This article originally appeared in the Victory Review and is reprinted with permission.
Chris Smither rapped sharply on the plate glass window of the Tractor Tavern in Ballard one recent Tuesday night, to conjure up the staff to let him in for sound check.
Smither was sharply dressed in black jeans, button down and sport coat, a lean figure with a guitar gig bag slung over his shoulder and a rolling travel case on the curb filled with guitar pedals and a stomp-board. A blues-based songwriter who came of age in the east coast folk scene as a contemporary of Bonnie Raitt and Eric Von Schmidt, Smither has matured like fine-aged bourbon into a timeless troubadour, a master story-teller.
Sound check on the bare Tractor stage was straightforward. Tame a little high end sizzle in his Collings 0002H guitar, take the boominess out of his gruff but honey-tinged voice. Dial in the BOOM-whack of his dancing, percussive feet and Smither was good to go.
Later that evening the packed crowd in Seattle’s Mecca of Americana would be hanging on every sinuous fingerpicked line Smither pulled from his guitar. We were transported with the singer as he squeezed raw emotion from his 65-year old vocal cords, sang about his dead father, existential crisis, or bad women, and shook his head back and forth, his trademark shaggy haircut plastered in place. His eyes were slits; his fingers moved crablike over the fretboard.
But after sound check, Smither relaxed and sat down for a thoughtful talk with Victory Music about the heart and soul of his art: his songwriting, how he has maintained a long and vibrant career, and, of course, his trademark footwork.
VICTORY: When you started playing in the mid 1960s you had a direct link to seminal blues players, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins. You played with them, hung out with them. Now all those guys are gone.
SMITHER: All of them, except for Pinetop Perkins…
VICTORY: You represent a living link to those people. Do you think about that consciously?
SMITHER: I think about that more frequently than I used to. It is interesting to me, it comes as almost a shock that there are players, young players, who look at me in the same way I looked at them….You take somebody like Dave Alvin for instance. Dave is only 10 or 11 years younger than I. But he still tells me it is hard to believe that I actually sat down and played with Skip James. He says “I do believe it because you say so, but it doesn’t compute somehow.” Because he thinks of me as being so much more a contemporary.
VICTORY: Well, you touched legends…
SMITHER: I touched the people who made it up, who invented it, invented blues. Now, I’m not saying what I do is strictly blues, because it is not, but it is heavily blues influenced. But you know, Son House, Skip James, John Hurt, Bukka (White), Muddy (Waters), all those people, they invented it.
VICTORY: Do you feel any responsibility to carry that forward?
SMITHER: No, not in that sense. My responsibility in terms of the way I view it is to simply do the best I can. I go out there and I play. I try to keep learning things, keep myself interested. And by this point I’ve developed a following that will grant me enough slack to let me do that. My responsibility is to make good music, period, right there.
I don’t have any responsibility to the people who made good music before me except not to step on their music. That would be travesty….But, at the same time, that music does not need my help. That music stands on its own. Anyone who can’t hear the intrinsic, inherent worth of that music is just not paying attention.
VICTORY: Who are the artists who influence you now?
SMITHER: I’m afraid I listen an awful lot to people who strike responsive chords in what I already do. I try to stay abreast of it, but the people I really like are people who are my contemporaries who are still learning things, still being inventive, still growing.
I love Mark Knopfler, I absolutely adore Mark Knopfler. He is just a great songwriter. Most people when they hear his name think, oh yeah, Dire Straits, Mr. Rock and Roll. And they don’t realize that the guy is a great singer-songwriter. The guy is a closet folky and he has been for years. And now he is out of the closet.
