Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the
September 22, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights
Chris Smither: On the Links, On Tour
Despite the fact that he takes his cues from old blues men
who never learned to read or write very well, guitarist,
singer, and songwriter Chris Smither’s songs are great
literature. Smither, raised in New Orleans but based in
Boston for the last 35 years, cites Lightnin’ Hopkins and
Mississippi John Hurt as primary guitar playing
influences. He discovered the simple-yet-complex beauty of
the blues when he began playing guitar and ukulele in his
late teens. While in college, he made a trip to Florida to
meet another one of his influences, white folk and blues
singer Eric Von Schmidt.
"In the beginning, I thought of myself as a guitar player,
but that didn’t last very long," Smither says from his
home outside Boston, after a triumphant performance the
weekend before at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. "I
quickly discovered as a guitar player I was a pretty good
songwriter, so I changed my emphasis a little." Smither
appears at Concerts at the Crossing in Titusville on
Saturday, September 25.
Smither’s career as a traveling singer-songwriter with a
decidedly blues-oriented focus spans nearly four decades.
After a bout with alcohol in the 1970s, Smither emerged,
unscathed, alive and stronger than ever in the 1980s. He
returned to performing, recording and writing songs with a
Smither, the son of a Tulane university professor father
and a mother who also worked at the university, says once
he was able to master the styles of Lightnin’ Hopkins and
Mississippi John Hurt, he was off and running as a
performer. "Once I had their styles, I had enough that I
could fake anything else that interested me," he says.
At this year’s Philadelphia Folk Festival in late August,
Smither had a crowd of 20,000 people mesmerized in front
of the main stage. Armed with just his trademark blue
guitar, foot-board, and his voice, Smither took the
audience sitting on the side of the hill in Schwenksville,
Pennsylvania, to another place. While it’s a cliche to say
you could hear a pin drop, I honestly can’t remember a
more hushed, attentive Philadelphia Folk Festival
audience, even way back at the top of the hill, many yards
away from the stage.
Smither’s first Philadelphia Folk Festival was in 1968, he
guesses, shortly after he made the cover of "Broadside"
magazine, a publication for folk music enthusiasts. The
folk festival holds a special place in his heart and mind.
"At Philly they make it a point of asking me down there
every two or three years, and it’s very nice of them. It
was one of my very first festivals," he says.
"Philadelphia Folk Festival is a constant reminder to me
of everything that’s happened, and I love it, they do me
nice," he adds.
Smither’s latest album, "Train Home," released late last
year, is a triumph of great guitar playing and even
greater songwriting. Unlike so many other traveling blues
performers, Smither doesn’t rehash all the old, sometimes
tired blues themes. His songs on "Train Home" deal with
death and the fragility of our existence – the title
track; having your car stolen, "Let It Go;" and life
crises, "Call Time." As with most of his albums, he even
throws in a few well-chosen covers. He gives new life to
Bob Dylan’s "Desolation Row," and does a tasteful version
of old mentor Mississippi John Hurt’s "Candy Man."
"Train Home" is Smither’s fifth album for Hightone, a
California-based label that he’s only been with since
1995. "For ‘Train Home’ we brought a bunch of really high
end gear into our house to record digitally," Smither
explains, adding, "you should have seen the way we had my
footboard surrounded by padding so my foot stomps wouldn’t
interfere or leak into other aspects of the recording."
Aside from his near-perfect guitar playing, one of
Smither’s several distinctive trademarks is the footboard
he travels with, so he can get good sound on any stage
from his percussive foot stomps.
Smither has more than paid his dues since his 1980s
re-emergence on the coffee house and festival circuit, and
he usually enjoys top billing, so it’s not unusual that
aspiring singer-songwriters come up to him and press him
for advice. "I’ve turned into the grand old man I never
dreamed I would become," he says, laughing. "I have the
parents of really little kids who ask me what to do about
their kids who want to do nothing but play guitar."
When the opening acts for Smither ask him for advice after
a show, he says he usually tells them to keep it fun. "If
it ceases to be fun, you’ve got to get out, it’s just too
hard – and I have to admit, I don’t think it’s any harder
now than when I was coming up- but I would hate to start
all over again. The fact is, it’s always been hard trying
to establish yourself."
Smithers can offset the sometimes sporadic income from
touring with publishing royalties. His songs have been
recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, John Mayall,
Rosalie Sorrels, Peter Mulvey, Christine Collister, and
others. Most recently, jazz piano playing chanteuse Diana
Krall recorded Smither’s "Love Me Like a Man," for her new
album. The success of that album, with the radio-friendly
song getting airplay on jazz and commercial radio stations
around the country, has not gone unnoticed by Smither and
his crew. "Diana Krall’s version looks like it’s going to
do pretty well by me," he says.
What’s hard about the life of a traveling musician,
Smither says, are the disappointments. "You’re always
looking for that one break, and you get this feeling if
somebody would just give you a chance," he says. "Other
times, things happen for you the way you want them to and
some glitch gets in the way, and it doesn’t pan out the
way it should have. I’ve been doing this for a living for
almost 40 years," he says, "and it’s only in the last
seven or eight years that I’ve been really comfortable,
both in terms of income and in terms of living in my own
skin and knowing that people would give me an even break
and give me a chance."
