Some artists continually reinvent themselves; others identify their muse early on and spend their careers single-mindedly pursuing it, remaining recognizably themselves through a career-long process of refinement, growth and discovery. Chris Smither belongs to the latter group.
“The last three or four records I’ve done are mostly talking about the big questions – life, death, love and . . . not love – and where the whole thing’s going,” he says.
“Since I started recording again around 20 years ago (22, actually), I’ve been writing about the same sorts of things; it’s just about my own growing perception of it, and how clear can I make it?” Smither explains, “I guess I’m making it clearer, because people don’t often ask me what the songs are about anymore. It’s a process of engagement. When you write a song, you’ve got three or four minutes to get a hold of somebody, and if they can remember one phrase or line when they walk away from it, you’ve won. And I think I’ve accomplished that.”
What is immediately recognizable to anyone who has encountered Smither on record or in live performance during the course of the last four decades are his “been-there, done-that” voice and the crystalline, wordlessly eloquent sounds of his finger-picked acoustic guitar.
Smither considers himself a performer first and foremost, and the fashioning of new material for each album brings added interest to both his fans and himself. “New tunes not only have a freshness of their own, but they also freshen up all the old material as well – they cast a new light on it,” he points out. In this sense, each album results in an act of recontextualization of his entire body of work. “It’s an interesting process,” he confirms, “Not only for a minute do I believe the songs come from any place but inside of me, but at the same time, there’s an otherness to them that continually surprises me. Why does it take so long for them to become part of my conscious self? It’s an interesting problem, but I’ve talked enough to writers to realize I’m far from unique in that respect.”
After coming on the radar in 1970 with the well-received debut album, I’m a Stranger Too!, and the similarly lauded 1972 follow-up, Don’t It Drag On, Smither didn’t release another record for more than a decade. “Everybody has good patches and bad patches,” he says. “I was basically drunk for twelve years, and somehow I managed to climb out of it; I don’t know why. Why did I get well when so many other people don’t? It had nothing to do with any virtue on my part; if I were a Christian, I’d call it grace. I just got lucky. Mostly, you just get tired of it. So when you get sufficiently tired of it, you either descend into utter oblivion or you get out, and so I got out.”
Smither says he recognizes the young artist on the front end of his long struggle from his present perspective. “He got sidetracked, and he learned a lot, but it’s definitely the same guy,” he says. “The other interesting thing is that I had to go through all the horrible stuff to get where I am now. I couldn’t write the kind of stuff that I write now if I hadn’t gone through it. I wouldn’t realize what it is to be human – not really. I might think I did, but it wouldn’t be the same.”
When asked about his career-long predilection for mixing in outside songs with his own material. Smither says, “This may sound a little self-important, maybe, but I like to hold these things up to me and say, ‘These are the people I consider my peers, and my stuff stands up to this. This is what I do, and this is where I come from.’”
The four non-originals on Leave the Light on (2006) – also including Peter Cases’s “Cold Trail Blues” – indicate where Chris Smither comes from; the eight new songs he’s fashioned show where this deeply soulful artist is now, and what lies ahead. The particular opening into the universal, delivered by a knowing voice and filigreed by tasty licks – you can’t ask for more than that from an album.
Smither’s newest venture, Time Stands Still (2009) puts the exclamation point on a legendary career that shows no signs of slowing down. On the contrary, this blues and folk superstar continues to build creative momentum. The album features a slew of tunes stripped down to their essence, shining the spotlight on Smither’s understated power as a songwriter - one who taps into emotions at their most elemental and powerful core. It’s a reminder why artists as diverse as Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Diana Krall have mined Smither’s catalog in the past. He’s teamed with producer and guitarist David “Goody” Goodrich and drummer Zak Trojano to create a simple, yet emotionally powerful musical landscape upon which to paint his blues and folk-fueled narratives. As always, Smither’s signature finger-picking style mixes with his whiskey-meets-honey vocals to deliver intensely honest meditations on life, love and loss. Smither’s eleventh studio album was recorded in just three days and captures the vibrant urgency and immediacy of his live shows. It features eight original compositions as well as covers from Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, and 1920s country-blues songster Frank Hutchison.