the chords that bind

By George Piper  //  Photography by April Knox

Greenwood SongFarmers Chapter gets neighbors in tune with each other
In another era, removed from ubiquitous cellphones and streaming services, entertainment sometimes took on simpler form. A Rockwellian picture springs to life as family and friends gather on the front porch, enjoying a gentle breeze and the soothing sounds of an acoustic guitar echoing familiar bluegrass and gospel tunes. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the rocking chair creak.

Richard McVicker enjoys the music of that time and figures others probably do as well. The southeast Indianapolis man’s desire to cultivate and grow that love of “front porch” music spurred his desire to form a SongFarmers chapter in Greenwood.

“It’s the traditional kind of music that’s been around 30 or 40 years,” says McVicker. “And if you can’t play (that song), you wait until it comes around to one you can.”

Watching a PBS viewing of “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour” prompted McVicker to contact the national organization to learn about starting a chapter in Johnson County, where he has many social contacts. SongFarmers is a Lexington, Kentucky-based organization that draws kindred souls like McVicker. The Greenwood chapter is one of 71 nationwide.

“The music business is collapsing around smaller artists,” says SongFarmers organizer Michael Johnathon, who noted the demise of record stores and lack of CD players in new cars. “It’s almost impossible for smaller artists to make a living, but it doesn’t mean their spirit or passion is any less.”

Formed seven months ago and meeting monthly at the Greenwood Public Library, Greenwood’s SongFarmers has around 20 members ages 24 to 80, though a typical gathering features 10 to 15 people. Technically, McVicker is the only official member of SongFarmers, but joining the national group allowed him to start the local one. There is no charge to join the local group.

Traditional bluegrass, gospel and country tunes make up the song list with notes emanating from mostly acoustic instruments, such as guitars, banjos, mandolins and hammered dulcimers. It’s the chance to play with other musicians that McVicker believes is a strong drawing card.

“(People) learn music, but they never play with anyone else, or it’s hard to find someone who wants to play with you,” he says. “(SongFarmers) is a great opportunity to do that and to improve yourself and musical timing.”

More important than the type of music or instrument is the fellowship among kindred people who share a love of music, regardless of their talent.

“It’s an opportunity to network and meet with other people,” says McVicker, whose own musical journey started about 30 years ago. “If you’ve been playing an instrument and want to improve but are not taking lessons, you can get some tips from others.”

That come-as-you-are atmosphere attracted Jim Means to learn more about SongFarmers. “There’s no pressure on anybody trying to be good or bad,” he says. An Indianapolis southeast side resident, he also strums instruments for Acton Baptist Church. “You’re just sitting in with other musicians and trying to learn some songs.”

The wide variety of instruments appeals to Means, who notes that one member brings a Native American flute that blends well with the many stringed instruments.

“It’s a relaxed atmosphere where you get to meet people who play all different instruments … and are at different levels of playing,” he says. “Everybody helps everybody learn to play and have a fun time doing it.”

Means is now a regular Greenwood SongFarmers attendee whose personal musical journey is steeped in the tradition of front porch songs.

“My father played an old-time fiddle and the harmonica and guitar and a couple of other things,” he says of the laid-back genre. “He was always doing something around that style of music, and I was exposed to it growing up.”

He enjoys the SongFarmers group where people play for their own enjoyment and aren’t put on the spot to play. “It’s almost like comfort food,” he says of the good feeling he receives during the meetings. “If you want to join in, you can, and people seem to enjoy that.”

Means has been playing for more than 40 years. While the mandolin is his instrument of choice, it was banjo lessons as a college student where he met his wife, Debbie. They enjoy the family atmosphere that SongFarmers promotes as well as the ease at which musicians can jump in and play songs.

“It’s a G-C-D three-chord pattern,” Means says of many of the gospel and bluegrass favorites. “If you know those chords, you can play most songs.”

What chapters like Greenwood’s and others around the country are doing fits into what SongFarmers aims to achieve. The focus is on each hometown chapter being the main event, whether it is 200 people gathering in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, or a barn dance in Hinesburg, Vermont.

“The synergy of music has a wonderful energy to it, as long as you don’t monetize it,” says Johnathon, who formed SongFarmers four years ago. “Love is the greatest transaction in the arts, and the music industry has forgotten that.”

The greatest stage, says Johnathon, is that front porch or living room where an artist’s passion comes alive.

“It’s a way to remove money from the atmosphere and go back to the original reason and spirit for people playing,” he says of SongFarmers. “It may not be your livelihood, but it can be a very powerful part of your life.” Sitting in the SongFarmers’ circle and playing collectively is a powerful antidote for today’s world at times filled with anger, arguing and anxiety. “There’s no spotlight on any individual person; everyone is equal,” he says. “That’s why it’s spreading so fast.”

Meeting in a smaller group setting, McVicker says, gives people an intimate musical experience. Sitting 8 to 10 feet away, you can hone in on individual instruments, something that is next to impossible to do in a larger concert venue.

“The vibrations that your body feels, you don’t get that from playing or listening to different music,” he says. “This is the kind of thing that once you experience it, you’ll come back again and again. It’s just contagious.”

Greenwood SongFarmers Chapter
6 to 7:30 p.m., third Tuesday of each month
Greenwood Public Library
310 S. Meridian St., Greenwood
Richard McVicker, [email protected]