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Kentucky folk singer collects instrument donations after tornado destruction

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Deadly tornadoes swept through parts of the Midwest and the South in December. Entire neighborhoods in western Kentucky were wiped out. Hundreds of people are still displaced and grieving the loss of loved ones, personal items and life as they knew it. One initiative started by a folk singer is helping to replace musical instruments, and it's given away more than 700 so far. From WEKU, Cheri Lawson reports.

CHERI LAWSON, BYLINE: Behind large white garage doors at a warehouse turned music venue in Dawson Springs, Ky., Sterling Wallace and his wife Karen stand in awe. They've just been handed a guitar to replace one of theirs that was damaged in the tornado.

STERLING WALLACE: It's just unbelievable. I'd cried for a little bit, you guys, but (laughter) I'll wait till I get home, then I'll cry.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

LAWSON: Karen Wallace says when she heard about the tornado instrument relief project, she signed up immediately. The music minister says even though she and her husband lost a lot in the storms and have to rebuild, replacing their instruments is a big deal. Gently strumming the guitar feels comforting to her. It's a small step on the way back to normal.

KAREN WALLACE: For people who love music and who have music in their life and who lost instruments, this is as much as food and gas and, you know, the house. So, yeah, it really means a lot.

LAWSON: The host of the WoodsSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Michael Johnathon, along with dozens of volunteers, sent out requests by email and Facebook, asking people around the country to donate instruments for the tornado survivors.

MICHAEL JOHNATHON: I knew that we couldn't replace water lines or power lines or roofs, but we could replace the music and art.

LAWSON: Steffani Burton's teenage daughters are musicians. Their piano was in storage. A few of their guitars in storage were damaged, and their mandolin was crushed in the tornado. Her kids getting violins today gives her hope.

STEFFANI BURTON: It means everything. Music is such a big part of our home and our life, and the tornado took that.

LAWSON: Instrument donations came from all over North America, and even a few from Australia and England. Music stores from Washington, D.C., to Nashville pitched in by collecting from their communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF POWER TOOL OPERATING)

LAWSON: Hundreds of instruments, including banjos, guitars, mandolins and flutes, were sent to a music store in Richmond, Ky., where manager Cathy Currier organized volunteers to clean and refurbish them.

CATHY CURRIER: When you're done with something, please try to find the case it was in.

LAWSON: Volunteers helped load up a big box truck to haul the instruments nearly 300 miles to western Kentucky where they were distributed.

CURRIER: People have just gone above and beyond. It kind of restores your faith in humanity.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

LAWSON: At Graves County Public Library in Mayfield, 73-year-old Ruben Steen was thrilled to be playing the guitar again. He lost his in the tornado in Mayfield.

JOHNATHON: Now, here's a man who deserves a good guitar, right?

K WALLACE: The last person in a line of more than 200 people at the library was Nancy Rambo. She's been playing music for 40 years for quartets and in church. She was overwhelmed with emotion when a brand new keyboard was carried to her car.

NANCY RAMBO: I never expected it. I mean, you know, I just thought I'd come by and check on a guitar. It's just been so hard on us. We have lost so much.

LAWSON: Folk singer and organizer Michael Johnathon says he and the volunteers delivered 700 presentation-worthy instruments to western Kentucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)

LAWSON: For NPR News, I'm Cheri Lawson in Dawson Springs, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.