Chris Smither: No longer blue
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 3, 2002) – His trademark guitar is blue, and he left his native New Orleans in the mid-‘60s to travel north to Cambridge, Mass., to get a taste of the thriving neo-blues scene centered around Club 47 and pickers like Eric Von Schmidt, Spider John Koerner and Bonnie Raitt.
But even if his guitar-picking style owes a debt to blues guitarists like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt, and even if he occasionally sings songs identified with blues legends like Robert Johnson and Brownie McGhee, Smither is adamant – he’s not primarily a blues artist.
“I don’t really think of myself as a blues guy anymore, and I haven’t for a long time,” said Smither, who performs tomorrow night at the Berkshire Museum at 8, in a recent phone interview from his home near Boston.
“Most blues people who listen to what I do will say he’s listened to a lot of blues, but that’s not what he’s doing. That’s the answer right there.”
What Smither has been doing for the last 20 years or so is writing original songs – not necessarily and mostly not with a blues structure – that are an outgrowth of years of playing and listening to blues.
But his music is equally influenced by singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Randy Newman, writers who themselves are influenced by the blues but also by a variety of other influences.
“What I was interested in when I was a kid was playing guitar in a folk idiom,” said Smither, “and the blues guys were the guitar players. They were the ones doing it. That was what got me into it -- plus the economy of the lyrics. It was something that really appealed to me, being able to say something that had some punch -- an American, rural haiku quality.”
That lyrical economy and rural punch informs many of Smither’s best compositions, including dark, cryptic compositions like “Drive You Home Again” and “I Got No Love Today” and more upbeat tunes like “Tell Me Why You Love Me” and “Hey, Hey, Hey.”
It’s also probably what attracted the interest of Bonnie Raitt, who recorded two of Smither’s songs, “Love You Like a Man” and “I Feel the Same,” both of which have been staples of her repertoire for two decades.
In concert and on record, Smither plays American roots music – folk- and country-tinged songs that variously nod to regional styles like Tex-Mex and native New Orleans music.
As for the influence of his hometown on his music, Smither has always thought others make more out of it than is really there. “I’m not conscious of it,” he said. “It’s something other people recognize in me but I’m not aware of myself. When I first came up from New Orleans and lived up here it seemed obvious to everyone but me.”
The most Southern thing about him may be his voice -- craggy, froggy and etched with the miles of roads he’s travelled since first picking up his guitar and performing in the wake of the Cambridge folk-blues revival in the mid-‘60s.
“I work at it,” said Smither about his voice. This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when Smither only thought about working on his guitar playing, and what came out of his mouth was just what was there, what nature provided. Now he considers his voice his primary instrument, and he regularly works it in order to keep it in shape and stretch it so that he can use it to express more than he can say with just words.
In some of his darker, minor-key tunes, you can hear echoes of an inner darkness that plagued Smither throughout a lost decade or so, traversing the ‘70s and ‘80s, when alcohol stole Smither’s muse and carpentry replaced music as his primary occupation.
But you can also hear the voice of the survivor, the voice of the man who came back from that dark place to record a series of critically acclaimed albums, beginning with 1991’s “Another Way to Find You” through “Happier Blue” (which won the NAIRD award as best folk recording of 1993), “Up on the Lowdown,” “Small Revelations,” “Drive You Home Again” and “Live As I’ll Ever Be.”
There is a seriousness of purpose to some of Smither’s work that allows for joy, beauty and humor to play a role but also that makes room for addressing big questions. Some of his songs address questions of faith and spirituality. The language of “Hold on II,” with words like “revelation” and “grace,” suggest a religious thinker lurking behind the blue guitar.
“It’s not religion as much as philosophy,” said the son of a college professor who once had designs in anthropology, “although it has its spiritual aspect to it, which isn’t necessarily religious. At least there is a lack of spiritual indifference. To an extent it’s always been there, but probably for a long time I tried to hide it. Now I don’t bother.”
Smither is currently preparing to record his next album of new songs. With new technology, the recording studio has become virtually obsolete, and Smither looks forward to laying down the basic tracks for the album, which he has yet to name, right in his living room.
“It’s cheap and it’s good and it’s effective,” said Smither about home recording. “You’re just so much more comfortable working in a situation where you’re not pressured by the clock.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 4, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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