“Smither is an American original – a product of the musical melting pot and one of the absolute best singer-songwriters in the world.” (Associated Press)
Chris Smither has had a performing and recording career for nigh on fifty years and has just released his 18th album, Call Me Lucky. It’s a terrific piece of work showcasing his skill and experience as a bluesman, guitarist and songwriter.
His songs have been covered along the way by artists like Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, Emmylou Harris and John Mayall, and he’s renowned for his rhythmic acoustic fingerpicking guitar. Long-time producer David Goodrich worked on the album with Smither, along with Billy Conway, Matt Lorenz, Keith Gary and Mike Meadows, to create a fine, bluesy album of Americana that features eight Chris Smither originals and a three nicely conceived, but surprising covers. It’s effectively a double album, the second CD consisting of a cover of the Beatles’ She Said, She Said and a reworking of five of the songs on the first.
As you’d expect on a Chris Smither album, the lyrics are sharp and laced with wry humour, without ever being cynical, the new songs demonstrating once again the importance of Chris Smither as a songwriter and artist.
Chris is touring with this album throughout the US and UK through until the Spring of next year. Be sure and catch a show! Down at the Crossroads chatted to him about the album:
DATC: Chris, Tell us about the idea behind the album, is there an overall thrust or theme of the album? And maybe a bit about making the album.
CS: At some point along the line I decided it’s time to make a new record and that means I need to write some new songs. Because I don’t write all the time, I write for specific projects. Having said that, of course, most of the songs are written within a nine months period and that usually means that they are thematically related, because they’re about what I’ve been thinking about lately. They tend to resemble themselves in some respects, but there’s no intentional feeling to the entire thing. If you’re looking for a theme, I’d say the idea behind the record is to get a new record out! [laughs]
The making of the record itself was what has become very standard for me…my producer makes suggestions…he has insights into what’s going on with me that I don’t even have yet. And at one of our meetings – we’d usually get together for a couple of days at a time – we started talking about covers, and he wanted to know if I wanted to do any covers of other people’s songs on this record. And I said well, I haven’t thought about it.
But then we were also having a conversation about Chuck Berry, who at the time was still alive – not for long unfortunately – and he had just turned 90 and made a new record. And we were wondering what Chuck Berry sounded like at 90! And then Goody [David Goodrich] says, hey, play Maybelline in a minor key – see if that sounds like a 90 year old! [laughs] So we started fooling around with it and we said, oh man we gotta do this. Because it changed the song so dramatically.
DATC: Yes, it’s fantastic. It’s like a new song…it’s like a Chris Smither song!
CS: Yes I know! And that kind of sums up this whole subject of covers. We had this on-going conversation about cover songs, and when we were down in Texas working on the record – those guys I was working with, well they stayed up a lot later than I do! I’m an old man, I go to bed at like, 11 or 12 o’clock, but they’re studio rats, they stay up until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. And they started playing around with stuff that we had just recorded. They’d take a song we had just recorded and totally re-imagine it, the whole arrangement. I remember the first one they did, it was the punk version of Down to the South and I walked in the next morning and they said, hey listen to this, do you think you could sing to this?! And I said, yeah, I’ll give it a shot. And it was just a goof, just playing around. And so I did it, and the next night they did another one. And I walked in the next morning and they said, sing this, this is a slow version of a fast song. So we started playing around with it and by the time we had about three of them, we thought, you know this sounds pretty good, we should just include this with the record.
DATC: So these are the alternative versions on the second CD?
CS: Yeah, those are all the alternative versions. It was just sort of playing around in the studio and then saying, hey this is interesting, we should let people hear this.. And then the only song on that disk that isn’t mine is the Beatles’ She said, She said. I had learned the song when I was asked to participate in a John Lennon tribute concert about 3 years ago, and I started working on that arrangement of the song. But then I had to cancel, because I had to have a heart operation, so I never got a chance to play it! And I was fooling around with it one afternoon in the studio and Goody said, What is that? And I said, She Said, She Said, and then Matt Lorenz [The Suitcase Junkett] started in on some harmonies, and we said, yes, we should do this, we should record this.
DATC: That’s interesting, Chris. Of course, you’ve a long history as an interpreter of songs. You’re not afraid to take on classic songs that are very familiar to people. When you decide on a song you’re going to cover, how do you go about that process of re-interpretation, of putting your own stamp on it?
CS: You know, I don’t really think about it that much. First of all, I don’t really think about covering a song unless I’m really familiar with it, where I’ve listened to it a hundred times at least. So basically, I just sit down and start playing around on the guitar, and I don’t ever go back to the original. I want to depend on my own memory of what it was like, because that’ll tell me what it was about the song that impressed me the most.