I covered one of his songs on this last album (“Madame Geneva’s “ on the album Time Stands Still) I’ve been wanting to do one for years…
I’d have to say that I am very much into lyricists. I can break down what I do into three parts: guitar player, singer and lyricist. I am an adequate guitar player, better than a lot, you know, I can hold my own. As a singer, I may not be the prettiest singer, but I am an effective singer. But as lyricist, I am good. That is the one where I say I am really good. And the people I looked to who really struck me, in terms of major popularity, were Randy Newman and Paul Simon…people who understand the inherent worth of words. Not just for what they mean, but how they sound, how they fall in your ear. How they feel in your mouth when you sing them. They are just great.
VICTORY: Given that, does your songwriting start with lyrics?
SMITHER: No! (laughs) Songwriting starts with the guitar almost entirely. Just a lick, a progression, a feel. Bit of a harmonic rhythm and a rhythm rhythm, you know.
Once I’ve got that, then I start looking for a melody line against those changes. Once I find that, I start singing…actually that happens almost simultaneously—finding the melody line and sort of scatting against the guitar part. And the scatting is all just nonsense syllables. But if you were to be right next to me while I was doing you’d say-what’s he saying? You’d feel like I was actually saying words but you weren’t quite hearing them. And then it just sort of falls out. A line pops up, a phrase, and I think, ‘ok, what am I doing with that?’ It is a process of talking to a part of your brain that you are not really on speaking terms with and trying to coax it to not be shy.
VICTORY: When you get to that point of plugging in words instead of scat syllables, do you have themes that you want to write about?
SMITHER: No, no, no, usually they suggest a theme. Sometimes the song is nearly half finished before I know what it is about. That is not true in the case of some very obvious topical songs. I think, ‘oh, I know what I want to talk about here,’ and then I go on. But it is an organic process and it reaches a point where it opens itself up and I feel like it’s literally a flowering. It just opens and I can look it and say, ‘Oh! ‘Then I can let my conscious brain take over and the left side gets in there and starts getting rigorous about it. But before that, it is just too easy to scare away whatever it is that is generating these things. But, on topical songs, like ‘Origin of Species’ that process will happen much sooner, it will happen almost immediately. You say, ‘oh I know what this song is about.’ And then you run with it.
VICTORY: You’ve been a road warrior for a long time, sustained a career traveling for over 40 years. How have you been able to keep it going so long and stay renewed?
SMITHER: It gets harder. It is really a question of staying healthy as much as anything. And I had a long period where I was anything but healthy. I almost drank myself to death and took a lot of other drugs to enable me to do that. But once you realize that it is a physical challenge to do this, and start taking care of yourself—people are reluctant to believe it because it sounds trite—but that is half of it, that’s half the job, just staying on your feet and being able to do it. And the thing is, I still like it. I still enjoy what I do. The travel and so forth is harder than it used to be. But to counterbalance that, I’ve got a good team. I don’t really have to think about it. I get a book and I open it up and it says Page One, Date: September 29, here is what you are doing. And I just follow the book…that makes it easier. I’m still having fun. It is harder than it used to be, but I am still having a good time
[In conversation over dinner, Smither admitted that he is keeping tours shorter to avoid being away from his 5 year old daughter. He used to do 260 or more shows a year, now down to about 120, with three or four night trips the norm except when going to the West Coast, Europe or Australia. Smither recently gave his daughter a uke—which was his first stringed instrument as well—and she likes to play, but she has “conflicted feelings about the music, because she also knows that’s what takes Daddy away.” he said.]
VICTORY: A noteworthy part of your sound is your percussive footwork. Tell us about how that came about. Where did that that come from? Are the foot parts plotted out, or does it just happen?
SMITHER: It all just happens. If I stop to think about it, I screw it up. It was just in integral part of what I do. And I’ve always tapped both feet, heel and toe, and usually if it is a 4/4 song and most of them are, I do 4s in the left foot and 2s in the right, so it’s got a syncopated feel to it. I can’t not do it.
I’ve had producers all my life who have tried to keep me from doing it in the studio and I never had much success in the studio until I found producers who wanted it. And drummers who said: “no, he keeps good time, I’ll just play off of him, that’s fine.”
