By Judith Munson  

Once upon a time, a young lad from Iowa was working on a car lot in California when a runaway thief tossed him a guitar. Eventually, this twist of fate allowed him to land a deal in Nashville and travel the world as a folk singer while enjoying his quiet home along the Mississippi River in Trempealeau.

Surprisingly, that sort of sums up how it happened for Johnsmith, who spells his name like this to differentiate himself from the 216,738 other John Smiths out there. Plus, it looks cool on a CD cover, such as his newly released “Ginkgo.”

Slowing down the fast-forward version of his life, we learn John grew up in Iowa. He wanted to see the ocean, so he moved to California after graduating high school. Here, he landed a job as a janitor at a car lot while attending school.

One night at work, a fellow tried to return a car he had stolen. The owner gave chase, during which the thief lobbed a guitar at John with well wishes. Can you have a more perfect start to a folk singer’s career?

Johnsmith“That was my first guitar, and that’s when I started songwriting,” says John.

John left California to briefly return home to Iowa and live on an organic farm. He spent a couple of years near Boulder, Colorado, and eventually landed in Trempealeau, Wisconsin.

“When I lived in California, I couldn’t wait to get out of the city; it was not for me,” recalls John. “I love the land, wide-open spaces, to see and hear nature every day.”

A job as a naturalist at Perrot State Park brought John and his wife, Jo, to Trempealeau, where he also worked on developing a solo music career. It blossomed as more and more folk fans sought out his melodic singing and artfully crafted lyrics. He also landed a songwriting contract with a publishing company in Nashville.

With an eagle’s nest towering outside his home along the river, Trempealeau is the perfect speed for John’s music.

“The song ‘The Medicine’ on my new CD describes this nest in our twin white pines,” says John. “I love folk music because the songs tell a story. It’s not just the usual, ‘She loves me, she loves me not,’ stuff you hear on the radio.”

Or as Bob McWilliams of Kansas Public Radio described John’s music, “Your gift of writing deceptively simple songs that spring from a deep place in the soul is a rare one.”

Like all good writers, John tells the stories he knows best: his family, his love for the river and nature, and, at age 66, reflections on his life. John truly struck a chord with the 1998 release of “From His Window,” which tells the story of his father slipping away with Alzheimer’s.

With more than 444,000 hits and heartfelt comments on YouTube, “From His Window” connects people who think they are struggling alone in life, and that, says John, is the beauty of folk music: stories that bring people together on a deeper level.

This kind of connection between listener and songwriter makes for a different kind of fan base—the kind that might want to follow the songwriter across the ocean, for example.

Love for folk music has led John to Ireland, where he has played a lot of gigs and made a lot of friends. Eventually, after the urging of many fans, he started bringing them along. “I was getting requests to organize the ‘Inishfree Irish Music’ tours,” says John. “People get to hear some of the best music in Ireland.”

John organizes another trip for fans along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, where they battle the rapids in a raft by day and sing around the campfire by night.

Johnsmith Gingko AlbumToday, John tours about 100 days a year. If that isn’t enough, he is a featured artist at several songwriting workshops across the country, including some in Moab, Utah, and Big Sur, California.

Recently, he flew in some friends to help him with “Ginkgo,” his eighth CD and his first that was recorded right here in La Crosse. Check out the third track, “Lucky Duck,” for the full story about his first guitar.

John will appear at the Pump House Regional Arts Center Jan. 12 and 13 for his “Ginkgo” CD release concerts. For more information about Johnsmith and his music, go to