LEARNING GUITAR ON MOTHER´S UKELELE
Norman Warwick looks at the career of Chris Smither
Although born in Miami, during World War II, it was in New Orleans, as he was growing up, where Chris Smither (left) first started playing music as a child. His father was a Tulane University professor, and Smither was taught the rudiments of instrumentation by his uncle on his mother’s ukulele.
´Uncle Howard,´ Smither says, ´showed me that if you knew three chords, you could play a lot of the songs you heard on the radio. And if you knew four chords, you could pretty much rule the world !´
Encouraged and armed with that information, he was hooked.
´I’d loved acoustic music – specifically the blues – ever since I first heard Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Blues In My Bottle album. I couldn’t believe the sound Hopkins got. At first I thought it was two guys playing guitar. My style, to a degree, came out of trying to imitate that sound I heard.´
It was the already legendary folk musician Eric Von Schmidt who urged Chris, then in his early twenties, to abandon his anthropology studies and headed to Boston. This was in the mid-sixties and acoustic music was everywhere, being played in the streets and coffeehouses there. Smither forged lifelong friendships with many musicians, including Bonnie Raitt who went on to record his songs, “Love You Like A Man” and “I Feel the Same. Their friendship has endured as their career paths intertwined over the years.
His New Orleans and Cambridge musical experiences quickly evolved into his enduring, singular guitar sound – a beat-driven finger-picking, redolent of the playing of Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins, layered over the ever-present backbeat of his rhythmic, tapping feet (always mic’d in performance).
Smither’s first albums, I’m A Stranger, Too! and Don’t It Drag Onwere released early in the seventies on Poppy Records, home of kindred spirit, and a regular point of reference on our pages, the late, great Townes Van Zandt. By the time Smither recorded his third album, Honeysuckle Dog with Lowell George and Dr. John helping out, United Artists had absorbed Poppy and ultimately dropped much of their roster, including Smither.
It would not be until 1985 that Smither made his next record, when the spare It Ain’t Easy on Adelphi Records marked his return to the studio.
By the early ’90s, his steady nationwide touring and regular release of consistently acclaimed albums cemented Smither´s reputation as one of the finest acoustic musicians in the country. His 1991 album, Another Way to Find You, was recorded live in front of an in-studio audience with no overdubs or second takes. This would be the first of two albums with Flying Fish Records, another legendary label).
His next recording, Happier Blue, was embraced by Triple A radio and received the NAIRD (now AFIM) award as Best Folk Recording of 1993.
Up On The Lowdown (1995) marked the first of a trio of albums to be recorded with producer Stephen Bruton at The Hit Shack in Austin and his first of five albums with roots label HighTone Records. Up On the Lowdown rode the crest of the newly formed Americana radio format wave and sparked considerable interest abroad. A tour of Australia with Dave Alvin and extensive solo touring in Europe led to an expanding global interest in Smither. His song, I Am the Ride, from this album inspired the independent film, The Ride, for which Smither also composed the original score.
Small Revelations a 1997 album release climbed the Americana and Triple A radio charts and led to concert dates with B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Nanci Griffith, and the hugely successful, original Monsters of Folk’ tour with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dave Alvin and Tom Russell. Small Revelations also generated several film projects for Smither. Emmylou Harris recorded his song, Slow Surprise, for the soundtrack The Horse Whisperer on MCA. And his recording of Hold On was used in the indie feature film Love From Ground Zero.
Smither also shared insight into his guitar style and technique on two instructional DVDs, available from Homespun Video.
His CD, Drive You Home Again two years later garnered four-stars from Rolling Stone. And with it, Smither continued to tour world-wide. Shortly after, in 2000, Smither released his one-man-tour-de-force, Live As I’ll Ever Be. Recorded in-concert at various clubs and concert halls in California, Dublin, Galway, Boston, and Washington DC, it has proven to be a fans-favorite, capturing Smither at what he most loves to do: performing in front of an audience.
