Rare is the musician who won’t readily relate his influences when asked. No
exception is Chris Smither, who in an interview with me a few years back offered earnest explanations of the impact Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins have had on him.
Of course, musicians are always ready to cite ancient bluesmen or obscure jazz artists;
eclecticism looks good on a record company bio. But Smither also was willing to come clean on his more mainstream, and therefore less critically acceptable, influences.
“Nobody wants to admit that they listened to the Kingston Trio,” Smither told me. The veteran singer-songwriter performs August 1 at City Winery in Napa, August 2 at the Palms in Winters and August 3 at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz.
“When I was a kid, my parents had Burl Ives records and those were the first songs I learned to sing. Actually, that’s how I got into stringed instruments.”
Then, it was his mother’s ukulele. Today, Smither stands as one of American music’s finest (if somewhat overlooked) singer-songwriters. His Northern California dates come barely a week after the release of “Still on the Levee,” a career-spanning two-CD set recorded in New Orleans and featuring such fans as Allen Toussaint and Loudon Wainwright.
Growing up in the Crescent City afforded him the opportunity to see virtually every major blues player of the day. Smither had his favorites – Hurt, Son House, Skip James, Professor Longhair.
“All those guys were very sweet, without exception they were the nicest people on earth,” Smither said. “Very kind, well-intentioned people, to a certain extent almost painfully humble about their talent.”
New Orleans is a roiling gumbo of musical styles, but it doesn’t cotton much to young guitarists. So, at 21, Smither moved to Boston and fell in with the Cambridge blues and folk crowd. He met Bonnie Raitt at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival and the two became friends. Raitt has recorded the Smither tunes “Love You Like a Man” and “I Feel the Same.”
Smither signed with the tiny Poppy label and in 1971 cut a singer-songwriter debut very much in the James Taylor vein. “I didn’t even like (it) as much as I like James Taylor’s,” he recalled.
Accustomed to performing solo, Smither entered the studio with a band and emerged without the happiest result. The production sounded kind of ordinary.
“It covered up what I was doing and I felt kind of lost in there. It was basically a record company decision. I was a kid and I did what I was told.”
The record generated little interest and a ‘73 follow-up didn’t fare much better. Smither cut a third album for Poppy before its parent company, United Artists, went belly up.
It’s telling that Dr. John and Lowell George played on those sessions. Both had long bouts with substance abuse – it claimed George in 1979 – and it was not long after that Smither himself retreated from music and into alcohol. Smither spent more than a decade in the dark, emerging from alcohol in 1985.
“It’s a curious relationship musicians have with booze and drugs,” Smither said. “Most industries have mechanisms in place by which people can get help quickly. There’s no such safety net for musicians.
“That also facilitates you getting into it deeper,” Smither said. “And it’s kind of expected ... there’s kind of a tradition around it that kind of exacerbates the problem. The perception is it’s an acceptable aberration.”
Having gotten healthy, Smither began performing in the Boston area in the late ‘80s. In 1991, Flying Fish released “Another Way to Find You,” recorded live in the studio with Smither, his guitar and his tapping feet.
“I like working with independent labels because it’s more of an equal partnership,” he said. “When it’s a lease job, I don’t have to sell my soul to them, they don’t own me, and I don’t owe them any more records.”
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