Deckle edge

Chris Smither
by Chris Flisher © 1993 /
(first published June 1993 Worcester Phoenix)

Chrsi Smither
For someone who has been labelled a blues musician for a large part of his life, Chris Smither spends a lot of time convincing people that he is less of the blues school and more of the folk tradition. While he is deeply influenced by the blues and knows its history well, he goes one step further by incorporating elements of folk, rock, country, jazz and blues into a homogeneous mixture called Chris Smither music — plain and not-so-simple.

In a recent interview while on the road in North Carolina, Smither explained it best by saying, " I love the blues but if someone were to ask me 'Are you a blues man?' my honest answer is no. No blues purist would listen to my music and say it was the blues. Yes, my music is blues influenced, but I don't really think of it as the blues."

It is the complexity of the music that a person can generate with a guitar, rather than the chord structure and message of the blues that appeals to Chris. Citing why shades of the blues appear in his music, however, he explains, "Essentially the reason (the blues) appealed to me was that it was one-man rock and roll. You could hear that this was related to the type of music that was on the popular radio stations at the time, but you didn't have to have a whole band to play it."

It was a record by Lightnin' Hopkins that caught his ear. "It was 1962 when I first heard Lightnin'. I never would have heard it except my roommate from Texas had this record and he told me to listen to it. Now I had been playing guitar and singing songs since I was about ten or eleven, but the first time I heard Lightnin' Hopkins that was a revelation to me." That was the start of Smither's interest in an area of music that is not as well known as the blues — acoustic, country blues.

"Aside from Lightnin,' my biggest influences were Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb. Both of those guys get lumped in with blues players, but they're both what you would call songsters, not blues. Country and lyrical songs about life, but not the blues. They didn't have that real blues pattern in their music and neither do I."

Raised in the musical town of New Orleans, Smither's material doesn't bear an obvious influence of what people typically associate with the Crescent city sound. While the music associated with New Orleans — traditional jazz, dixieland and pop — all have a foundation in the blues and country, the area isn't a real source for the country blues. "New Orleans has a reputation, justifiably, of being a music town. But it is a horn players town, a piano players town and it has its own pop sound." Driven by a different music in his head, Chris left, "I've always been a fish out of water and people always thought it was peculiar that I left New Orleans."

After a stint in various colleges in this country and Europe, Smither moved to Boston. The folk and acoustic scene in Boston was reaching its first peak. Coffeehouses were abundant and work was plentiful. "I never did odd jobs. At that time , in the spring of 1966, there were dozens of coffeehouses around the area. I just got gigs. It didn't take much to live. When you're young you don't require a lot."

He survived that way for close to 15 years until alcoholism put a clamp on his music and career. Fooled by the power of alcohol and his dependence on it, his progress as a writer and musician began to falter. "I was very sick at the time. I just didn't have the heart for it. I'd try to write, but in the end I couldn't do much of anything. It works for a while, the drink does open you up. Initially you take the first drink and then the drink takes the second drink and eventually the drink takes you."

Letting his music slide for the first time in his life, he worked construction and odd jobs to survive. It was during that time that he sank to his lowest. "I know that addiction has nothing to do with how smart you are or how weak you are. It's a genetic, inherited condition." Through counseling and friends he came to realize alcohol's hold. "You have to hit this point where you don't want it any more, where you just have to quit digging a hole. And some people never do. It's a losing game. I recovered. I was lucky."

With alcoholism behind him and the current interest in acoustic music, Smither is back on the road. "The acoustic music scene began to open up again. Music that hadn't been played for twenty years is now hot again." Smither is also back in the studio. Overseeing the compilation of his older material, Smither released a CD in 1989, titled It Ain't Easy(Adelphi). More recently he released a live album titled, Another Way To Find You (Flying Fish). Combining selections of blues, country, and folk favorites with some newly written material, Another Way To Find You is Smither in top form and happier than ever.

Another Way To Find You opens with an affectionate nod to the roots music, covering a medley of the classic "High Heeled Sneakers/ Big Boss Man." The pairing of these tunes together is natural and is delivered with heartfelt reverence. The title tune is a wailing, slow-blues cry of deep loss that ends as an optimistic eulogy. Bob Dylan's "Down In The Flood" follows and Smither bites off phrases and snaps off blues licks at a racing pace. The self-penned "Lonely Time" is a somber reflection on a love gone sour though the memory is still sweet. Deeply rooted in the folk tradition, this tune is melodically simple and lyrically pointed at the folk music of the early 1960s. Growling, raspy vocals and exciting blues picking appears in a raucous version of Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues." The instrumental break is Smither at his best.

Chris' decision to release an album recorded live in the studio supports his desire to deliver his music in it's most pure form. While the studio and its magic can help the final product, it also detracts from the nervous energy and precise timing required of a live performance. There are no second chances in this type of setting. Smither sums it up best in the disc's liner notes by saying, ' This project is probably as close as I'll ever come to an "official" embodiment of the naked truth.' Relying on the strength of his talent and the help of friends, Chris is back.

In 1989, when Bonnie Raitt was given a Grammy award for her album, Nick Of Time, one of the people she publicly thanked was Chris Smither. A friend since the early '60s when they would share the stages of local coffeehouses, Raitt's brassy, blues persona is the perfect vehicle for Chris' material. Bonnie's version of "Love Me Like A Man" is the definitive version of Smither's song and has gone on to become one of her signature songs. With Raitt's popularity at a peak, she released a greatest hits retrospective of her career which included two songs by Chris Smither. And the royalties began to roll in.

The future looks bright. Taking the cue again from his earliest influences —the one-man-band sound, Chris Smither travels with his guitar and a three by four foot piece of 1/4" plywood. The guitar is his band, the plywood his rhythm section, and the nervous growl of his voice, completes his set. Rocking back and forth in a chair while his feet, clad in two-tone leather, slap out a rhythm on the plywood, his fingers dance up and down the neck of his guitar. The twang of country, the acoustic roots of folk, and the raw emotion of the blues all surface as Chris Smither takes charge of his music and his life. "It's kinda like playing Carnegie Hall. You gotta have the talent but you also have to play."

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge