February 21, 2024

Beauty Arts

The Arts Authority

Remembering the Wichita musician killed in a hunting accident

Remembering the Wichita musician killed in a hunting accident

Joe Smith and his band, Kapybara, playing The Cotillion Ballroom in January 2020. It was on Smith’s bucket list to play the Cotillion, where legends in music had played. The 30-year-old Wichitan died Jan. 21 in a freak hunting accident.

Joe Smith and his band, Kapybara, playing The Cotillion Ballroom in January 2020. It was on Smith’s bucket list to play the Cotillion, where legends in music had played. The 30-year-old Wichitan died Jan. 21 in a freak hunting accident.

Courtesy of R. Newberry Photography

As a boy, Joe Smith played worship music at Central Christian Church.

“That was half of what we enjoyed,” his older brother Jake Smith said. “We would sneak into the church at night and use that building to practice and play. When that was happening, it was not worship music. It was rock. That’s what we enjoyed.”

Administrators at the church knew they were doing it, but didn’t mind.

Family, musicians, friends and coworkers described Joe Smith as a talented musician, intensely passionate about life, uplifting of others and a friend to everyone he met.

The 30-year-old Wichita plumber, who was red-haired with a thick beard, died Jan. 21 in a freak hunting accident.

He and a friend were hunting deer on public land in Sumner County. The friend saw another dog at a nearby home and put his German Shepherd in the backseat so the dog wouldn’t jump out. Seeing the other dog while they were driving, the German Shepherd stepped onto a rifle on the middle console, turning off the thumb safety and hitting the trigger in one step.

Smith was shot in the back. He died at the scene.

He is survived by his grandmothers, parents, four siblings (three brothers and a sister) and nieces and nephews. Smith’s obituary says he is also survived by his beloved dog Lucille, a German Shepherd.

“He was a kick (expletive) uncle,” Jake Smith said, remembering Joe Smith calling just before Christmas and telling him to bring his son outside. He had an excavator on a trailer and wanted to let his nephew crawl on it and pretend to drive. “That’s just who Joe was. He was always ready to have fun and share joy and laugh and celebrate.”

Outside of music, Smith was also a lover of the outdoors. He liked hunting, fishing and hiking. He even went noodling — fishing for catfish with your hands — with his cousin Austin Baxter after learning from their uncle Tony when Smith was a child.

“Joe loved outdoors probably as much as he loved music,” his father, Kip Smith, said.

Baxter and Smith were best friends and played together on the rising Wichita band, Kapybara.

Baxter plays the drums in the alternative funk rock band. Smith played the bass and, after convincing from the other band members, reluctantly agreed to be the lead singer as well.

Jake Smith had long tried to convince his brother to sing during the middle school jam sessions at the church, but he wouldn’t do it. He finally agreed with Kapybara.

“And it was fantastic,” he said. “Felt like we missed out for a long time.”

Baxter added: “He had pitch-perfect ears.”

Starting a band

Joe Smith went to Wichita Heights High School before transferring after a disagreement with administrators — that’s all the family would call it as they chuckled about whatever happened — to Circle High School.

At Circle, he met Trevor Williamson and the two started a band.

Smith had never planned on anything more than jamming with friends and loving on others through music, family said. That passion for music shined in late night jam sessions in the sanctuary at Central Christian Church at 29th and Rock, never waned with age.

He linked up with a band when he moved to California for a stint after high school. Family thought it was just a time for him to find his own way.

Days after moving back, Smith and Baxter were jamming in the bedroom of Smith’s apartment. He lined the walls with foam to lessen the noise for his roommate.

It was the first jam session of what would come to be Kapybara.

Baxter and guitarist Zach Nordick had already been jamming together. Soon Williamson, who was in a band with Smith back in high school, joined too.

They wrote a song the first time they were together.

It “flowed like water,” Baxter said. “It was beautiful. It just happened. Totally naturally.”

