floor to ceiling and running the gamut from Celtic to bluegrass to Jewish folk music. A stack of local artists’ CDs sits adjacent to his desk, waiting to be mined for treasures.
Over the years, Stock's show has become a valuable platform for local and regional folk acts to showcase their music and give insight into the creative process behind the songs. Initially playing albums in their entirety, a format change encouraged Stock to begin hosting artist interviews during the broadcast.
“[WLRN] dropped a lot of our music programming, and we became an all-talk NPR station. I figured I'd better start talking,” he laughs. “So that's when I really went heavy duty and started inviting people for interviews on my show. That became a very important part of my show, where not only do I help out promoting the artists and giving them radio exposure, but I was very interested in promoting their local shows and promoting their albums. That's become a big focus of my show.” Additionally, Stock also uploads videos of local artists’ in-studio performances to YouTube.
This past Sunday, one of Stock’s guests was Keith Johns. He played songs off of Grateful Fool live on air in promotion of the Miami Folk festival and album release and announced that all proceeds of his album will go to the Hunger Project, an organization with the goal of ending world hunger.
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"Once we started talking about doing some kind of festival, we thought, if you can get a good community atmosphere going, then another thing with folk music is humanitarian efforts and volunteering,” says Johns. In addition to his album's support of the Hunger Project, Miami Folk will host informational booths from organizations like HOPE and Debris Free Oceans.
“[Songwriting] is trying to add a service to the world. And you can be in sticky territory. As a musician, I can get a little bit depressed because I'm not out there saving lives. But you have to believe that you're on some kind of front lines.”
Echoing the title of his album, he adds, “If you feel grateful, you should try to find a way to instill that feeling in someone else. Try to give it back.”