FREEDY JOHNSTON WAS 16 AND SUBSISTING on a diet of Elton John, David Bowie, Steely Dan and Led Zeppelin when he ordered his first guitar from a mail-order house in Delaware. There were no music stores near his home in Kinsley, Kans. He still remembers the sunny morning when "the UPS truck pulled up in front of my house, and the man pulled out this, ironically, coffin-shaped cardboard box and carried it up to me. That was the start."
He had grown up on a farm until his parents divorced when he was 7, and alter high school he tried the University of Kansas in Lawrence before dropping out to work in restaurants and practice his guitar. He came east in 1985. Freedy (a spin on Fred bestowed by his mom) had earned money for that first guitar by doing farm jobs, including one traumatic day of exterminating prairie dogs by pouring gasoline down their holes and sealing the holes with dirt. "Their burrows destroy the ground, and cows fall into the ruts," Johnston explains. "I only did it one day, but I felt really bad about it. Prairie dogs are so cute you can't imagine ever wanting to hurt one. They have almost humanlike faces."
Nowadays, Johnston tours and writes on his guitar. For him, chords lead to a melody, which leads to a groove, which suggests a title. Then come the lyrics. He likens writing to being "a mouse in a maze searching for the cheese. You try one route, dead end, try another, always smelling for that cheese." Or perhaps it's like being a prairie dog in a burrow. He laughs. "Yeah, looking for the exit."