When John Smith was a fledgling music maker growing up in Brixham he used every penny he earned delivering the Western Morning News on his paper round to boost his all-important guitar fund.
A precocious and instinctive musician, he had been writing his own compositions on piano from the age of eight. Then his father bought him his first guitar when he was 11; after that he just wanted more. He was hooked, fuelled on a diverse diet of Bach, Debussy, Ry Cooder and Led Zeppelin from his dad's record collection.
"It's always made me very very happy to play the guitar, and I listen to just about any music I can get my hands on," says John, who has about a dozen guitars now, plus a banjo and a mandolin. And that puppy love has blossomed into a polished, longstanding relationship that finds 31-year-old John slowly but surely winning over a posse of key tastemakers, as well as audiences right across Europe, the States, Canada, Mexico and Japan.
Named Young Acoustic Guitarist Of The Year a decade ago, he has become a maestro of the steel-string acoustic; he plays it with a slide, sometimes on his lap, sometimes de-tuning it mid-song.
Currently on tour in the UK – with a show next week in Exeter – he has recently released his fourth LP, Great Lakes, and a single of the same name, to huge acclaim.
It's a record that showcases his rich and wholesome self-penned songs, defined by all manner of organic guitar manipulation, his husky, honeyed baritone and the easy but intricate instrumental arrangements he directs.
It is testament to his quietly explosive cult standing that when you type "John Smith" into a Google search online, his website is generally in the top three.
Yet John remains as unstarry as they come, a down-to-earth, independent troubadour who releases records on his own label and loves his nomadic life, spending as many as 250 nights a year performing, driving himself from town to town and setting up his own gear on stage.
"I am grateful to be gigging every night," says the guitar man who tours relentlessly, with and without a band, both as headliner and support act to the likes of Seth Lakeman, Davy Graham, John Renbourn, David Gray, Cara Dillon, Martin Carthy, Jools Holland, Iron and Wine, Tinariwen, and the late John Martyn and Gil Scott-Heron.
Born in Essex, John lived in Devon from the age of four until he left at 19 to study music at Liverpool, where he is still based. "It can be a lot of hard slog, and I spent five years playing to people who talked over me, but one day they started listening," says John. "Then all of a sudden you start to think that you are doing something meaningful.
"To connect with someone on an emotional level through a song is something special; I don't take it for granted. Whatever gig I play I remember that you never know who is in the audience and where it might lead. I used to have wild ambition, but then you realise music is an industry. I used to dream of playing the Union Chapel in London, but I've done that now; everything else is a bonus."
John Smith plays a sold-out show at Exeter's Phoenix on December 12.