National Public Radio shows, including "World Cafe," "Talk
of the Nation," and "All Things Considered" have featured
Smither, helping to boost his visibility in the 1990s.
"The travel aspects of this life used to be harder, but I
was younger then, so it didn’t seem so hard," says
Smither, now nearing 60. "These days, I’ve got a good crew
of people who take care of me and make all the
arrangements. All I’ve got to do is read the page in the
book that tells me where to go and play the show." His
wife, Carol, a publicist, works with him from Maine, and a
booking agency in California sets up every detail of his
As his itineraries have gotten increasingly busy, Smither
has found a new passion – besides his near-constant
songwriting – to take his mind off the occasional travel
glitches that happen when you log as many miles in the
U.S., Canada, and Europe as he does in a year. He began
playing golf six years ago near his home outside Boston.
He takes his clubs on the road and reports he had a
hole-in-one in Australia earlier this year.
Like the craft of performing music for a living, golf is a
Zen-like pursuit. "Things are never perfect in golf," says
Smither, "all you can do is make the effort and get out
there." That comment also neatly sums up Smither’s now
nearly four decades-long recording and performing career.
– Richard Skelly
Chris Smither. Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian
Universalist Church, Titusville; Saturday, September 25, 8
p.m.; Deb Pasternak opens; $20. 609-406-1424.
Maurer Productions Onstage seeks male and female adult
actors for "The Foreigner" to be produced at Kelsey
Theater in January. Proficiency with southern and British
accents is a plus. Auditions are Wednesday and Thursday,
October 6 and 7, 7 to 10 p.m. Audition packet is at
www.mponstage.com/news/auditions/download, then click on:
foreignerFull. Call 609-882-2292 for appointment.
Call for Art
Garden State Watercolor Society seeks entries for its
2004 eighth annual Associate Members Juried Show hosted by
Triangle Art Center in Lawrenceville. Registration is
Saturday, October 9, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. All work must
be hand-delivered. For information call Barbara March at
Gallery 125 seeks submissions in all media for its next
exhibit, from November 12 through February 4. Submit no
more than five visuals (slides or CDs only) labeled with
the title, media, dimensions, and date of work to Gallery
125, 125 South Warren Street, Trenton 08608. Indicate the
top and front of all slides. Submit recent work that is
available for exhibit and sale.
All submissions must include a $10 check (for up to 5
submissions) payable to: TDA/Gallery 125. All submissions
must include artist’s name, brief biography, address, and
daytime phone number. Please include a stamped,
self-addressed envelope if you wish to have the visuals
returned. Participating artists are expected to
gallery-sit for an average of two hours per week during
the exhibit. The deadline for submission is Tuesday,
October 12. See: www.gallery125.com or call Nancy Hunter
VSA Arts of New Jersey is accepting applications for the
2005 Arts Achievement Awards, for students with
disabilities ages 14 to 21; and Art Par Excellence
statewide touring exhibit, featuring two-dimensional
artwork by students with disabilities under 12 through 21.
For application visit E-mail email@example.com or call
New Jersey Ride Against AIDS seeks cyclists for the
three-day, 250-mile event Friday to Sunday, October 1 to
3, benefiting New Jersey-based AIDS charities. The ride
covers the entire length of the state. Each rider must
pledge to raise a minimum of $1,500. For information visit
www.njrideagainstaids.org or call 732-988-6593.
Garden State Baseball League has opening for ages 14 and
up for fall baseball. Visit www.gardenstatebaseball.com or
The Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum plans a
trip to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, October 6, to view
"Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding
Collection" at the National Gallery of Art, and "Frank
Gehry, Architect: Designs for Museums" at the Corcoran
Gallery. The trip includes transportation, refreshments,
museum admissions, and a contribution to the organization.
$105. Register with Eir Danielson at 609-258-4057.
The Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton plans a coat
drive at Nassau Presbyterian and Trinity Episcopal
churches on Sunday, November 7. Call 609-396-9355, ext.
Jane Austen on the Dance Floor, an eight-week series of
English Country Dance classes, begins on Monday, October
4, and runs through through Monday, November 22, 7:30 to
9:30 p.m. $50 for the series. Call Sue Dupre at
Princeton Resource Center offers daytime study groups for
adults beginning the week of September 27. Courses include
Transitional Jazz, Contemporary Dilemmas, Women in Culture
and Society, Three Russian Plays, and Introduction to the
Great Books of India. Call 609-924-7108.
West Windsor Arts Council seeks a donated temporary office
in West Windsor to use for six to twelve months while work
is begun on the new arts centers in the old Princeton
Junction Firehouse. Contact Jeff Nathanson, the new
executive director, at 609-510-4326 or E-mail him at
Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital is offering a free
class on the management of arthritis to give individuals
the skills to take a more active role in their care. The
next class is Wednesday, September 29, 10 a.m. Call
732-418-8110 to register.
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