Folk/blues singer, guitarist, and songwriter Chris Smither writes the songs, period. Not to paraphrase Barry Manilow, but that’s what Smither says: “I just write the songs.”
Writing and recording songs and, particularly, performing his original material, is what defines Smither, 65. He is especially excited about “Time Stands Still” (Signature Sounds/Mighty Albert), his 11th studio album, and the newest addition to his four-decade career. Listen for Smither’s trademark wry storytelling in the intricate melodies of his originals, as well as covers of songs by Mark Knopfler, Bob Dylan, and 1920s country blues singer Frank Hutchison.
Recorded in just three days with guitarist/producer David “Goody” Goodwin and drummer Zak Trojano, “Time Stands Still” has a live feel to it. Smither says that’s because of the high energy between himself and the other musicians. The songs had been rehearsed and then road-tested in performances at the Blue Highways Festival in Utrecht, Netherlands.
The feeling among the trio was, “these are good songs, and playing them is fun,” so it seemed like a natural progression to go into the studio, and even more natural to go with the flow and just kick it out. “The faster the better to me,” Smither says in a phone interview from his home in Amherst, Massachusetts. “If it takes only three days to record an album, that means everyone is really on and together. In terms of production, this was a much simpler project, much more stripped down, than the two previous albums. We’re a trio. We’re the only three guys on the record and most of the songs only have three parts.
“We had a freewheeling feel at the (Blue Highways) festival, and we managed to make a lot of that same feeling happen in this record,” he adds. “It just felt really good to sit down and crank it out.”
Smither will bring his new material, as well as a trunkload of his best older songs, to the Record Collector in Bordentown on Friday, December 11. The intimate show is just one more in a series of great “living room concerts” that have been held at the venue in the last 18 months. The concert will wrap up a lively “Time Stands Still” tour that Smither began in September.
The self-effacing songsmith has a “wow” moment when he reflects on his long career, and how warmly he has been embraced by audiences at his live shows. Smither seems to have made that special in-concert connection with his listeners since his earliest days in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, folk scene. He “just started writing and playing,” he says, and never imagined that he would do so for a living, especially for 40 years.
“It took me a while to realize I was playing music for a living,” he says. “At first, it was something I thought I would try because I liked doing it. And then I couldn’t believe someone would pay me to play my songs. When I started to make a little money, I thought, ‘wow, this is amazing.’ It didn’t occur to me that this was my living; I didn’t think about doing it until I was already doing it. It was something I fell into, and I didn’t dare to make any plans. I didn’t want to think about it that closely.”
Born on November 11, 1944, Smither comes from a family oriented toward academics and foreign language. His father was a professor of romance languages and eventually settled at Tulane University in New Orleans. His mother, although not an educator, also worked at the university. As a child, Smither lived in Ecuador and Paris, where he attended a French public school with his twin sister. He reflects that living abroad as a child was a great time in his life. “I loved it, especially once I was old enough to appreciate the experience,” Smither says. “It was a seminal part of my life experience, it gave me a love of foreign language, and basically defines a large part of who I am. But when I was a kid, it was just an adventure.”
Always musical, Smither was introduced to the blues at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, where he had enrolled to study anthropology in 1962. During the next few years, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt would become lifelong influences on Smithers’ own music. In 1964 he was in New York about to sail to Paris to spend his junior year abroad, when he stopped into the Gaslight Cafe to hear Hurt perform, and the rest, you might say, was history. Pretty soon, playing the guitar and learning the blues would supersede Smither’s academic studies.
He came back to the U.S. in 1965 and found a friend and mentor in singer-songwriter Eric von Schmidt, one of the pivotal figures in the early days of the East Coast folk scene. Schmidt invited Smither to come north and get involved with the folk scene in New York, and even more so in Cambridge. Praised for his live performances, Smither began to write assiduously, crafting the song “Love You Like a Man,” which caught the attention of the young Bonnie Raitt. In the summer of 1969 he made his first appearance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. The next year, Smither released his first album, “I’m A Stranger Too!” (Poppy Records) followed by “Don’t It Drag On.”
Raitt changed the title to Smither’s song just a little, and “Love Me Like a Man” became one of her signature songs, released on her 1972 album “Give it Up.” She also recorded Smither’s “I Feel the Same” on her 1973 release “Takin’ My Time.”
‘Quite a few people have covered my songs and the ones who have, have done a really good job,” Smither says. “I’m happy with all of them. You can’t find a songwriter who isn’t happy when people record their songs. Diana Krall did a great job with ‘Love Me Like a Man.’ John Mayall did ‘Mail Order Mystics.’ And Emmylou Harris did my song ‘Slow Surprise’ [which was on the soundtrack to the movie “The Horse Whisperer”].”
Smither has been creatively productive and busy with live performances for the better part of the last 30 years. Perhaps because of his drinking days, he has a special insight into one particular song on “Time Stands Still,” a cover of Knopfler’s “Madame Geneva’s.” The time frame of the song seems to be the 1700s, when the only forms of entertainment were drinking gin and public executions. The narrator sings about sitting in a pub, certain “demons” plaguing him, and hearing the rumble of the executioner’s wagon approaching. “It’s not so much demons, it’s delirium tremors: he doesn’t want to see the pink elephants,” Smither says with a chuckle. “I like Mark Knopfler, and I like his songs, and I’ve been wanting to do something by him for a long time. If you say his name to the average person, they think of ‘Mr. Rock and Roll,’ and Dire Straits. But basically he’s a singer-songwriter, a closet folkie, and he’s been putting out singer-songwriter albums for the last few years. Knopfler has a wonderful way of writing historic vignettes.”
Smither says songs don’t just pop out for him, even after all these years. He says the best ones can take as long as nine months to gestate. But he was ready and raring to go with the material on “Time Stands Still,” another reason why the recording happened so quickly. “The songs were all finished,” Smither says. “I had done my homework.”
Chris Smither, The Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Friday, December 11, 7:30 p.m. $20 in advance; $25 at the door. Chris Smither on the Web: www.smither.com. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.