Conversations with John Schmid

Conversations with John Schmid. Recently I asked Kathy Marner owner of Ferngully Creek Cabins if she would write something about local Amish country singing legend and founder of Common Ground Ministries, John Schmid. Here is her story:

The four of us walked into the conference room of a nearby nursing home and straight into an Amish gathering, friends and family of the elderly lady we were there to visit. When John Schmid had invited my husband and me to join him and his wife, Lydia, in singing a few songs for “a shut-in” we said, sure, why not. It was typical John: turn an evening out into a chance to drop in on someone who would be delighted he did so.

I learned something about John that night. He has the rare ability to hurdle the cultural and religious boundaries separating the closed Amish circles from the world of “Englishers” with an ease that renders the wall itself virtually unnoticeable. The bearded men, all standing around one side of the crowded room while their women sat on the opposite side, were gearing up to sing. Small hard-cover German hymnals were scattered among them and they handed one to John who promptly joined in, enthusiastically belting out words whose meaning I could only guess given my limited knowledge of the language. An Old Order Amish rendition of hymns is not unlike a cloister of monks holding forth in slow, mournful strains of Latin.

I marveled at the immediate acceptance John enjoyed from normally reserved and exclusive people. When he told me later how much he loves their music, a world removed from his own style of singing, I learned his secret; he totally accepts them, they know it, and they respond in kind.

I wondered how Schmid, a musician well-known in our neck of the woods for his unique and relaxing country-flavored picking and singing, would segue from the somber feeling of spiritual weightiness permeating the room, into what he had come for: to cheer the sick with uplifting music and song. It seemed effortless as he shook hands around the room, talking to each in turn using their own first language, Pennsylvania Dutch. Soon everyone was smiling and seemingly as much at ease as he was. After a few minutes of visiting, reminiscing, and acknowledging mutual acquaintances, he unpacked his guitar and the old classic “How Great Thou Art” flowed through the room. Some of the Amish folk joined in; others simply listened in obvious enjoyment.

I was mulling over the differences in worship styles when John asked the silver-haired lady, wrapped snugly in her wheel-chair, if she had any requests. Without a moment’s hesitation she said, “Reuben James!” I laughed before I could stop myself. I expected a matriarch of her conservative variety to have no knowledge of music other than what her family had just sung. But John showed no surprise and serenaded his appreciative audience in grand style. My husband, Paul, joined him with guitar and vocal harmonies.

Growing up north of Fredricksburg, Ohio, in a family not prone to church-going, John spent his youth surrounded with local Amish boys, many of whom became his friends. Learning their language with little effort, he shared in their escapades and was accepted into their circle more closely than most “outsiders.”

John believed his grade school teacher when she told him he had no singing talent . . . and then he heard Johnny Cash. His voice was similar. And people listened. Maybe he could sing! So John joined several friends in a start-up band, a place to play their guitars, sing their songs, have some fun and dream of greatness. Eventually, most of the musicians in the group returned to their Amish roots, joining the church and giving up their instruments. John kept singing.
One night during a Nicky Cruz rally at a local high school, John gave his life to the Lord. He told me, tongue in cheek, that “Jesus ruined his career” in the wild and rowdy country music world. And he went on to tell me of the adventures he’s had since he teamed up with his Saviour.

John and his wife, Lydia, moved to Costa Rica soon after their wedding in 1980, working together at teaching, hosting a house for visiting missionaries, and leading youth ministries in association with Latin America Mission and later, Young Life. Two children, a son and a daughter expanded their little family and seven years later they returned to Holmes County. Another daughter arrived and they settled in the small town of Benton, serving two years in their local church, again in youth ministry.

In 1990 the music John enjoyed became a full-time calling. A tour with the Gospel Echoes during one of their prison-ministry journeys gave him the focus he had been looking for: visiting prisoners, bringing hope to devastated lives by spreading the truth that Jesus is the only real answer to their overwhelming need. And his music was a great vehicle with which to carry the Good News. Being on the road much of the time, going from one dreary institution to another, would leave many people drained and stressed but John says, “I love life; I enjoy every day.” He jokes about the incarcerated being a “captive audience” and he tells stories of inspiration received and given during interaction with inmates.

Always a self-proclaimed admirer of the legendary Johnny Cash and with a voice that lends itself to an uncanny likeness of the Man in Black, Schmid has sung many of his songs throughout the years. In 2010 he realized a dream: he recorded a Cash tribute CD, traveling to the Cash Cabin in Tennessee to record it. Added to the great variety of other recordings he has done before and since, he has twenty CDs to date with three of his best-selling entirely in Pennsylvania Dutch. With versatility in style and range, his vocals demonstrate a depth of talent that appeals to large crowds of locals including Amish, English, and everything in between. Sometimes he is joined by one or more of his children, sometimes Lydia. Often it’s just John and his guitar. And of course the Galilean that “ruined his career” way back in 1972.

Often away from his family, he wanted to do something special, something unforgettable, with his then eighteen-year-old son Adam, just graduated from high school, so they joined the wheat harvesting teams in America’s breadbasket for six weeks, helping gather acres of the golden grain from Texas to Nebraska. While Adam drove a massive combine, John drove a big rig, together they worked on cutting and hauling from morning until night. Utterly exhausting physically and strangely satisfying psychologically, it was a shared experience neither will ever forget. In an effort to create more memories with one-on-one time together, John took daughter Amy on a “graduation trip” to Ireland and later, when his youngest, Katie, finished high school, they went to Maine and worked on a lobster boat.

I asked John what his biggest adventure has been so far. There was no hesitation at all. “Lydia,” he grinned. And I could tell he meant it.

You may find John’s music at: John Schmid Amish Country Music

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