A Conversation With Chris Smither. Call Us All Lucky! Playing The Dakota On 7/22


Don’t look now, but the Twin Cities has been gifted with a run of master sing/songwriters stopping by this summer.  Lucinda Williams was recently in town for a pair of shows.  The Dakota booked Alejandro Escovedo and John Sebastian.  Dave Alvin just played The Cedar.  We would be remiss not to include Chris Smither in that grouping.  The highly respected sing/songwriter is scheduled to make his debut appearance at The Dakota July 22.  Tickets and details can be found HERE

Smither was kind enough to spend some time talking about his remarkable career and his newest release Call Me Lucky.  Truth be told, a lot of artists who have 50 year careers like his don’t have much time or interest in talking to local press.  It’s not as though they need our help.  So why bother?  I always pick up that phone with a bit of trepidation.  Not to worry.  Chris is a charming man.  Open and genuine.  I walked away with a bit more insight into both the man and the artist.  The conversation certainly got me excited to see him live.

For those who have known his music since the ’60’s, I’m preaching to the choir.  To those who more recently discovered him or are looking for something special to do on the 22nd, his is a remarkable journey.  Hopefully, some of the tales he shared here will inspire you to get off the fence and help you enjoy the evening a bit more.  

Eighteen albums after his 1970 debut I’m Lonely Too!, Smither dropped Call Me Lucky in 2018.  He hasn’t lost his touch.  The critics love it.

Much has been written already about his early admiration of blues men like Mississippi John Hurt.  His early exposure to the musical melting pot of New Orleans.  His subsequent move to Boston, where he fell in with an American folk, blues, rock scene that included people like Dick Waterman, Fred McDowell and the legendary Son House.  Bonnie Raitt was part of that crowd.  If you want to know how important Smither was to them, look no further than what his friend Bonnie had to say:  “Chris Smither is my Eric Clapton!”  Classics such as her hit and concert stalwart Love Me Like A Man, were penned by him.  High praise, indeed.

This will be his first trip to The Dakota.  However, Smither is no stranger to the Twin Cities.  Some of those roots go pretty deep, particularly on the old West Bank.  The last couple trips to town have seen him at The Cedar.  Musically, he crossed paths over the years with local icons Spider John Koerner, Dave Ray and the recently departed Tony Glover.  He’d not yet heard of Glover’s passing and expressed his sadness when I brought it up.

Koerner, in particular, was always a friend.  “The last time I was at The Cedar, Koerner stopped in to say hello.”  Then he chuckled and added:  “I’m not sure he stayed for the show but it was nice he came to see me!  We were trying to figure out when we first met and I don’t really remember.  He was the one I knew the best.  I met Tony and was on stage a couple of times with Ray.  There were some workshops we did together. The Philadelphia Folk Festival, I remember.”

“I’d bump into them.  They all used to play a place out here near Philadelphia called The Main Point and I was on bills with them.  In the early days I would open for them.  Or if we’d play a co-bill.  When we played sequentially, I’d often go there early to see their show.”  Chris admitted he didn’t get out to the West Bank during the hey day despite a lot of prodding from Bonnie Raitt.

All of the aforementioned musicians and Smither share some common qualities. Each has gone the distance.  You don’t survive in this business that long without a wealth of talent and quality output.  Each of them is, in many ways, respected more by their peers than the general public.  These are the folks who really know; that know quality when they see and hear it.  Artists like Smither are often cited for their influence on others.  Finally, if you look around, you’ll find great artists getting permission to record their songs.

I have written before that great songs transcend the person who wrote them.  Or the person who turned it into a hit.  Great songs stand the test of time.  Other musicians always manage to find those songs, inject something new into them and keep them in our consciousness.  Great songs have a way of crossing genres because the basic appeal is so broad.  “People are always asking me what kind of music do you play? And I often get treated as a blues guy.  But that’s just where I started, in terms of learning how to play guitar.  And it shows.  But then you could call Bob Dylan a blues guy.  It’s so obvious.  So when you get to the conclusion and ask what kind of music Bob Dylan plays, you just say ‘Bob Dylan music!’  So if you were ask me what type of music I play, I’d just say it’s Chris Smither music.”  

You want to know what constitutes respect?  Tribute albums.  How many songwriters have their catalog recorded by industry heavyweights?  Look no further than the album of Smither songs called Link Of Chain.  Artists like Dave Alvin, Mary Gautier, Josh Ritter, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Case and Jorma Kaukonen lined up to contribute.  That says a lot.  People like that wanting to cover Chris Smither music!