Train Home (2003) was Smither’s last record for HighTone and his first with producer David Goodrich. Over a six-week period, basic tracks for Train Home were recorded in the relaxed environment of Smither’s home near Boston. Working with new session musicians, the record is simultaneously sparse and assured. Bonnie Raitt graciously provided backing vocals and slide guitar on Smither’s cover of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row. From the same cd Smither’s Seems So Real earned a Folk Alliance Award as Song Of The Year.´
In 2005, jazz great Diana Krall, who also is an occasional presenter on BBC Radio 2 in the UK, covered Love Me Like A Man, introducing what is now a blues standard to a whole world of jazz fans. Shortly after, Smither’s song Slow Surprise was included in the independent film, Brother’s Shadow.
In addition, Smither narrated a two-CD audio book recording of Will Rogers’ Greatest Hits. Further expanding his creative horizon, Smither was invited to contribute an essay to Sixty Things to Do When You Turn Sixty, a 2006 collection of essays by American luminaries on reaching that milestone. In 2009, Melville House published Amplified, a book featuring 16 short stories by notable American performing songwriters. Smither’s story Leroy Purcell, about a touring musician’s encounter with a Texas State Patrolman, leads off the collection.
With the release of his 12th recording Leave The Light On in 2006 on his own imprint, Mighty Albert, Smither began a new label relationship with the renowned acoustic and modern folk label, Signature Sounds. For the recording, Smither reunited with producer David Goodrich and session musicians Mike Piehl, Lou Ulrich and Anita Suhanin. As an added treat, Smither invited good friend and Grammy Award-winning multi- instrumentalist, Tim O’Brien, along with rising American roots stars, Ollabelle, to add their distinctive talents on several tracks.
Smither followed this in 2009 with Time Stands Still, his most stripped down recording in some time, working with just two accompanists after the same trio had played a rare band performance – a non-solo setup required in order to play a Netherlands festival.
About the recording Smither says, We’re the only three guys on this record, and most of the songs only have three parts going on. We had a freewheeling feeling at that festival gig, and we managed to make a lot of that same feeling happen in this record.´´
In 2011 Smither put out two fan projects: a collection of live tracks from newly discovered concert recordings from the 1980s-1990s titled Lost and Found and the rollicking EP, What I Learned in School, on which Smither covered six classic rock and roll songs.
Smither followed these fan-projects with Hundred Dollar Valentine in 2012, a five-star (MOJO) studio record of all Smither-penned songs. With long-time producer David “Goody” Goodrich at the helm, this collection sported Smither’s trademark acoustic guitar sound and evocative sonic textures meshed with spare, brilliant songs, delivered in a bone-wise, hard-won voice.
In 2014 Smither released Still on the Levee – a double-CD retrospective. Recorded in New Orleans at the Music Shed, this career-spanning project features fresh new takes on 24 iconic songs from his vast career and some very special guests including the legendary Allen Toussaint and Loudon Wainwright III.
The coffee table style book Chris Smither Lyrics 1966-2012 and Signature Sounds’ Link of Chain – an all-star tribute record including a stellar list of artists offering their takes on some Smither favorites including Josh Ritter, Bonnie Raitt, Loudon Wainwright III, Dave Alvin, Peter Case, Tim O’Brien, Patty Larkin, and many others were fan-favorite accompaniments to the retrospective CD .
In March 2018, Smither released his eighteenth record, Call Me Lucky (Signature Sounds/Mighty Albert) once again teaming up with producer and multi-instrumentalist David Goodrich. Also joined by Billy Conway (Morphine) and Matt Lorenz (The Suitcase Junket), Smither recorded eight new originals along with some very special and surprising covers at the Blue Rock studios in the Texas hills in June 2017.
In October 2020, More From The Levee, the follow up to the 2014 double cd career retrospective , was released. Containing ten tracks this, More From the Levee, With his fingers still as supple as his voice, Smither effortlessly delivers his signature sound on Still on the Levee: the back-porch feel of intricate acoustic blues picking accompanied by his own boot-heel-on-wood rhythms.
Two weeks with long-time right-hand-man and producer David Goodrich at the helm of the sessions resulted in an over-abundance of songs in the can. More From the Levee contains ten of these gems including fan favourites Drive You Home Again, Caveman, and a brand-new Smither original titled What I Do.
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