Sounds Local: Chris Smither, remarkably honest
A contemporary master of acoustic folk blues, Chris Smither once described his music as “one-third Lightnin’ Hopkins, one-third Mississippi John Hurt and one-third me.”
Raised in New Orleans, Smither migrated to Boston in the 1970s and became a major presence in the Boston folk music scene. Now four decades into his career, Smither continues to write remarkably honest songs that are marked by his nimble finger-picking guitar style and world-weary voice.
Smither released his 12th album, “Hundred Dollar Valentine” in July on the local Signature Sounds label. The disc was produced by David “Goody” Goodrich of Sunderland and features area performers like Kris Delmhorst of Shelburne Falls on cello.
In an article for American Songwriter magazine, Smither called the album “another collection of hope seasoned with resignation, disguised as acceptance.” A resident of Amherst since 2009, we are proud to call a national treasure like Smither one of our own. He will return to Ashfield for a show at the Ashfield Town Hall at 412 Main St., on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 8 p.m. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Smither about the new album, living in the valley and the music he is currently listening to.
Q: One interesting aspect about “Hundred Dollar Valentine” is that this is the first album of your career that consists entirely of your own material
CS: Everybody has picked up on that and, to tell you the truth, it had never occurred to me that I had never done that before. But you know it’s just one of those things. It is not that I couldn’t have done it before, but I’m really interested in other material as well. I really like it when other artists do covers. It’s kind of a nice little insight into what they listen to.
I was actually looking around for covers to do on this album and my producer, David “Goody” Goodrich, said ‘why don’t you cover yourself? You’ve got all this material, a lot of which you haven’t played for years.’ And he had a list as long as his arm of songs he’d like to hear me do, and we hit on a few of them.
Q: You actually ended up redoing three of your older, previously recorded songs. One of them, “Every Mother’s Son,” is about a child gone wrong that was written in 1972 but sounds like it was inspired by the events of the past year. Lyrics like “I speak to you, I think you’ll understand/You know you made your son Joseph a dangerous man/He’s gone to town and bought himself a gun/This could happen to every mother’s son.” These lyrics are goose bump inducing.
CS: I know — it does sound like it could have been written a couple of weeks ago. The song is 30 years old and it is even more relevant now than when I wrote it. I keep hoping it would go away, but it doesn’t. I thought it was a very powerful arrangement and a standout on this record.
When I compare this version to the earlier one, the earlier is very emotional. Peter Mulvey also recorded this song and his version is very intense. But when I listen to this new version, there is a sense of resignation about it. It’s like I have lived 30 more years and nothing seems to have changed.
Q: My favorite song on the album is “On the Edge.” I especially like the way strings are used in the background of this song.
CS: I feel extremely self-indulgent when I write songs like that because I’m not writing for anybody but me. So it’s like I’m totally self-absorbed and it’s like I don’t care if anybody likes it — which isn’t, of course, true (laughs). Yeah, it’s the strings that make it. I never used a string section as much as I did on this record.
Q: Were the strings Goody’s idea?
CS: Oh yeah, I gave him a free hand on this one. We have reached a nice working relationship. He trusts me to write songs that aren’t going to make him cringe and I trust him to come up with arrangements that aren’t going to sound totally bogus (laughs). I told him ‘do whatever you want’ and he said, ‘Oh I have some ideas.’ I really liked the string section, but the thing that I wasn’t sure about was when he said I’ve got this harmonica player and I want to use him all over the record. I was like ‘really?’ But he was right. It works.
Q: This is the fifth album Goody has produced for you. Has he become an integral part of your music making?
CS: I think Goody is a culmination of a 30-year search for the right guy. I have used a lot of producers and I have learned an incredible amount from every one of them. That is what producers do — they teach you stuff about your music that you didn’t know.
Q: How did you two originally meet?
CS: Well, I can tell you exactly the first time he ever heard me play and it was 18 years ago. It was my 50th birthday and I was playing the Somerville Theatre, and he and his girlfriend were walking down the sidewalk and he said ‘let’s go in and hear this guy — he’s supposed to be pretty good.’ They went in and bought the last two tickets and they were way up in the nosebleed section. But he liked my music. I actually met him when he was working at the Music Emporium, a music store that was about a mile and a half from my house, and he told me that story. Goody later started working with Peter Mulvey. Peter and I were doing a lot of shows together and it was Peter who suggested I get Goody to produce. I was feeling the need for a change, so I called him and said ‘why don’t you come do this?’ And he did and it was great.
Q: How do you like living here?
CS: I do like it. It is just really nice here. I notice the difference when I go back to Boston and start swearing at the traffic (laughs). Not that I don’t swear at the traffic here.
Q: What have you been listening to lately?
CS: The Waymores are really good. I particularly dig them. They are a group that Don Henry is in (rifling through a pile of CDs). I really like Mark Knopfler’s new record — that is really nice. Who knew? People think of him as Mr. Rock ’n’ Roll, but he was a closet folkie all along.
Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Advance tickets can be also purchased online at wor at Elmer’s Store, 396 Main St. in Ashfield. Seating is general admission.
NOTE: Bill Bourne was originally scheduled to open the show but had to cancel his appearance. There will be no opening act.
Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org