Smither reflected on his feelings when he learned about that particular project.  “When I was asked, my first thought was ‘who on earth is going to want to do that?’  I said ‘more power to you.’ and forgot totally about it.  I didn’t think about it.  And when it was brought to me as a finished product, I have to be honest with you, I was totally delighted!  I sat there and for like 90% of the songs, there’s 16 songs on that album, I don’t have any idea how they found what they found in those songs.  I listened to Aoife O’Donovan doing Small Revelations and it was absolutely gorgeous.  And I’m sitting there thinking, how did she hear that?”

When I asked if he’d swiped a few of those ideas after hearing the record, Smither chuckled and confessed that his songs were always evolving.  “I’ve said that songs are kind of like children.  They grow up and go out there and do things.  And then if you have any luck at all they come home to daddy.  These songs, you know, they all came home!  I looked at them and thought: “You know, I really like what happened to you.  And I like your friends, too!'”  

I find much of that attitude imbued in Call Me Lucky.  Chris described his approach to doing an album. “I usually start writing songs when I go ‘I better have a new record’.  It’s a conscious decision and I’ll call up my producer Goody (David Goodman) and I’ll say I want to do an album, like next November.  Something like that.  That gives me nine or ten months.  Then I go to work.  I need the discipline.  There’s got to be money on the line.  Then I go through all these emotion I’ve discovered that I need to go through to get in the proper head.  Then every morning I go into my music room and promise myself I won’t come out until I’ve made some progress.  And that’s how it happens.”

This last album was a bit different.  It helps explain why the tracks seem so organic and accessible.  “This last record, nobody had heard a note!  Not one note! when we walked into the studio.  And the last song, I literally finished at the hotel 5 minutes before getting in the car to head out to the studio.”  The songs come alive when a bunch of really talented players sit across from each other and breathe life into them.  They are all great collaborators.  In this case, his band worked quickly and was able to capture some of that spontaneity before the tunes became overly polished.  That helps explains the wonderful immediacy you get on the album.

When asked if he’d ever consciously adapted his career to keep paying the bills or if he’d always just done his own thing, he pointed to the latter.  “But you know, if I’m going to just sit there and do what I want to do, I better have some good people with me that know what to do.  That’s the secret, really.  Management and a booking agent that you really trust and then pay attention to them.  You can’t just ignore their efforts or not take their advice.  They never give advice on what music to play.  But they do give me a lot of advice on things that I ought to do.  If you let the people who are good at that, handle that aspect, then make a conscientious decision to focus on your art, you’ll probably be OK.”

That kind of trust and flexibility translates to the recording studio, as well. “ Goody and I have been working together for 20 years.  He knows.  I finally found somebody who understands the music the same way I do.  He comes up with these ideas, and you know when I was younger I would have gone ‘No, I don’t want to do that!’  Now I say:  ‘I’ll try.’  That’s all I gotta say and he’s happy.  I’m always willing to give it a try.” 

That brought the follow up question regarding the 4 duplicate tracks that make up the bulk of the second disc of the double album.  Each is a radically altered punk rock version of songs that appear on the first disc.  “These guys I’m working with all like to stay up to 3 or 4 in the morning.  So I’d go to bed at like midnight or something, since I’m working.  These guys would stay up for another three or four hours because they’re all studio rats.  And the first night they just did this punk version of this sweet little ballad Everything On Top.  I came in around noon the next day and they had it up on the speakers.  I said:  ‘What the hell is that?’  They asked, can you sing to that?  And I said, ‘I can give it a shot!’  The next night they did the same thing to another song.  In the end, we had four or five of them and we said:  ‘We gotta do something with these.'”

I found the whole thing a bit Dylanesque and Smither admitted in many ways it was true.  In his world, there isn’t a right or wrong way to do a song.  If somebody says they don’t play guitar in a particular way or sing in a particular way, he’s more likely to just urge them to do it the way they can.  To him, songs are “infinitely malleable.”

Perhaps he thinks that way because Chris also believes that a great song is a great song.  Too many artists spend too much time trying to push their own songs on the public when an original take on a great tune is often a better option.  That’s evident on the three delightful covers on Lucky.  It’s sheer pleasure to suddenly recognize a gem reworked when first listening to this album.  Chuck Berry’s Maybelline in a minor key.  A hauntingly beautiful rendition of The Beatles’ She Said, She Said.  And a dusting off of the 1930’s classic Sitting On Top Of The World by Mississippi Sheiks.  They’re like Easter eggs sitting amidst the originals. Recognizable but all his own.  In line with his earlier comments about other artists finding some new beauty in his own songs, Smither has managed to do the same thing with these classics.

