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June 1, 2014


Three projects mark songwriter’s 50 years in music: Double retrospective CD, lyric book,

and tribute album featuring Bonnie Raitt, Loudon Wainwright III, Josh Ritter, Dave Alvin, Tim O’Brien, Patty Larkin and others.

BOSTON, Mass. — Blues-folk icon Chris Smither has long been revered for both his guitar prowess and his way with a lyric, inspiring artists from Bonnie Raitt and John Mayall to Emmylou Harris and Diana Krall. He toured as one of the original monsters of folk with Dave Alvin, Tom Russell and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in 1998, and continues to live up to the title with accolades such as Mojo magazine’s five-star review for his 2012 release, Hundred Dollar Valentine. Smither still makes music and tours regularly; his April 2014 appearances at the revered New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival earned him a spot on Rolling Stone Senior Editor David Fricke’s Personal Top 10 list of best festival performances.

As Smither marks his 50th year of music-making in 2014, the New Orleans-raised troubadour takes a look back at his career with Still on the Levee, a two-CD retrospective releasing July 22 on Mighty Albert/Signature Sounds. He’s also releasing his full lyric collection as a book titled Chris Smither Lyrics 1966-2012, and in September, Signature Sounds will salute him with Link of Chain, a tribute album featuring contributions by Raitt, Loudon Wainwright III, Dave Alvin, Patty Larkin, Josh Ritter, Peter Case, Tim O’Brien and other friends and admirers from his beloved Boston music scene and beyond.

Reconnecting with his roots, Smither recorded Still on the Levee at New Orleans’ Music Shed with longtime producer David Goodrich. Their aim was to give fresh perspective to a selection of songs from his vast career — from “Devil Got Your Man,” his first composition, to recent originals. Among those who joined him on the project are famed pianist Allen Toussaint, members of the band Morphine and fellow folk-Americana artists Wainwright, Kris Delmhorst and Rusty Belle. It’s also a family affair, with backing-vocal contributions by Smither’s sister, Catherine Norr, and fiddling by his daughter, Robin.

On his 16th album, Smither’s mellow, well-weathered tenor carries a mix of confidence, humility and humor. He’s aware, yet unafraid of his mortality, regarding the years gone by and the ones to come with the grace of a man who knows he can’t change the past or predict the future. His fingers remain as supple as his voice, effortlessly delivering the other half of his signature sound: the back-porch feel of intricate acoustic blues picking accompanied by his own boot-heel-on-wood rhythms.

It’s a sound that easily conjures the ghosts of Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins, artists who captivated him early on. Smither, the son of a Tulane University professor, first learned to play his mother’s ukulele, instructed by his Uncle Howard. “He told me if you knew three chords, you could play a lot of the songs you heard on the radio,” Smither recalls. “And if you knew four chords, you could pretty much rule the world.”

When he heard Hopkins and Hurt, his passion for the blues fully ignited. Even now, he claims his elemental style is “one-third John Hurt, one-third Lightnin’ Hopkins and one-third me.”

That’s the sound Raitt fell in love with when they met in the Cambridge folk scene; Smither headed there in 1965 after abandoning his college anthropology studies at the urging of early mentor Eric von Schmidt. Labeling Smither as “my Eric Clapton,” Raitt turned his “Love You Like A Man” into “Love Me Like A Man” and made it a signature song. Their friendship endures to this day; of course, she lends her version to the forthcoming tribute album.

Diana Krall, Esther Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels and John Mayall are among other artists who have covered his work; Emmylou Harris sang his “Slow Surprise” on The Horse Whisperer film soundtrack. Several of Smither’s songs have made their way onto large and small screens; one even inspired an entire film, The Ride, for which he provided the rest of the soundtrack as well.

Not that it’s always been smooth sailing for Smither. Like most creative souls, from his late friend Townes Van Zandt to inspirations such as Tims Hardin and Buckley, Smither battled his share of demons, from label woes to the liquid kind. After recording a couple of albums in the ’70s, he slowed his touring considerably.

In 1984 he returned to music full time, releasing his album It Ain’t Easy. A consistent string of acclaimed albums has followed, including 1993’s award-winning Happier Blue and 1997’s Small Revelations, which led to the Monsters of Folk tour.

Raitt joined Smither on 2003’s Train Home, duetting on his cover of Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” Another of the album’s tracks, “Seems So Real,” earned Smither a Song of the Year Award from Folk Alliance International.

“Leave The Light On,” the title track from Smither’s 2006 CD, ends both Still on the Levee discs. A quietly extraordinary piece with accompaniment by Rusty Belle, the first version is a lilting, almost jaunty take. The second corrals the devastating power often hiding just beneath the surface of his songs. Over a slow electric groove, Smither delivers an aching duet with Kate Lorenz; his lines include this stanza:

I may live to be a hundred, I was born in ’44
31 to go, but I ain’t keepin’ score
I've been left for dead before, but I still fight on
Don’t wait up, leave the light on
I’ll be home soon.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently observed, “Smither continues to give ample proof that he's matured into one of roots music's most passionate, soulful songsmiths and interpreters.”

With Still on the Levee, that proof has become irrefutable.