It took a long time to discover that the audience had to hear it to. I was unaware of how much the implied parts of the songs were carried by the feet. You know it sounds like I’m playing whole lot of guitar, but I am actually doing a lot of percussion, too, that relieves me from having to play as intricate a guitar as I might have to otherwise.
And when I discovered that, that’s when I started amplifying the feet. I’d carry a board. I couldn’t figure out, for instance, why some gigs where I felt perfectly good, I felt I was going to tear them up, and I’d go out and I’d fall flat. And it was because the stage was carpeted and nobody could hear me. I couldn’t hear myself! If I can’t hear me and feel it (does a quick foot patter) it is just wrong. Once I learned that my whole career took off from that point. That was maybe 20 years ago. Things that didn’t make sense to audiences all of the sudden made sense. They couldn’t explain why. I knew why (laughs).
VICTORY: A lot of our readers are musicians, and we are all gear hounds, right? So, in terms of the gear and the footwork: do you pick shoes for a sound?
SMITHER: I do.
VICTORY: Do you wear taps?
SMITHER: No. Leather soles, semi hard rubber heels. What is important is not what they are made of, but that there be a distinction between the sound of the heel and the toe. If they sound the same, then it screws everything up. It’s got to be BOOM-whack, BOOM-whack. It’s got to have that differential. Usually very thin soled, light shoes are the best—Italian ones. And I save them. I get to the point now where I don’t wear them—
VICTORY:–Well, I saw you changed before sound check—
SMITHER: I change them, I don’t wear them on the street once they are established as playing shoes. And now I’ve got another pair, the pair I was wearing when we came in, they are almost ready. I’ve just got to take them to the cobbler and get this different heel put on. The rest of the shoe feels perfect.
VICTORY: So they need to be lived in a little bit before they are worthy?
VICTORY: What about the board?
SMITHER: I discovered a long time ago that the best thing to use was sort of a medium-density particle board, not real wood, not ply wood. Because I don’t want something that has a tonal value of its own. I want something that is just dead, that does not color it, does not a resonant note in it. That one I’m using, I’ve carried it for a long time. But I’m not particularly attached to it, I just haven’t had a reason to get another one. The airlines broke it in half, but it doesn’t really matter because it is velcroed to the stage! (laughs)
VICTORY: People are marketing porchboards now, with pickups and fancy hard wood—
SMITHER: — I know, they try to sell them to me! I tell them, I don’t want that. I don’t want it to sound that good.
VICTORY: It doesn’t sound like a porch anymore.
SMITHER: Yeah, right!
VICTORY: What about your guitar? How long have you been playing that Collings?
SMITHER: I’ve had the Collings for about eight or nine years and I’ve been playing it as my regular axe for about five. I used to play this blue Alvarez Yairi. It was a lovely guitar. It was a dream to play. I still have it. But it needed a lot of work. I took it to the guy who does my guitar work and he said ‘well is there a rush on this?’ And I said, ‘no, not particularly,’ thinking maybe three weeks, and it was three months! By the time I got it back I’d already transferred my affections to the Collings. But the Collings, truly, I should have been playing it long before. It is the best guitar I’ve ever owned, by far.
VICTORY: I’m sure you do a lot of interviews. What is the question that you really hate to answer?
SMITHER: The ones I really don’t like are where a perfectly well-meaning interviewer will say: well, what does this song mean? Laughs And they have no idea of how insulting that is. Because you spend so much time trying to express precisely what you mean. And what that person is saying is: ‘you failed!” (laughs)
VICTORY: We think you are far from failing, Chris!
Mike Buchman is a performing songwriter and sometimes music journalist who serves on the Victory Music Board of Directors. You can find him most Tuesdays at Victory’s open mic at the Q Cafe.
Ron Dalton, (Photos), is a Photographer/Graphic Artist and a Photoshop Instructor when he’s not a performing Singer/Songwriter.