DATC: With something like Dylan’s Desolation Row, of course, it was probably very difficult to get the original out of your head!
CS: It was, but, you know, even on Dylan songs, when I hear them, I tend to sing harmonies along with them, and more or less the way I think it should go [laughs], and so basically, what happens is what I remember is my own harmony of it, as opposed to the way he does it.
And when you talk about covering Dylan, when I did Visions of Johanna, that whole tune – I do it in 3/4, instead of 4/4 – because that’s just the way I hear it. All the significant lines in that song make for a perfect waltz time – it’s actually 6/8.
DATC: I read in Acoustic Guitar Magazine that they said the album was about the big things – life, love, loss. And I’ve listened to it a lot over the past week or so, and as I’ve listened to it, I get the sense that a lot of it is about just getting older, considering the ups and downs of life, distilling a bit of wisdom that comes with age. Is that about right?
CS: I think you’re right! [laughs] Yeah, I would agree with that! I can’t help it – I’m almost 74, and you start thinking about things, you know? You’re starting to get towards the end and it occupies an increasingly large share of your thoughts. So it’s maybe not surprising that that is what comes out.
DATC: Yes, in Too Bad So Sad, there are a number of lines about this process of getting older, but I love the bit where you’re kind of complaining – “yes I have taken all my meds!” I can relate to that!
I read your essay on turning 60 that you wrote a few years ago for a book on that subject. I’ve not long passed that milestone myself and it seemed like a terrible thing to happen to me, so I thought there might be a bit of wisdom in there! I’m trying to be a bit more philosophical about it now! And one of the things you said was, “I’ve got less energy than I once did, but more than a lot of people half my age” – which I thought was a good attitude. Is that still the case for you, Chris?
CS: Yeah, I think so. People find it hard to believe I’m as old as I am. Of course, when they get close, they realize! But for some reason I haven’t turned grey yet. And that’s the thing that fools people the most! They think, he can’t be that old! And you know, I keep moving – I take good care of myself, I get a lot of exercise and I’m doing well.
DATC: Chris, you’ve had a 50-year career – what keeps you going as an artist, especially the touring, which presumably doesn’t get any easier?
CS: In some ways it doesn’t get easier, but in some ways it is easier, because I can afford nicer accommodation! It’s not too bad. I have slowed down some – I’m doing just under 100 shows a year these days, which is half what I was doing at my peak. But to tell you the truth, I would go crazy if I weren’t doing this. The last few years, we’ve not booked too many dates in January or February, just because it’s too hard to get around – we live in New England and you never know whether you’re going to be able to fly out or get back home at that time of year. But – at the end of those two months, I’m going crazy! I can’t wait to get out there and play! And then sometimes I’m at home for a week and I think, oh no I’ve got to get out again, but as soon as I get on stage I realize, this is what I do, this is what makes me happy.
DATC: Is it just that interaction, that feedback, that dynamic with the audience that does it?
CS: It’s not just that. It’s a place that I go to in my head when I play. I sort of dissociate from myself and I become…not another person, but a different avatar of myself. And if I’m out of touch with it for too long, I start to miss it. And I have countless people who come up to me after shows and say, please don’t stop what you’re doing – and it’s very hard to resist that kind of response!
DATC: Going back to the album, Chris, one of my favourite songs on the album is Nobody Home, which is a kind of wry, slightly caustic take on the current state of the world. You’ve got a few things in your sights here, including social media & disconnectedness. And in one of the verses, you have a preacher just staring at his phone – getting the news or on FB or twitter, I guess – but his mouth is shut – “there’s nobody home.” And it made me think that the very people who ought to be saying something meaningful or critical of the way things are, are just silent.
CS: You got it! I got through to you! But it’s basically a song about a person looking for help, and he’s looking at all these places and he isn’t able to find it. But I’m not too cynical. But if the mid-term elections here in the United State don’t remedy things, I might get more cynical, because I find what’s going on politically almost unbelievable.
DATC: Yes, on this side of the Atlantic, we kind of watch, with jaws on the floor, each day’s new developments. And you mention quite explicitly in that song the big White House. And the “clown with a comb over, tweeting on his phone.” Again, there’s nobody home. How does this go down with audiences?
CS: You gotta understand about my audiences – nobody would come to my show being totally ignorant of where I stand on some issues. That verse is usually greeted with a huge roar of approval!
DATC: You’re busy touring the US for the rest of the year. And then you’re coming to the UK and Ireland in January. And you’ve been coming over here for a long time. You find get good responses in Ireland?
CS: Oh yeah. It’s a joy. People ask me, what’s your favourite place to play, and I always say Ireland – people there know how to get the best out of you.
DATC: Thank you Chris!
(Photograph credit: Jeff Fasano)