April 3rd, 2012


First long-player by fingerpicker/singer/songwriter to feature all original songs features session support from Morphine, Groovasaurus, The Lemonheads players

BOSTON, Mass. — There are such things as the cosmic blues. Janis Joplin once recorded a song by that name — she spelled it kosmik. But Chris Smither lives them.

Smither’s cosmic blues are on full display in Hundred Dollar Valentine, a brilliant amalgam made of equal parts past, present and future. It is music that traces its roots back deep into tradition, anchors its rhythms and textures in today, and reaches forward into the future, asking the Big Questions — why am I here? Is there purpose to all of this or is it just a spinning cascade of random moments?

And he does it all with six strings, an insistent, understated groove and a sly wink — letting you know that we may all enter and leave this world alone, but that don’t mean we can’t have a good time while we’re here.

Hundred Dollar Valentine, Smither’s 12th studio disc, due out June 19, 2012 on Signature Sounds, sports the unmistakable sound he’s made his trademark: fingerpicked acoustic guitar and evocative sonic textures meshed with spare, brilliant songs, delivered in a bone-wise, hard-won voice.

>From his early days as the hot New Orleans transplant in the Boston folk scene, through his wilderness years, to his reemergence in the 1990s as one of America’s most distinctive acoustic performers, Chris Smither has always been his own man. He has zigged when others have zagged, eschewing sophisticated studio tricks and staying true to his musical vision, surrounding himself with sympathetic musicians ranging from Bonnie Raitt and the late Stephen Bruton to the next-generation kindred spirits with whom he works today.

It’s easy to see that Smither’s primary touchstone is acoustic blues, once describing his guitar style as “one third Lightnin’ Hopkins, one-third Mississippi John Hurt and one-third me.” While “blues” can evoke images of beer-sodden bar bands cranking out three sets a night wondering why one’s baby left them, Smither reaches back to the primordial longing and infinite loneliness held within the form.

Sure, the album kicks off with the deceptively jaunty title track, whose good-time, ricky-tick shuffle masks the singer’s walking the creaky floorboards of doubt. But the cosmic blues come to the fore on the next cut: “On the Edge” is part conversation, part confessional and part affirmation. This is when you start to realize what extraordinary artistry — what seamless meshing of sound, subject and delivery — is going on here.

Producer David “Goody” Goodrich (credits: Peter Mulvey, Jeffrey Foucault, Rose Polenzani, The Amity Front), a true musician’s musician, is a natural partner for Smither. “He knows me and my music so well that I trust his ideas implicitly and he keeps coming back with new ones,” says Smither. “This is my fifth project with Goody and each time he raises the bar.”

The recording sessions came together during early 2012 at Signature Studios in Pomfret, Connecticut. Stopping by were the nexus of two of Boston’s most distinctive and influential acts of the recent era — Treat Her Right’s (later Morphine) drummer Billy Conway and Jimmy Fitting on harmonica, and Goodrich’s ex-Groovasaurus bandmates Anita Suhanin (vocals) and violinist Ian Kennedy (Page/Plant, Lemonheads, Juliana Hatfield, Peter Wolf, Susan Tedeschi).

“I've either worked with or been around all the musicians on this record over the years so it was a very comfortable and personable situation,” says Smither. “All these folks are the best at what they do. It makes my job easy.”

While this is Smither’s twelfth studio album, this is his first-ever outing comprised entirely of self-penned songs. He’s always favored the cream of songwriters, such as Dylan, Mark Knopfler and Chuck Berry, mixed with classics from the blues canon, but this time, the credits read all-Smither. “Actually,” he laughs, “there are two covers on the record; but it’s me covering myself.”

“My producer and manager made the argument — a strong one — that songs from my earlier catalog were written by a young man. I'm not a young man any longer but they thought it would be interesting to interpret work from my youth from the perspective of having been on the planet as long as I've been now.”

While it is no surprise that several of his songs have become virtual standards, it is ironic that the assuredly masculine Smither has found favor almost exclusively with female singers: “Love You (Me) Like a Man” has been recorded countless times, with the best known versions by Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall, “Slow Surprise” by Emmylou Harris and “I Feel the Same” by Raitt, Candi Staton and Esther Phillips among others.

“We chose ‘I Feel the Same’ because of its conciseness. I’ve been told it’s a good example of less is more,” says Smither. Indeed, in three spare verses, “I Feel the Same” is one of the most hauntingly evocative modern blues ever written. “All that nothin’ causes all that pain,” marvels the singer, as he surveys the desolate landscape of heartbreak before him.

Equally unflinching is “Every Mother’s Son.” Tracing a direct line from Cain to Billy the Kid to David Koresh and Timothy McVeigh, “Every Mother’s Son” is an indelible portrait of nihilism:
I speak to you. I think you'll understand/You know you’ve made your son Joseph a dangerous man/He's gone to town, he's bought himself a gun . . .” “It’s a song I wish would become irrelevant,” says Smither, “But I don’t think it ever will.”

On Hundred Dollar Valentine, Chris Smither makes music that simultaneously breaks and fortifies one’s heart. It’s music that acknowledges that even as we are together, we are alone. This is music that stares into that absolute abyss and does not lie. This is music that locks its gaze with life and death and does not look away.

On Hundred Dollar Valentine, Chris Smither sings the cosmic blues.

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