Musician’s passion trumps his ambition


Folk singer/songwriter John Smith’s goal never was to be famous.

His ambitions were less lofty, yet just as significant — to share his love of music with others.

Smith has managed to create a fulfilling life doing just that.

In 2006, prior to a June concert at the Operahouse Theatre, the son of the late James Leroy “J.L.” and Evelyn Smith, of DeWitt, told The Observer that he couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t singing.

The Smith house — which included 10 children — always was filled with music, whether it was playing or someone was singing.

The 1969 Central DeWitt graduate indulged his love of music as much as possible, whether it was in the choir at St. Joseph Catholic Church, walking the streets of DeWitt or as a teenager in his rock ’n’ roll band.

He has managed to make a career of making and performing music — under the name “Johnsmith” — influenced by a variety of genres, including folk, blues, country and R&B.

In his early years, Smith sang in an R&B/rock-n-roll band called “December’s Children,” named after a Rolling Stones LP, with fellow Central students Rich (“Mac”) and Mike (“Fang”) McReynolds on guitars, Dave Anderson on bass, Butch Soenksen on drums, Eddie McCoy and Rick McCartney on keyboard and sax.

“We never played out that much,” Smith said. “But we had lots of fun hours rehearsing in basements and garages around town.”

It was while he was attending college in Southern California that Smith received his first guitar.

“I immediately began writing songs,” he related. “Folk songs, like Bob Dylan and John Prine. I’ve been playing music full-time my whole adult life, including touring over 500 college campuses, five years as a staff writer in Nashville, Tennesee, 15 years bringing groups of fans along the west coast of Ireland.

“I also lead musical river raft trips in Idaho, Alaskan inner passage cruises and teach songwriting at institutes and festivals across the United States.”

Smith has recorded six CDs, which have received rave reviews from trade publications such as Dirty Linen, Performing Songwriter and Sing Out! Magazines.

Many of the songs he has written include stories about DeWitt and his years growing up here, as well as family memories.

His classmate at Central and fellow musician Terry Rathje, is now an assistant professor at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois.

Rathje said he is proud of his friend for all he’s accomplished, particularly for sharing his passion for music with others.

“John has gone on to distinguish himself not only as a singer/songwriter on a national level, but also to be a regular participant in the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, Texas, where he performs and teaches songwriting workshops,” Rathje noted. “He also teaches workshops at several other music festivals around the country and tours, performing in both this country and abroad.

“He has always been interested in the spiritual and human side of people, and making connections between the places he grew up, the people of remembers (many of them from DeWitt) and the people he has yet to meet on the road in various venues where he performs.”

Rathje went on to say, in addition to being a performer, Smith also is a “generous soul.”

He has helped raise money and awareness for the children of Guatemala through a nonprofit organization that helps build schools and procure teachers, books and furniture for schools and libraries in the impoverished country. 

Smith has enjoyed life living with his wife, Jo, for the past 40 years in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, near LaCrosse. The couple has raised three children and have five grandchildren.

He treasures many fond memories of his time in DeWitt, including camping with his friends along Silver Creek, going to dances, football and basketball games.

Smith said it’s been a long journey, but he wouldn’t change a single thing.

“Writing and sharing songs feels so purposeful,” he shared. “I never really ‘dreamed’ of being a musician. It just sort of happened. But I do have a good life. I am no star by any stretch, but I am allowed the opportunity to share my songs with folks all around the country. I’ve made some great friends and seen lots of pretty places. I get lots of feedback how my songs have moved folks … that reward alone is fulfilling.”