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."
Smither got well, but you can hear the scars on "The Devil's Real," a harrowing track from his latest, Happier Blue: "It was then that I decided that my life was being guided by a second-rate dependence on first-class thieves."
The dependence is a theme that goes back as far as 1971, when Smither was ready to release his first album and so had to come up with a name for his song publishing company. He picked Homunculus Music.
"There's a song, one of the earliest songs I ever wrote -- I recorded it on Another Way to Find You, and I also recorded it on my very first album -- it goes, 'There's a man that lives inside my mind, with eyes that see the end of time...' It's kind of an exploration of that little guy that sits behind your eyes. The interior person. The Little Man."
In the grand tradition of blues and demonic possession, does, or did, the Little Man do the writing?
"I know that people sometimes feel that way, and I know why -- because at times when you write, it does feel as though somebody else is dictating and I'm just writing it down. But I don't really believe that that's the case. I really think that it comes from someplace inside me. I may not be aware of exactly where that place is, and for the most part I don't think it's in my conscious mind. My very worst efforts come from my conscious mind. They sound contrived when I work that way."
Smither had broken the spell without losing the muse by 1991, when he released the lauded solo album Another Way to Find You and regained his command of that synthesis of seminal rock and roll and hardcore blues. It's a synthesis soulfully represented on his 1993 Flying Fish release Happier Blue, which finds Smither playing with band accompaniment for the first time in 15 years. Romping reads of John Hiatt's "Memphis in the Meantime" and Lowell George's "Rock 'n' Roll Doctor" make the connection with Hurt, who was as much popular songster as bluesman, and seven originals -- most forcefully "The Devil's Real" -- make the case that Smither learned more than just technique from Lightnin' Hopkins.
Smither has also, in the tradition of blues greats from B.B. King to Li'l Ed, become associated with a particular guitar -- in his case, a deep-blue Alvarez acoustic/electric.
"It's become an icon for me. I got it originally about five years ago because I didn't want to take all my old good acoustics out on the road anymore, so I thought I'd get a good guitar, but one that's replaceable. I have to admit, the fact that it was blue influenced me when I bought it, because while I was in high school, one of my favorite poems was "The Man with the Blue Guitar" -- Wallace Stevens -- and I looked at that thing and I thought, well I could become the man with the blue guitar."
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Solo again for his Houston performance, Smither will play the blue Alvarez as he sits on a stool with only his tapping foot to anchor the rhythm. It's his favored performance style.
"I actually prefer to make solo records, but you can't get them played. The whole idea of production with a band is to make people think that it's bigger than it is, and to expand the sound without covering up the essential core."
Live, expect to hear that essential core unencumbered.
Chris Smither plays at 9 p.m. Friday, March 18 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 28-5999. $8.