Chris Smither is a troubadour in the purest sense – a world-traveling musician who performs songs of lost love, corrupt political systems, spirituality and life on the road.
He’s been stomping his feet on stage, picking the strings of his acoustic guitar in a flurry of chords and notes and singing in his slightly raspy blues voice for more than 40 years. He’s appeared at major venues and festivals, including NPR’s
Mountain Stage and the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and was even heralded as “my Eric Clapton” by Bonnie Raitt.
And at the age of 69, he’s still not slowing down. Smither released Hundred Dollar Valentine – his 12th studio album – in 2012 and takes his tunes back out for audiences around the country. When asked what it takes for a musician to stand out from the rest for decades, Smither says it’s a combination of talent and the ability to capture an audience through performances.
“At a certain level, talent is a given,” Smither says from his home in Amherst, MA. “It’s the ability to use the tools that distinguish a musician, and the ones that are good at it will rise to the top.”
He’s lived in Massachusetts since his early 20s, after he left his boyhood home of New Orleans in the mid-1960s.
Smither’s long and varied songwriting career started in the burgeoning folk music scene of Greenwich Village in New York City. Later, he moved on to Cambridge, MA, performing his smartly crafted lyrics and songs. Along the way, Smither was introduced to some of the giants of the folk and blues scene at the time – including Mississippi John Hurt and Eric von Schmidt – not realizing the significance those meetings would have on his career.
“It was through other people’s reactions that I started to realize the magnitude of what was going on at the time,” Smither says. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Smither would go on to find moderate success in the early ’70s before struggling with alcohol addiction for more than 10 years. He reinvented himself in the early ’90s, releasing several albums and again setting himself apart as one of the premier acoustic guitar performers around.
And on Hundred Dollar Valentine, his evolution continues; it is the first album he’s released that features all of his own original music. Tunes like “Feeling By Degrees” and “What They Say” showcase his lyrical process with lines like, “If they can’t think of what to say / They talk anyway, it’s all cliche / Fast food for the brain, but not too filling.”
Smither says when he starts working on a song he begins with a musical theme, plucking out ideas on his guitar. Once the music is complete, he moves on to developing the lyrics, which he says is the hardest part for him. He wrote his first song when he was 18 – a tune called “Braden River” – which was eventually released on his 2005 album Honeysuckle Dog. He wrote the song while living along the banks of the Braden River in Bradenton, FL.
Today, Smither writes his songs in a quiet room in his house, complete with a desk, a computer, bookshelves, microphones, a recording system, a couple of chairs and a bunch of guitars. He’ll sit for hours in the morning, playing with the lyrical language and relying on his subconscious.
“You’re dealing with a part of your mind that you’re not really on speaking terms with,” Smither says. “It’s kind of a process of trying to figure out what the lizard says.”
As he has gotten older, Smither has cut back on his live performances, but he still plays as many as 100 shows a year. Most of the time, it’s simply Smither on stage with his guitar and an almost hypnotizing presence.
He admits it took him years to hone his performance style and that he’s still constantly working on his live shows be more entertaining. He notes a “watershed moment” almost 20 years ago on stage when he finally realized he didn’t have to fool anyone with a false stage persona and could just go out and be himself.
“There comes a moment when you realize that you’ve dropped all the pretense and this is what you do – this is your job,” Smither says. “But the difference between me and other people is that I like my job.”