Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Chris Smither Marks 60 Years In Folk By Getting To The ‘Bones’

joanna fiona chattman/joanna fiona chattman

This week’s String show note is an adapted transcript of the broadcast. 

Even by the standards of American roots music, where elders are celebrated and heard rather than put out to pasture, 60 years in the business is a long time. Sixty years of highways, hotels, stages, after-parties, meet-and-greets, songwriting, rehearsing, recording, adapting and collaborating. Sixty years of inevitable highs and lows, sometimes substance abuse issues and broken marriages, not to mention crap weather, early wake-up calls, and canceled flights.

The rewards can be substantial of course: hit songs, awards, acclaim, applause, biographies, documentaries and feedback coming from enough people that you matter, that you moved people, that your work will outlive you. Even so, I’m just amazed by this kind of tenacity and energy. The 60 year club is small but distinguished - Del McCoury is rocking the road at 83. Buddy Guy is 87, and Bobby Rush turned 90 last fall. Willie Nelson? Well he’s an ageless 91 and out on tour right now.

Chris Smither, my guest in Episode 286, is a relatively youthful 79 years old, and in our interview you’ll hear a guy as sharp as a phono needle and just full of joy and artistic spirit. It was a treat to meet this veteran folk and blues artist, because he was a big part of my roots music education in the early 1990s. His album Another Way To Find You of 1992 was a favorite of mine. A lot of water under both our bridges since then, a lot of miles on his tires and 15 more albums to his name. The newest, released in early May is All About The Bones.

The title cut deals with mortality and perspective pretty directly, but the themes ripple through the ten-song set. Also here are bluesy ruminations on America’s self-defeating politics, memories of the good life in Louisiana, and wrestling with the Devil himself. It’s rich, relaxed and rewarding, recorded with a small ensemble featuring singer and accordion player Betty Soo, drummer Zak Tro-Hano, sax man Chris Cheek and Smither’s longtime producer, the multi-instrumentalist David Goodrich.

Chris Smither grew up in New Orleans in the 1950s, but he wasn’t immersed then in the city’s gritty R&B scene. His family lived far away from that musical world. “Because I was an uptown boy,” he says. “My Dad was an academic teaching at Tulane. And not only that, I was playing acoustic guitar, and I was playing all this old blues stuff. And we're talking about the late 50s, early 60s. And everybody thought that was very quaint.”

His family thought it was a peculiar way to make a living, but there are several stories in our conversation about Smither’s father coming to understand his lifestyle and art, and they’re pretty magical.

Chris found his people and his audience when he moved to Boston in the mid 60s at the recommendation of folk singer Eric Von Schmidt. There he made a network of friends and up and comers, including Bonnie Raitt, who helped put Smither on the map - herself as well - by recording his songs “Love You Like A Man” and “I Feel The Same.”

By the 1990s Smither had established himself as a staple of the acoustic music world, and he’s been an honored figure ever since, with long runs of releases on Hightone Records and Signature Sounds, the great roots label in Boston. In 2014, Signature Sounds released Link of Chain: A Songwriters Tribute to Chris Smither, featuring interpretations of his work by Dave Alvin, Peter Case, Patty Larkin, Mary Gauthier, Jorma Kaukonen, and Tim O'Brien. That same year, Smither re-recorded his favorite songs spanning 50 years of writing and put that out as a double CD called Still On The Levee. It’s hard to believe that was now ten years ago.

Asked about his longevity, Smither says, “What keeps me motivated is the desire to still perform, to still get in front of people. And if the songs get tired, then it's time for new ones. And so you have to produce. And the thing is, the new songs not only are fun in and of themselves, but they lend new life to the old ones. There's some kind of a catalytic effect that happens and it brings the others back to life.”

It’s quite something to hear from a wise veteran, one who’s never been a household name but who’s soldiered on through the rigors of the road for all these decades. Smither is a master songwriter and a fine talker too. Enjoy this episode.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>