Puremusic: One of the best things about doing interviews is I get to really find out more about my friends that I only know in the present tense, and only in very certain ways. For instance, I know very little about your background. But to understand where you're coming from, we need to understand where you came from.
Johnsmith: I grew up in eastern Iowa, very, very rural. Both my folks grew up on farms. My mom's side is all Irish Catholic, even though nobody has come from Ireland for the last few generations, they all married Irish people, all my relatives went that way.
PM: They married Irish people?
JS: Well, the Irish would come over, say, to places like Iowa, and they would just get farm after farm after farm after farm, 160 acres, and it would be like four miles square of all Irish people. Over here there would be four miles of Italians, over here, Germans. And they kept to their ways. They had their churches and their schools, and they just kept marrying each other, and new Irish people were coming over, because they... So anyway, I grew up with that kind of a very Irish Catholic sense, even though I didn't know what that meant, what that would mean. I didn't know anything about Irish people. All I knew is what it meant to be this Irish Catholic in America kind of a thing.
PM: And one of many kids, right?
JS: There were ten kids in my family in ten years. Every year there was one. We've got some of the "Irish twins" thing, where there's some of us that are less than a year apart.
JS: There's a set of twins in there. And I'm the third. Yeah, so when I was real little, my dad farmed, and--
PM: In family theory, I believe the third child is generally considered the lost child, frequently the artistic child.
JS: Well, I'm definitely that, yeah.
PM: The savior, the black sheep, and then the lost child, generally. And then I think it repeats. So that's interesting. I'll have to check on that. But I believe that to be true.
JS: Yeah. Well some of that speaks to me in that I grew up in a place where there weren't many artists, at least not that I knew of. I remember one time when I had a songwriting deal with Wrensong Publishing in Nashville for about five years in the late '90s, 2001, '02, around there. I would make the drive, I would drive to Nashville from Wisconsin, and sometimes I'd just do the beeline through Illinois, and sometimes I would take the back roads. I'm one of those back roads kind of guys. Just like any time I'll get there, I just need to go the slow way, to see the... you know what I mean?
JS: So I was doing a drive. And this particular one day I was driving, I decided to really take the back roads and go to the little house we lived in as kids, which was this town--it was a very Irish type town called Toronto, Iowa, less than 100 people, like 90-some people. They had 100 until our family left.
JS: I'm serious. Everybody was pissed in town, the Smiths left, ten percent of the population.
JS: Anyway, it was really a small town, and our house was like a little farm. We had acreage. We had gardens that were as big as this damn restaurant. We grew potatoes. Our whole basement was a potato bin, the whole freakin' basement, hundreds and hundreds of potatoes--
PM: That's Irish Catholic.
JS: --salamanders and all.
JS: So I was making this drive one time, down in my Nashville gig. And it was a time when I was kind of going through a blue funk about, God, this is a hard life, this art thing. You know what I mean? Part of me inside feels just wickedly purposeful about what I do. And I feel blessed, and I have a pretty charmed life with it. But that doesn't mean I don't have times where I just go, God, this is hard. Am I hitting my head against the wall? Especially the Nashville thing.
Anyway, I took this longer drive and went through this little town, and my memories were flooding me. And I pulled into the next bigger town, called DeWitt, with a few thousand people. That’s where my folks lived, and where I'd graduated from high school. And this light bulb went off in my head; I realized that I'd never had one example, somebody to emulate. If you're a doctor, for instance, certainly you had a doctor or two in your community to serve as an example to you. If you're a lawyer or a schoolteacher, we all had examples of those.
PM: Role models.
JS: Role models. When I start thinking about it, there was not an artist of any kind.
PM: Not a painter, not an actor, not a sculptor?
JS: Nothing, nothing, nothing in this little area. So for whatever reason that was a light bulb for me, Frank; hey, man, don't beat yourself up. You didn't have that example. You're really forging your own path here.
And I remember that night, that same night, I went to my folks'. And it was really precious, because growing up in a family of ten kids, there was very little one-on-one time. I'm sure I got some deep issues with that.
PM: No doubt.
JS: Yeah, no doubt.
PM: It's part of being Irish Catholic.
JS: Right. But this was very precious, to just have dinner with my mom and dad, nobody else, not even my wife and kids, just me. We had few of those, so this was special. But I just had this kind of revelation. And up to that point, that night, my folks always loved my talent, they love that I sing, because they all sing. They just love that I do it, and they love it when I bring my guitar and I play some songs. And my dad usually would prefer I'd sing like a Hank Williams song or something, he just loves the country. And I was always kind of wishing I was--and when I was doing the Nashville thing he thought that was pretty cool. But they're very blue collar, I mean, kind of poor Irish Catholic people. And I remember they always would say--I'd tell them about I'm doing this, and I'm trying to get this gig, and I got this going. And they'd always be--like they'd shake heads and go, "Okay, that's cool." But they always every night somewhere in the conversation would go, "So hey, maybe you could get a job down at Fed-Ex or UPS. Or maybe the post office is hiring." Like, "You could get a real job that's secure," and stuff.
Anyway, I remember that night, man, it was a big empowering evening for me. I remember after dinner--and it was a great dinner, my mom made all my favorite things, and just treated me great. But when this topic come up, I looked at them both and I said, "Mom and Dad"--I could hardly say this, I was just like, "that really hurts when you say that. I know you mean well, that you think you're coming from a loving place," but I said, "This is not an easy path that I've chosen, but it's what I'm doing. And I want you to never say negative stuff like that. It hurts when you say that. This is what I'm doing. I want your support." And they both sat there almost quivering. But they heard me. continue