I have a favorite pair of questions I like to pose to successful artists.  Can they recall a moment when the little kid in them suddenly sat up, looked around and went:  ‘Holy shit!  Look at what I’m doing!  Is this cool or what?’  The corollary is the event when disaster struck and they were saying:  ‘Holy shit!  What did I get myself into?’  The caveat to the latter question is that, in retrospect, time must have rendered the disaster funny.

“I do!  I think it was in 1985 and I was playing this huge festival in Ireland over in County Claire on the Atlantic side.  I went on stage and I followed John Sebastian, who was by himself.  He was playing all these Lovin’ Spoonful songs and it blew my mind; I was thinking what on earth did the band used to do?  Because he was playing the whole thing!  He sounded terrific.  And I thought, how am I gonna follow that?  You can’t afford to dwell on that because you’ll freeze up.  So I put that out of mind and I got up there.  I’d never been in front of an audience that big in my life.  There had to be 25,000 to 30,000 people.  I sat down and I started into this shuffle thing where I was singing real loud.  I got through the whole thing.  And then…there was silence.  I thought ‘Oh no! I’ve totally blown it!  And then with a crowd that big, the sounds of the applause comes at you like a wave from a long ways away.  It just washed over me.  And that was my moment.  Like you said, I’m just thinking Holy Shit!”

When it came to the other side of that coin, Chris laughed.  “I opened for Roberta Flack one time at Symphony Hall in Boston.  I think I’m about the only white guy in the whole place and people were yelling at me.  They wanted me out of there.  Finally, I stopped playing, I looked at them and held my hands up and that place totally quieted down.  This is way back in the 70’s, you know?  And I said: ‘I’m getting paid $500 to sit up here and play for 30 minutes.  And if you think I’m going to leave one second before I get my money, you’re crazy!’  After that they all cheered.”

Every artist worth his or her salt, when asked about their best work, is quick to point to their most recent project.  That’s a given, since the best are always moving forward.  Guys like Smither aren’t the casino type, just rolling through all the old classics.  So I normally word the question in a way that gets them to reflect on a piece of work where they felt like they were hitting on all cylinders.  Or where the work marked a turning point in their career.  For Chris the answer was clearly his 1997 album Small Revelations.  Emmylou Harris later covered Slow Surprise for the Hollywood blockbuster Horse Whisperer. “It was a high-water mark.  It marked a change in how I felt about writing songs.  I just started to hit my stride about this time.  There was just something about it that was totally me.  You know, I suddenly sounded like a defined person to me.” 

While the set list for The Dakota show is not set in stone, I asked if we’d hear anything from that album.  He promised the title track would certainly make the cut.

I often find it to be the case that long time, successful musicians don’t spend a lot of time listening to music in their free time.  Maybe it’s akin to the professional golfer heading out to the links for a relaxing round with buddies.  Doesn’t happen.  They love their work.  But work is work and play is play.  Chris is more likely to be found puttering around his garden.  He loves to grow vegetables.  Or playing golf with his friends.  He’s a passionate player who might just toss a wedge and putter into the trunk when touring somewhere that doesn’t involve an airline. 

But top of his list of things to do is photography.  “I’ve got a nice camera but the thing I love more than anything is a good printer.  A good photographic printer.  I finally went out and did that.  I can do big prints, like 22”x30”.  Those are the kind that he can frame and put on his walls.  Just like a good song, the image is meant to stand out.  To be available for viewing rather than relegated to a pile of snapshots in a drawer.

We all have desert island albums.  You know, the short list of vinyl that you’d need to retain your sanity after the shipwreck.  For most of us, there’s always a migration around the edges.  But there are always a couple that are non negotiable.  Those titles say a lot about who we are.  When asked, Smither had little trouble coming up with Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, Randy Newman’s 12 Songs and The Beatles Please, Please Me.

It seems to me, that tells you much of what you need to know about Chris Smither as an artist.  He’s a songwriter cut from the same kind of cloth.  Perhaps commercial radio never really cottoned onto what the man was up to.  But you can be sure that Dylan, Newman and McCartney sure did.

After 50 years on the road, through all the ups and downs, Chris claims he’s happier today than he’s ever been.  “This is the best place.  I mean I can work as much or little as I want to and I’m doing something I love.  I try not to forget it.”  It’s safe to say we can call him lucky.

Don’t sleep on this one, folks.  The Dakota is the perfect venue for the songs and stories of Chris Smither.  Summer in the city.  Good food and drink.  A master music creator.  Perfect date night.  After overhearing Call Me Lucky as I prepared for the interview, my wife marched in and announced there was no way I was going to this show without her.  Trust me, your spouse will feel the same way.  Highly recommended!