Traveling performer gets inspiration from natural sources
After five years of working the phones in a Des Moines office cubicle, Will Schmitt had enough of the 9-to-5 formula. So he did what so many people only dream of doing. He walked out the door and focused on a simpler life.
"I had to get out of there," Schmitt insisted. "I couldn't see myself sitting there the rest of my life. I had to get out and experience the world. I picked up a lot of songs along the way and that's what I'm here to share."
That life-choice will bring him to northwest Iowa this weekend for a pair of free outdoor concerts -- the first at 1 p.m. Saturday at Lost Island Huston Park, north of Ruthven, and the second at 11 a.m. Sunday in Scharnberg Park near Everly.
Schmitt is bringing the Spirit of Chautauqua tour to 45 counties this summer, named as a tribute to the lively Chautauqua festivals that brought a world of entertainment to Iowa communities a century go.
The idea for the tour came to Schmitt while touring the Pacific Crest Trail last year.
"After 700 miles of desert hiking, I reached the Sierra Nevada mountains and was awestruck by the natural beauty of the area. I felt a deeper appreciation for the public lands of America and a curiosity about the many parks that dot the landscape in my home state," Schmitt explained.
The Madison County native spent 10 years as frontman for Midwestern punk rock band Funks G, touring the country and performing hundreds of concerts with people he still considers among his best friends. He put the electric guitar down five years ago and went to work at a wilderness therapy school in Vermont.
"It just felt like the rock and roll thing had run it's course," Schmitt said. "It felt like I was screaming at the top of my lungs and my voice wasn't being heard. I thought if I whispered they might listen to what I have to say."
He continued, "Teen angst was over. I think it was a transition from adolescence into adulthood."
Since then he has lived on and off the grid, sharing extended periods of time with nature and sleeping beneath the stars. After hiking approximately 4,000 miles up the eastern and western parts of the United States he has dedicated his time and resources to sharing the songs and stories his journey has helped him accumulate along the way.
Schmitt said, "In all honesty, at its heart it's the same. It's just a different delivery. There's really a sort of connection between punk rock and folk music. There's a message of togetherness and appreciation."
He continued, "Now my songs have a lot more nature in them. That's where I find my refuge and my joy.
Schmitt has ties to the region with family on his father's side living in Spencer and Peterson. Growing up, he recalled making trips to Okoboji annually.
After spending four months touring and performing in the Pacific Northwest, Schmitt has returned to Iowa.
"I had some good success out there and wanted to see if it would transform back home. So far it's been going really well."
Right now he Schmitt calls "nowhere" home.
"My parents still live in Winterset and I'm always welcome to go visit there, but I'm staying busy enough this summer that I'm on the road. In terms of full-time music touring, it's something that Ive done for 16 years. There's a time for an artist to be sedentary and a time to go out and share the music. I'm in the sharing the music phase right now, but I don't intend to be perpetually on the road and living out of my car. ...
This tour is focused on county parks and trying to draw people out to the nature areas so on this tour I'm camping."
Schmitt will perform a one hour set complete with plenty of original music featuring his vocals, his guitar and a foot-operated electric suitcase kick drum.
"I will tell the story about how I left my cubicle in Des Moines to the present. That takes about 40 minutes and then the final third of the show, I do some different stuff," he explained.
The musician continued, "From the feedback I've been getting, it's very soothing. You come out and hear the birds chirping and some songs and stories. I think it's worth looking into. Not everybody is playing in parks."