I met Johnny at Songbirds in Chattanooga about 4 years ago. The Songbirds Foundation is a guitar and pop culture museum offering exhibits, concerts, masterclasses by world famous guitarists, and much more. They are home to somewhere in the ballpark of 1500 vintage guitars played by the likes of B.B. King, Mary Kaye, Duane Allman, Carl Wilson, Chuck Berry, Loretta Lynn, Mel Bay, Hank Snow, John Entwistle, and many more. It is also a 250 capacity music venue with a full calendar. Like so many music venues across the country, they had to temporarily close their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic. We didn’t know if they would reopen but thank goodness they did and better than ever! If you’ve been to Songbirds, located right in the heart of downtown Chattanooga on Station St., I’m sure you appreciate what a staple they were and are to the community in and around Chattanooga.
The Songbirds calendar is once again full of live shows, but even arguably better, they launched their Guitars for Kids program. Guitars for Kids provides students across the south free guitars, music lessons, and in-depth music therapy. In 2021 over 55 schools, 18 partner programs, and 3,500 students took part in the program, with more than 800 guitars distributed across the state. Where does the heart for something like this come from? This is more than music business. This is changing lives. Any songwriter knows that writing is like breathing. It’s one of the greatest tools we have to cope, to process, to express the life we live. But what about the kids who don’t have that opportunity? I look forward to hearing Johnny’s “why” on Guitars for Kids. I couldn’t agree with this statement from their website more. It is closely aligned with my “why” behind building the Leaning Tree Agency:
“At Songbirds, we recognize that one of the greatest benefits of music is its ability to link unlike minds, break barriers, understand outside cultures, and forge relationships between different groups of people. We are committed to celebrating and embracing our different backgrounds, and we believe these differences create stronger people, experiences, and community.”
When I first experienced Songbirds, I was there with a band I was managing at the time, and they were finalists in a songwriting competition. A few weeks before the competition, Songbirds held a panel discussion for the contestants and Johnny was on the panel. His message made such an impact on me that night that I knew I wanted to meet him the night of the competition and as I often do, I wanted to follow up with a lunch or coffee.
Johnny’s message was one of transformation. He talked about the music business, but most of what he said was applicable to anyone in any business -
“Always work harder than the guy next to you, and you’ll probably succeed.”
I feel like I’ve heard that a lot but when he said it, It hit differently. Probably because leading up to that, he shared with us that he had spent 7 years in prison. I think it was for drug dealing. I can’t remember, so I’ll let Johnny tell us that at our next meeting.
To go from 7 years in prison to a happily married man with two children, and the President of one of the most notable music venues in the Southeast, is inspiring. How many of you reading this have thoughts like,
“I’m one of the older people in the music industry. I don’t have as much of a shot.”
“I didn’t study music in college, so I probably won’t have as much opportunity as people who did and I also don’t have the network that comes from that.”
“I have no idea how this business works. It’s overwhelming. Why in the world do I think I even have a chance when I can hardly edit a decent TikTok video?”
“Why would anyone listen to MY music? What’s so special about me and what I have to sing about?”
I am not an aspiring musician, but I am an aspiring business woman in music and let me tell you, I’ve had my fair share of doubts. Why would a former stay-at-home mom of FIVE think she has any chance at building a talent agency? Am I crazy? Johnny didn’t seem to think so when he said yes to my invite to coffee.
We met in Chattanooga at The Frothy Monkey. I can’t remember what I got to eat, but it was good. Some kind of yummy cheesy breakfast sandwich. I asked Johnny more about his journey into the music business. How do you go from prison to being such an integral part of Chattanooga’s music scene? How do you see the music scene in Chattanooga today vs. when you started? How did you get to where you are so quickly? How has music changed your life?
I’d love to tell you all about our conversation, but I’ll let Johnny do that at our next meeting.
Spread the word! We’ll see everyone Monday, November 14th at 6:30 pm at Photo Art Gallery on Spring St. in Cookeville.
Just leaning in,