Appalachian storyteller, songwriter featured in upcoming Dogwood Festival

Published 9:29 am Tuesday, May 3, 2016

(Submitted photo)

(Submitted photo)

While not connected to the Great Lakes State like many of the other featured artists at this year’s festival, the tales and tunes in the head of Dogwood’s latest storyteller resonate with any audience, regardless of what side Mason–Dixon line it falls on.

Appalachian Mountains area native Michael Reno Harrell will be sharing his blend of southern stories and songs with visitors to the upcoming Dogwood Fine Arts Festival with a family-friendly performance at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, at the Dale A. Lyons Building theater at Southwestern Michigan College. Harrell will also lead a storytelling master class from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, May 10, at Cass County COA Front Street Crossing Building.

Harrell, who came recommended to Dogwood Festival organizers by 2014 performer Kim Weitkamp, describes his style of storytelling as something that people across the entire country can relate to, like “granddaddy’s pocket knife — well worn and familiar feeling, but razor sharp and with a point.”

A self-taught guitarist who has been performing professionally for more than 50 years, Harrell’s passion for music and songwriting led him down the path he follows today. Starting off as many young, aspiring musicians do — performing in bars and other tiny venues — Harrell tried performing songs he created himself for audiences, though they were often met with apathy from crowds wanting to hear covers of classic tunes, he said.

“I thought if I started telling audiences the story behind why I wrote the song, maybe they would be interested in listening to it,” Harrell said. “Eventually my introductions became longer than the songs themselves, and at that point I guess I became a storyteller.”

He didn’t become a full-time storyteller until around 10 years ago, though, after a breakout performance at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Since then, Harrell has traveled across the U.S. as well parts of Europe, performing in festivals and corporate events, and has received honors such as the featured teller at the National Storytelling Festival and teller in residence at the International Storytelling Center.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “I get to travel all over and meet so many different people. It’s not a bad way to make a living.”

In spite of his popularity in the storytelling community, Harrell still considers himself a songwriter at heart, weaving music with the spoken word during his performances, he said.

“In the folk music world I’m that guy who is always telling stories, and in the storyteller world I’m that guy who is always singing songs,” Harrell said.

Drawing mostly from his own experiences growing up, Harrell’s storytelling focuses on relaying tales that everyone can take something away from, be it stories about childhood mischief with cherry bombs or his grandmother’s fried chicken.

It’s this aspect of his career Harrell enjoys most — the opportunity to see the reactions his tales elicit from his audiences, be it fits of laughter or sobs of sadness, he said.

“All I did was make them feel their own emotions,” he said. “That’s what we’re after as storytellers: to make people feel their own lives, to remember their own experiences.”

Tickets to Harrell’s performance May 11 cost $6; registration cost for the May 10 master class cost $10, with limited registration.

The 2016 Dogwood Fine Arts Festival takes place May 5-15. For information or tickets, people can contact the festival office at (866) 490-2847.