singer-songwriter’s low profile is good enough for him.
BY RANDY HARWARD
Chris Smither’s latest album Time Stands Still (Signature Sounds) starts with a tune called
“Don’t Call Me Stranger.” Although it’s a “bad-boy song” written for his wife,
the portentous, fingerstyle folk-blues come-on is like running into an old
friend. That is, though it’s been only three years-just about his average
delivery time-since his last album, it feels longer. You get to missing a buddy
like that, the one whose stories are always interesting, and told in a way
that’s as satisfying as the realization that your old pal may have been away
for a while, but the bond between you remains strong.
Smither really is that kind of guy, whether you know him or
not. He introduces himself casually-“It’s Chris”-and warmly. He’s a happy, comfortable
guy, so the idea that he’s not as famous as he should be just slides off his
back. “‘How come you ain’t famous?'” he says, with a dusky laugh reminiscent of
his trademark singing voice. “I don’t know… I was just sorta out of circulation
for about a dozen years.”
Those years came after his first two albums, 1970’s
coincidentally titled I’m A Stranger, Too!
and 1971’s Don’t It Drag On (originally issued on Poppy Records, reissued in 2002 on Tomato). “I was
basically drunk for 12 years,” he says in his bio, “and I somehow managed to
climb out of it. I don’t know why.” He resurfaced in 1984 with It Ain’t Easy (Adelphi) and took seven
years to release his fourth album, Another
Way to Find You (Flying Fish) before settling into that cozy two-three year
recording cycle. Since then, including 2000’s Live As I’ll Ever Be (HighTone) and the long-awaited release of the
lost 1973 album Honeysuckle Dog (Okra-Tone,
2005), he’s doubled his output and played 100-150 shows per year.
He’s prolific, now, and his work has been covered by Bonnie
Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and Diana Krall. He’s landed tunes in films
(for 2007’s You Kill Me with Ben
Kingsley and Owen Wilson) and scored a short (1997’s The Ride). Author Linda Barnes made Smither the favorite songwriter
of Carlotta Carlysle, the heroine of Barnes’ mystery novels (St. Martin’s Griffin) and Smither’s
own short fiction has been collected, along with that of Jim White, Low’s Zak
Sally and Maria McKee, in Amplified:
Fiction from Leading Alt-Country, Indie Rock, Blues and Folk Musicians. One
figures Smither should have a higher profile-but unlike his contemporaries John
Hiatt (also a favorite writer of Raitt, Harris and Colvin) and Lyle Lovett, Smither
consistently flies under the radar.
“I’m doing really well,” he says, audibly smiling. “I don’t
brag about it or anything, but I’m in a really comfortable position; I can work
as much or as little as I want. But you’re right: Nine times out of ten, people
will say “Chris who?” They won’t say that about John Hiatt.”
Yet they share the some of the same rabid, rapt fans, connoisseurs
of what Smither calls “listeners’ artists.” They sit on a stage, often alone,
and tell stories with words and notes coaxed from a guitar that, like a
sidekick, was there for every moment and will attest to the veracity of the
tales-even the embellishments. We fans are content to sit still in their seats
and let the music do the talking. We hang on every word of our good friend’s
account of his whereabouts since last we met.
If the song “I Don’t Know” on Time Stands Still is any indication, he’s cool with his station.
There’s a line, a reworking of words uttered by his daughter Robin, that rings appropriate
for him: “How could I be nowhere if I’m here today?” Good point, eh? He has a
career, a record deal, that wizened, raspy voice and a bottomless wellspring of
songs. Could be a lot worse.
“All I can do is try to be better than I am. But having said
that, right now I’m actually a lot better known than I ever dreamed I would be
ten years ago.”