Published: The Guitar Magazine, September 1997
Small Revelations, recently released on Hightone, is Chris Smither’s latest album and talking to the man for more the usual two minutes per year of ‘hi Chris, loved the show’ variety proves worthy of the title. Not at all the guy with the world’s woes on his shoulders as some of his writing may suggest but a well-adjusted, modest, funny and good natured fellow whose John Wayne frame towers over bystanders like his music towers over pretty much everyone else on the not-underpopulated US acoustic songwriter scene. Over a Coke, and before a storming gig at Downpatrick Folk Club back in May, he laughs at the notion of gloom: “Well, I have been that guy,” he says. “I mean, I’ve been deep enough into it to remember what it’s like…”
It’s common knowledge that a ten year bender interrupted the New Orleans maestro’s career between 1975 and 1985. Then one day he just stopped drinking, Bonnie Raitt made his song ‘Love Me Like A Man’ a big earner (she still asks for first option on new material) and he started making records again – with a humility and writing gift that only comes from experience:
“Basically what I do is pretty simple stuff that all depends on execution,” he says. “It’s the kind of stuff that if it’s off 10 or 15%, it doesn’t work. It’s all timing, rhythm and a great deal of it has to do with percussion and for years I didn’t realise how important my feet were! I’ve done a songbook but a surprising number of people come back to me and say, ‘I can do it all note for note but it sounds empty’ – it’s all in the feet. My actual playing though is syncopated, it isn’t percussive at all – to my mind that’s a very British thing.”
Mississippi John Hurt and Lightning Hopkins remain his big heroes, but Smither’s music has so much more to it than simple 12 bar structures. Over regular visits in recent years he’s become a popular draw on the Irish live circuit, so what of the acoustic guitar heroes on this side of the pond? “In the old days everybody listened to Bert Jansch,” says Smither, “he had a couple of big records in the States then – but he strikes me as not being typical of that thing, he’s smoother. I think of someone like Martin Carthy, who’s a guitar player that I admire tremendously, but his style is very sharp and percussive to my way of thinking. The weird time signatures he uses are very English too – him and Richard Thompson too are guitar players who don’t rely at all on African influences, including blues.”
Not that that’s a bad thing but Smither – though himself no darling of the pure blues fraternity – is proud of his blues roots, always including a couple of standards on his albums, this time around a truly blistering take on Robert Johnson’s ‘Dust My Broom’. But his own songs – dark, brooding and often profound beyond the genre’s norms – remain the most intriguing. Both ‘Cave Man’ and ‘Small Revelations’, on the new album, explore with a deep pathos the very purposes and processes of life without resorting to ‘message’ or cliche. With so many songwriters about, it’s not an easy task. How does he do it?
“Well, the things that I think about and read about are the things that I write about. Basically, I’m a reflective person and if you take somebody like me whose whole foundation in guitar playing is blues, what am I going to write songs about? I’m not the son of a sharecropper, I don’t write songs like the son of a sharecropper in the 1930s. I’m the son of a university professor. So I’ve got this form, and it’s almost rigorous, and I expand the boundaries of that a little bit but what I’m really trying to do is get across some very complex ideas in a very few lines. And I’ve got this wonderful hammer to drive it home with which is this insistent rhythm from the blues and all the other things that go into what I think of as competent songwriting. I mean, all the classic stuff that everybody sneers at as being commercial is there in spades in my songs. It doesn’t hit you over the head but it’s there: key lines are repeated, there are pauses to allow things to sink in, there’s careful use of hooks… To my mind, it’s part of the craft of songwriting – you’ve only got three minutes to say something.”
With a word-of-mouth vibe that’s been packing out his shows for years now (and a schedule of 150+ gigs a year) Smither is the king of the rootsy singer/songwriter castle, but he’s not taking it for granted: “People will come as long as I keep producing,” he says. “If I quit writing and keep playing the same old songs over and over again they’ll quit – I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve seen it happen to myself. But I really believe the new record the best stuff that I’ve done and for the first time in my career I’m working well and I have good people working for me, on my side, and it’s spreading around. For the last five years my career’s been on a steady curve up – it’s not precipitous, it’s not one of these graph-poppers, but I’m perfectly happy to watch it do that for another five years!” As long as that involves at least the usual annual trip to this part of the world while he does it, that’ll be fine by a lot of other people here too.