Grand theft guitar

Posted 10/16/19

Johnsmith owes his prolific music career to a case of grand theft auto.

“I graduated in 1969 and went out to Southern California just to get out of Iowa,” said Johnsmith, who grew up in a town of about 100 inhabitants.

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Grand theft guitar


Johnsmith owes his prolific music career to a case of grand theft auto.

“I graduated in 1969 and went out to Southern California just to get out of Iowa,” said Johnsmith, who grew up in a town of about 100 inhabitants.

He enrolled in junior college and was working as a janitor in a used car lot during the night shift.

Then one night, shenanigans happened.

“Some fella stole a car,” Johnsmith said. “Long story long, the thief tried to get away and I was by the back gate being curious. He had a guitar and he threw it at me and I grabbed the guitar. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it, but now that I look back, that was a pretty big little turning point in my life.”

The guitar was a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, which was excellent for a beginner, Johnsmith said.

“Your fingers don’t get sore. It was one of those Mexican guitars. Where is that guitar at? I don’t know what happened to it. A lot of things have a real story behind them.”

Johnsmith didn’t think about it at the time, but the guitar was probably stolen.

“Oh, I am sure it was. If he stole cars I’m sure he stole guitars.”

After getting his guitar, Johnsmith went and bought a manual as soon as he could and started writing songs.

“They weren’t great songs, but I was very inspired by Bob Dylan; Joni Mitchell; Crosby, Stills and Nash and James Taylor. A lot of older stuff too. There wasn’t a ton of folk music where I was at. Everything had to be pop music.”

Even though Johnsmith (yes, it’s spelled that way) has one of the most common names in the English language, he enjoys standing out in a crowd.

“I’d like to say the spelling was my idea, but it wasn’t. It was a friend who came up with it and it just sort of stuck.”

Farmer stock

Johnsmith was the son of a farmer, also a son of a farmer.

“We were in a really little town of about 100 people when I was born, a farm community,” he said. “We lived in this little town and then we moved to the big town of Dewitt, Iowa. It was about 3,000 people.”

Neither his father nor grandfather were very musical, Johnsmith said.

“I was told my one grandfather used to play fiddle, but I never saw him do it. I think back in those days if you could just play ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ that is all you needed. That was his party piece.”

Despite his humble beginnings, Johnsmith has gone on to achieve great things in the music industry, said Matt Miner, Northwind Songs producer.

Although under-recognized, Johnsmith’s 30-year career cannot be overlooked, Miner said.

In addition to being a New Folk Winner at the 48-year Kerrville (Texas) folk fest, Johnsmith has released eight solo CDs, leads musical tours to Ireland, teaches songwriting and has served as a staff songwriter in Nashville.

“I write songs about everyday kinds of things — family relationships, career, that kind of stuff, the ups and downs of life,” Johnsmith said. “I have some funny songs and definitely some tear jerker songs.”

Almost always clad in a worn pair of faded jeans, Johnsmith’s twinkly blue eyes and infectious smile almost immediately connects him with his audiences, Miner said.

Although an American, Johnsmith said he shaped by the Emerald Isle.

“I am very influenced by the place. With my music, in general, I am very inspired by place. I mean the landscape, the hills, the plants, the birds and the water,” he said. “That is really prominent in all my music if you listen to it.”

Johnsmith said he tours in Ireland as often as possible, and has gained an appreciation for beer that may offend a typical American palate.

“When I first went over there about 20 years ago, I wouldn’t say it was warm, but by American standards it was warm. It was probably like 55 degrees. But some pubs, it really was just warm. I actually kind of liked it. Before I went to Ireland, I really didn’t drink stouts and Guinesses. But then I went over there and that is just the way it was.”

Before attending the concert, Johnsmith encourages attendees to give his music a listen online at

“I think nowadays that is a very important piece of what listeners do. When they want to go to a concert, especially if they don’t know them, go listen to the artist a little bit because you can. If you don’t have that, you have a handicap.”


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