Chris Smither celebrates 50 years in music — and his 70th birthday — with an album retrospective, lyric book and Friday concert at McCabe’s
By Bliss Bowen
Chris Smither is enjoying a very good year.
This summer Signature Sounds released a two-disc retrospective, “Still on the Levee,” for which the venerated singer-songwriter and acoustic blues guitarist returned to his hometown of New Orleans to recreate 25 songs from throughout his career, investing them with road-worn gravitas supported by Crescent City legend Allen Toussaint, Loudon Wainwright and members of Morphine.
Last month the label issued “Link of Chain,” with Dave Alvin, Peter Case, Mary Gauthier, Patty Larkin, Aoife O’Donovan, Bonnie Raitt, Josh Ritter and Loudon Wainwright interpreting his philosophical, deftly whittled songs.
The publication of “Chris Smither: Lyrics 1966-2012” offered persuasive testimony that his meaty lyrics can stand alone as existentially minded poetry, setting them alongside artful mementos of his career.
By the time his 70th birthday rolls around on Nov. 11, birthday cake may seem like an afterthought.
Yet the greatest gift may be simply in the doing: Smither is still making music, largely on his own terms, and audiences are still tuning in and turning out to hear him. He has concerts booked into 2015, and when his 8 p.m. show at McCabe’s this Friday sold out, a 10 p.m. show was swiftly added.
Those are hard-earned rewards for the onetime anthropology student who fell hard for blues after discovering Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Blues in the Bottle” album in his late teens. Smither left New Orleans for the Boston/Cambridge coffeehouse scene in the late 1960s, where he befriended Bonnie Raitt, who later recorded “Love Me Like a Man” and “I Feel the Same” and famously championed him as “my Eric Clapton.” Over the years artists like Diana Krall, John Mayall and the late Esther Phillips have also recorded Smither’s songs, while he’s doggedly advanced from coffeehouses to clubs to concert halls.
Save for a whiskey-lubed skid through the ’70s that kept him out of studios, he’s delivered consistently fine recordings with a signature fingerpicking style informed by Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt.
Respected and well liked by his peers, he’s started planning his next album.
How did it feel revisiting old songs for “Still on the Levee”? Any surprises?
It was quite an experience. A lot of them, I would listen to my own records and say, ‘What the hell was this kid doing?’ [Laughs] Basically I was [relearning them] with my mind, and then in the middle of it muscle memory would take over. It was funny having your fingers tell you what to do. I was a little apprehensive because I didn’t know how these songs would stand up. I wrote ‘Devil Got Your Man’ when I was 19 or 20; it was the very first song I ever wrote. And what does a 19-year-old know about devils? [Laughs] But I’ve learned a lot in the meantime. I thought it was interesting that even though I was just 19, I didn’t try to take on more than I could chew. The song doesn’t commit me to any sort of point of view, so it leaves itself open to be informed by someone who’s been around a whole lot longer. I found that process interesting — that the song held up and could take on the weight of all these years. We were trying to really look at the songs from the perspective of a 70-year-old guy who’s been writing songs for 50 years and see what happens.
How has your songwriting approach changed?
Maybe halfway through my career I realized you have to be disciplined about it. A lot of young songwriters depend on inspiration; an idea comes along, they sit down and start working on it. After a while you realize that you’re not going to have much output [laughs] if you depend on that. You have to actually sit down with the intention of writing a song even though you don’t have any ideas at all.
Songwriting is maybe 1% inspiration and the rest of it is craft — learning how to approach it, how to take scattered ideas and turn them into something. It’s not that hard in principle, it’s just hard to make yourself do it sometimes. You have to tell yourself, I’m going to sit here for three hours, and if nothing happens, nothing happens, but I’m going to give it every opportunity to have it happen. This job, half of it is the intention of having something happen all by yourself, and waiting. It feels like it’s taking forever, but eventually it starts to happen and when those moments come along, it’s very exciting. All you have to do is be careful and reel it in.
Do you still get excited when another artist records one of your songs?
Absolutely. That’s the ultimate sort of imprimatur for a songwriter, that a song has legs, somebody else found something worthwhile in it. It can cross the street on its own; it doesn’t need you to hold its hand.
When we talked 15 years ago, you recommended some songwriters (Peter Mulvey, Jeffrey Foucault), authors (Ken Wilbur) and poets (Mary Karr), and said you “just like word people.” What “word people” move you nowadays?
Mark Knopfler — I just love his whole approach to subject matter. Who would have ever dreamed of writing a song about Ray Kroc, the burger magnate? He paints these wonderful pictures. Everything fits together like a beautiful puzzle, and he’s an exquisite guitar player. [Novelist] David Mitchell, who wrote ‘Cloud Atlas,’ has the most unbelievable sense of language, and I love the way he talks. I read tons and tons of stuff. Right now I’m totally into [novelist] Olen Steinhauer. Sometimes I get totally distracted from the book I’m reading and I’ll just stare at a paragraph and analyze how the author did what he did, how economical it is, the thing he chooses to focus on. That’s so much of the art of writing: how to pick up one little detail and all of a sudden a character comes to life.
Do you still dabble in photography?
I don’t as much as I used to … You think, ‘I’ll get around to it,’ then reality steps in: ‘How much time have you got left, dude?’ I’ve still got another record in me; I can feel the songs percolating. In a year and a half I want to have a record, so I need to start writing right now. I need deadlines.
What do you strive to achieve now?
I can’t think of anything that seems indispensable to me now. I go from town to town these days, and lately the audiences have been, by my standards, enormous; they’re tremendous and I’m having a good time. I honestly can say if it never got any better than this, I’d be happy.
Chris Smither returns to McCabe’s, 3101 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica, at 10 p.m. Friday. $24.50. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit smither.com.