If you ever want living proof that F. Scott Fitzgerald's oft-repeated adage "There are no second acts in American lives" is misguided, go see Chris Smither. This triple threat singer/writer/guitarist extraordinaire recently entered his sixth decade, and his career has never had a higher creative profile than now.
Now touring behind one of his finest records (as well as one of the best releases of 2006), Leave the Light On, Smither has earned his passage into the elite class of singer/songwriters. He started way back in 1970 with his Blues/Folk-fueled debut, I'm a Stranger Too, and despite an intermittent stop-start approach to his career he's now producing possibly his best-ever material.
Beset by alcoholism and a perceived disinterest in his music, Smither basically disappeared from the music scene for almost 15 years in the late '70s and early '80s. As we all eventually find out for ourselves, the years pile up like deadwood and soon it's time to summon the will to make a go of your ambitions or else learn to handle defeat gracefully.
Fortunately, for all concerned, Smither chose the former option. In 1993 he pulled it together to release Happier Blue, the record that sparked his revival.
In our interview from his home in Massachusetts, Smither says, "It's been a steady climb for about 15 years. It's no rocket trip, but my career has been on a steady upward curve.
The last couple of records, and this one in particular, sort of took quantum leaps. You know, gradually you sort of work up to a critical mass and people start to notice."
Word of mouth has been responsible for much of the recent acclaim. If you've ever seen one of Smither's one-man band concerts, then you've probably told at least one friend about this guy's onstage charisma and guitar mastery. Gripping his blue Alvarez acoustic as he keeps beat with his thumping foot, he spins songs-stories out in a rollicking, colorful way that corresponds nicely with his New Orleans heritage.
It's not hard to imagine him sitting on a milk crate somewhere in the French Quarter and playing his diamond-bright acoustic Blues to locals and tourists alike. There's something infectious about his broad smile, bawdy laugh and raspy, emotion-stained voice that draws you into his ever-evolving style.
In our conversation, it's soon clear how seriously he takes his music — as well as the craft of songwriting.
"My writing has improved," he says. "I haven't gotten any less serious, any less preoccupied with the big questions, but I've learned how to express myself in a little more accessible fashion. Not quite Pop songs, but they're almost as accessible. You know, your whole life you try to learn how to simplify things, and I think I've learned how to do that. It started with the record before, but with this one everyone tells me, 'Oh man, it's all right there, it's perfectly open.' "
He's right. His new record still offers his trademark lyricism, but it feels more grounded now, less abstract. Smither's best songs have always glowed with the bejeweled precision and mystery of a Zen koan, but now they also feel rooted in tangible, everyday subjects.
"The music is almost always first, and the last thing to happen is writing the lyrics," Smither says. "That's the hardest part, where I really have to get disciplined. I mean, the music stuff I can write during sound check."
Just sampling his new set of songs, you'll find they range from "Father's Day," an ode to reconciling himself with his father's twilight years, to "Diplomacy," a comic diatribe that takes Bush to task for his greed, hubris and diplomatic ineptitude without being overly preachy about it.
Chris laughs. "This is one of the first times I've done topical songs like that," he says. "But that's 'cause I'm getting old, and I figure I've got license to be a cranky old man now. Plus, you have to say something about what's going on."
One of the record's instant classics is "Origin of Species," which Smither jokes is his attempt at "poking fun at the dummies." It's a tall tale rewrite of Darwin's theory of evolution, and between the biblical-drawn verses and the overdriven guitar hook it ripples along in cascading imagery; "Eve told Adam, Snakes! I've had 'em, let's get outta here/ We'll raise our family someplace outta town/ They left the garden just in time with the landlord cussin' right behind," goes one amusing snippet. With its epic allusions, it reminds you of a gentler update of Dylan's monumental "Highway 61."
"I've learned how not to make it too heavy," Smither says. "That's what I've learned about songwriting — you always hope that your songwriting is improving over the years. I mean, obviously, I've been doing this now for 40 years, so it would be a shame if I didn't get a little bit better."
Unlike many, he's never been shy about acknowledging his influences, which include musical giants such as Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt and Dylan. Both his concerts and his records always include interesting cover choices. On the new release, he reinvents Dylan's "Visions of Johanna" in 6/8 waltz time, which gives it a new lilting urgency.
"I like doing covers, simply because there are a lot of good songs out there," Smither explains, "but I also wish everyone would do more covers. Because I like to know where people come from, that gives you an idea of the sort of thing people listen to. A lot of songwriters nowadays shun doing covers — they really want you to believe that they stepped out full-grown and didn't have any influences, which is kind of ridiculous.
"The other thing is I use the covers as a way of saying, which may not be very modest, 'These are the people I consider to be my peers. My stuff stands up to this stuff.' "
Fusing Blues poetry with his propulsive fingerpicking guitar style and craggy voice has shaped the backbone of Smither's long career. He's one of the few artists left who taps into the rich vein of the acoustic Blues tradition but still manages to update it with his own individual slant.
CHRIS SMITHER plays Friday at the Southgate House.