They jammed together without a band name for a year, but a passion to play a show grew. They now had to get a name.

In October 2017, Kapybara played their first show at Kirby’s Beer Store. They made $75 in tips, all from family.

“It was awesome,” Baxter said, adding that he was only 19 at the time, so they had to play at venues that allowed under 21. “Something about that first show really lit the fire underneath all of us … So we were playing more, practicing more, setting up more shows.”

The late Kenny Ballinger, who ran The Elbow Room where Kapybara had played, helped them find their live sound.

Unknown to the band, Baxter’s brother entered them into a battle of the bands put on by iHeartRadio at Stearman Field Bar & Grill in summer 2019.

The idea was just to have fun, but they ended up winning. Their prize was getting to open for nationally known bands — Spin Doctors, Fuel and Eve — at the Capitol Federal Amphitheater in Andover later that summer. It was brutally hot and they were all drenched in sweat before their set ever started.

After that, Kapybara no longer needed to call around to find a place to perform, but instead were taking calls about performing. That included in January 2020 getting to play at The Cotillion Ballroom, which was a bucket list performance for Smith.

After the show, he listed all the legends in music who have performed on that stage and joyfully told his oldest brother, Jared Smith: ‘That was one of the best shows I’ve ever done.’”

They released an album after that.

“24 hours a day, music was on his mind,” Baxter said.

The call

They continued to have fun jamming with each other in the garage of a band member’s family home.

They last jammed together on January 20, the day before Smith’s death.

Baxter had just gotten back from being out of the country and had a souvenir from the trip for Joe Smith. They hugged and said they loved each other, which had always been part of any farewell in their family.

Baxter got a call on Jan. 23 from a Sumner County Sheriff’s Office deputy. He was driving and just had a feeling it was something he couldn’t handle while driving.

He asked to call back when he arrived home in a few minutes. The deputy agreed.

On the ensuing call, the deputy said he was sorry, but his cousin died in a freak accident. Baxter relayed the message to the family, who then went to tell the neighbor they knew it was an accident; not his fault.

“We wanted him to know it was a freak accident and we don’t have any negative or harsh feelings toward him at all,” Kip Smith said. “We were thankful Joe had him as a friend.”

On Facebook and in a GoFundMe people talked about his “amazing head of hair” and “being a goofball” and a positive light at work.

“During our time in youth group you always asked me how I was doing and genuinely cared, you never passed any kind of judgement towards me,” one person wrote on Facebook. “You had one of the most amazing hearts out there, you were indeed a rare breed.”

Wichita musician Jason Catlett wrote: “He was an extremely talented individual and easily one of the nicest guys you could ever meet.”

Band member Williamson wrote on Facebook: “Joe was a guy who made you feel like you could be yourself no matter the circumstance. He brought a smile, a laugh, and an untamable personality every single time you were with him.”

The fundraiser, which was started by Smith’s employer, Brown’s Plumbing Services, surpassed the $20,000 goal to help the family with funeral expenses. In the fundraiser, a coworker named Jessica wrote how Smith told everyone he loved them.

“Every time he walked through the door, he would make someone smile,” she wrote. “Either from being a goofball or just his natural presence making everything better. It wasn’t hard to love Joe because he always made you feel like you were one of a kind and never left a conversation without letting you know he loved you.”

Family said people have started reaching out to them, telling them how much Smith meant to them. It was like they also lost a brother, Jared Smith said.

“He was 100% supportive of everyone he loved and he loved everybody,” he said.

A viewing will be from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday at Downing & Lahey Mortuary, 6555 E. Central. A service is planned for 11 a.m. on Tuesday at Central Chrisitan Church, 2900 North Rock. Both are open to the public.

Michael Stavola covers breaking news at The Wichita Eagle. He was a finalist for the prestigious Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2022. He’s also won several national, regional and state awards during his seven-plus years of working at newspapers in Kansas. He finished his MBA at Wichita State University in spring 2020.