The Man With the Blue Guitar

Chris Smither uses the blues as a launching pad for a sound that could make you cry

I don't know just what it is about New England in general, and Boston in particular, that breeds and draws so many white men with blues-soaked bones, but they keep drifting into my viewfinder. First it was the Raymond Carver/Son House hybrid songwriting of Bill Morrissey, then the gritty slide guitar traditionalism of Paul Rishell. Now the sights are set on fingerpicking virtuoso Chris Smither.

"I learned from a Texan," Smither admits. "My first big main man was Lightnin' Hopkins. This friend of mine laid this Lightnin' Hopkins album on me. It totally blew me away. I had never heard guitar playing like that. I didn't really know anything about three-finger playing and the various styles of blues, all the way from Mississippi to east Texas to Georgia style."

Smither came up in a musical New Orleans family with an uncle who taught him three chords, an ability to recognize changes, and the idea that that knowledge would allow him to pretty well play anything he was likely to hear on the radio. He combined that with a taste for the Everly Brothers, a parental collection of Burl Ives and John Jacob Niles records, and his late-teen exposure to the blues, and he came out of the gates with a mixed-up pedigree equally capable of plumbing the deepest depths of Delta blues and riding a rolling roots-rock beat.

"I always have a hard time when people say, well, do you really play the blues? I want to say yes, but I know why it's not strict blues. But there's a rhythmic feel that's inspired by the blues that I draw on in almost all my stuff. I usually tell them it's about an equal balance of Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin' Hopkins and me -- what I make of the synthesis of all that."

It's a synthesis that combines Smither's rough-hewn baritone with a lyrical sense wavering between desperation and resignation, superstition and skepticism, with an occasional jolt of unexpected relief from the drudgery of a hyperactive self-awareness. On guitar, Smither's intricate cascade of fingerpicked patterns uses the blues as a launching pad for a sound that -- even if you never hear its like on the radio -- is so immediate it could make you cry. Or laugh. If you're looking for a musical reference point, Iowan and Smither contemporary Greg Brown is a good place to start.

Smither agrees. "I always have the feeling that Greg and I listened to the same people. I listen to him and have no trouble understanding where he's coming from."

Where Smither went to, at age 21, was Boston, where the acoustic scene flourished. His birthplace of New Orleans, for all its rich musical heritage, didn't turn out to be much of a guitarist's town. There were plenty of key and horn players, but Smither had fallen hard for the six-string.

It was in Boston that he took the opportunity to meet Hurt, Fred McDowell, Son House and Skip James ("in my personal blues lexicon, he's just as important as Robert Johnson"), all of whom were regular fixtures on the folk-revival college circuit of the '60s.

And it was in Boston, in 1971, that Smither released his debut album on the tiny Poppy label, home at the time to Texas blues beatnik Townes Van Zandt. He released a follow-up in '73 and recorded a third album for Poppy before parent company United Artists folded, leaving the LP in label limbo.

"It's still sitting there," Smither says. "I think Capitol has it now, I'm not sure of that. One of the majors. It's sitting in the vault someplace, and I'm sure if I ever get a reasonable facsimile of a hit they'll dig it out. It has some interesting people on it, you know. Lowell George plays on a couple of tracks, and Mac Rebennack is on two tracks -- that ought to be enough to sell half a million copies anyway, Dr. John and Lowell George."

After losing his album, and apparently his grip, Smither suffered a long creative dry spell from '73 to '85. "That," deadpans Smither, "was when I was drunk.

"Actually, I'd been drunk all my life, but that's when I was incapacitated. I'd been dropped by United Artists, and then I didn't have any management. I wasn't being very productive. I never actually quit -- a lot of people think that I just quit playing, and I didn't really do that -- but I didn't play very much. Maybe one or two gigs a month. And I was not actively looking for any work and I wasn't writing any songs."

It took, he says, coming this close to dying, and getting tired of the daily borderline battle, to snap him out of it.

"I got sober. The ways that you get out of that are pretty ordinary -- I mean, they're not ordinary to the person involved -- but it's no different from anybody else getting sober. I don't know why some people do and some people don't. I just know that it's got nothing to do with being smart or stupid or strong or weak or good or bad, it's just some people get well and some people don't."

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