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.

Top Of Page


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

at 609-989-9119.

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 info@vsanj.org or call


Participate Please

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

call 732-382-4610.

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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