The Transcendental Blues of Chris Smithers.
Picture this if you will: you're walking peacefully through the serene place known as Walden's Forest by the famous pond made famous by Henry David Thoreau. You can smell the virgin scent of the northern oak pine trees, the deep, green of the trees is stunning as they reach high toward the endless sky. Slowly you come across two country-blues musicians Jesse Fuller and Mississippi John Hurt exchanging acoustic blues licks and singing words that ring with meaning. But the words are of the Transcendentalists of the 19th century and the Zen masters of Japan. Not far beyond that, you see a man listening, attentively, guitar in hand, to their music and their interaction. He listens so he can take the new insights into the world along with those beautiful blues-licks. His songs are stunning in their insight and just plain toe-tapping and head spinning in the guitar playing taking the music of Mississippi John and Jesse Fuller places they never could have imagined.
You've just encountered musical of Chris Smither, a 40-year veteran of the world of singer-songwriters. He was there in the beginning during the early 70's with those heady record contracts signed by the likes of James Taylor and Carol King ushering in a new generation of artists who would often use folk and blues to point us deeper into personal experience, introspection and appreciation of our lives.
Chris Smither was brought into national recognition with Bonnnie Raitt classic hit song, "Love You Like A Man." This song has been covered by many female jazz singers including Diana Kroll.
Influenced by the time when Dylan was a mystery-ghost during his recovery period from the motorcycle accident, those who bore the mark of his influence began to find their own voices which often varied far from the Dylan motif. It is significant that Chris' albums have included many adventurous Dylan covers, like "Desolation Row -Visions of Johanna" and on his latest album, "Time Stands Still," It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry. Like the Big Pink/Basement Tapes days of Dylan and The Band, Chris Smithers brings a modern lyrical acoustic style to an antique form. Time Stands Still stands among the best of a long string of award winning albums which have usually been described by most critics as his best. Such is the consistency and constant evolution of this distinctive artist. This new album is a continuation of his legacy with an engaging folk-blues based, complex finger picking and lyric-driven songs which bite with the kind of wisdom gained from a life of, what he terms, 'small revelations'. His insightful lyrics influenced by the transcendentalists' as well as' Zen Buddhism. Like the Soto Zen tradition, he mirrors the enlightenment available to us all in those ordinary miracles he describes in these gem-like songs which, like most songs in the American tradition, deal with heartbreak, redemption, appreciation and the irony of those happy accidents we all experience in everyday life.
In his forty years on the road, Chris has taken a solitary path. He has rarely played with a band, only an accompanist on occasion. But, his songwriting has been generous in its flow of wisdom and shared revelations. Beneath his blues-roughed voice is the same kind of light and serenity one might discover on a walk by Walden's Pond.
In early January '09, I had
the opportunity to have a phone conversation with Chris. We laughed as
I sat in the shade of a city tree in a park while he stayed in doors in
the warm shelter of his New England, Massachusetts home. What follows demonstrates
the generosity and quiet wisdom of the man
Smithers: Well, let's see...I released a new album, Time Stands Still, a few weeks ago. I've been touring, but I'm on hiatus right now. I'll start up again in January. I'll be in Austin in February.
Roland: How do you like the scene there?
Smithers: It's great. So much music. The only problem with Austin is it's in Texas. As soon as you leave it can get pretty different.
Roland: Where else will you be touring?
Smithers: In March we're headed for Australia.
Roland: You have a good following there?
Smithers: Well, with each new album that's release, I get a good crowd. So, I keep going back after a new release, as long as they keep coming.
Roland: Australians are really into roots music?
Smithers: Well, you know, there's a saying, 'Austrailians are just Americans in training.' (laughs)
Roland: Tell me about your beginnings. How you got to here.
Smithers: (laughs) I've wondered that myself. Let's see. Well, my first instrument was a ukulele. When I got a guitar, later, when I was older, I'd listen to blues records like Mississippi John Hurt. I learned from listening to them and then got a style of my own based on his style of finger picking.
Roland: Do you consider your music blues?
Smithers: Well, yeah, it starts there, but then I take it out where it's hard to describe or categorize. I wouldn't call it pure blues though. You'll always hear those influences coming through. I try to bring something new to the lyrics.
Roland: Yeah, your lyrics are quite unique.
Smithers: I come up with what I'm thinking about at the time. I've heard some people say some of my lyrics are dark. But, really, if you listen, I always try to leave things on a positive note.
Roland: I noticed you like to do unusual covers. A lot of Dylan songs, but not the usual Dylan covers.
Smithers: Yeah, I find, if do something by Bob, I want to be able to bring something of my own to it. So find the songs like this I don't if anyone has ever covered "Desolation Row."
Roland: Yes. It occurred to me, as I look over your albums over the last few years, you're covering mostly Dylan songs from __Highway 61 Revisited__. Do you want to cover the whole album?
Smithers: (Laughs) It seems that way. But, I also did "Visions of Johanna." The newest one on _Time Stands Still_ is "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry." I think I brought something new to that one. You know one thing about playing Bob's songs is they are so strong, they stand the test of time. They can take a lot of abuse. Even Bob these days(laughs). The songs even take abuse from Bob.
Roland: One of the songs you covered which stands out for me personally is Richie Furay's song from The Buffalo Springfield, "Kind Woman" Richie mentions your cover in his biography. I think it pleased him.
Smithers: Wow. It's great to hear that about Richie. I remember I heard that song in 1968 and just thought, here's this gorgeous song. I've got to play it. I started covering it in concert and got lots of compliments on it. What album was it on? __This Train__. I needed another song to fill out the set and I played "Kind Woman." Man, I've made more women cry with that one! (laughs).
Roland: Your lyrics really have a spiritual feel to them. Tell me your thoughts on spirituality and music.
Smithers: Let's see....Music is spiritual. It calls you to the moment. The moment is all we have and the music really brings you to the present. But, I'm not a theist.
Roland: A lot of what you write sounds like it's influenced by Zen.
Smithers: Yes. I've hung around with Zen Buddhist. I suppose I've picked up a lot from them. One thing I can say, I'm glad I didn't die 30 years ago. I would've missed so much. So many things I've learned during that time. It seems to me that everyday life has been filled with small revelations. That's really what my life has been...a series of small revelations.
Roland: It's what I call ordinary miracles.
Roland: I noticed on your website you've done some prose writing.
Smithers: Yes. That's been very different than songwriting. With a song, you gotta hold it's hand. You work to get it done from start to finish. But, I started writing this short story for this book called __Amplified__. The editors just have a real love of this kind of music. So they asked some songwriters to write. It's short stories from people like Mary Gauthier. The good thing was I had a deadline otherwise, I could've gone on and on. I don't know if I would ever started it without that deadline. But, once I started, it took on a life of its own. I felt like I was trying to keep up with it. It was really different than writing a song. I'm glad I did it.
Roland: Well, I'm looking forward seeing you at Music San Diego. It's been a pleasure.