I seriously considered Chris Smither for our Covered in Folk series. After all, for much of his forty-year career Smither was a total unknown outside a very small community...unless you happened to know who wrote Bonnie Raitt's hit Love Me Like A Man. Smither has cred as a performer in his own right; he deserves to be touted for his own deceptively simple musicianship, not just his writing. The problem is, while his songs have been pretty consistently out in the open since he started out, his career path yaws like a ship in a storm.
Smither joined the Cambridge, MA folk scene in the late sixties, and hit the national radar in the early seventies with a spate of albums that showcased his emerging songwriting and raw, bluesy swamp folk style. But he faded into relative obscurity by the end of the decade, touring sporadically, releasing only one album in the eighties while his songs lived on in the hands of others. For a while, it looked like another promising musician had gotten lost.
But when Smither came back in 1991 with intimately recorded live album Another Way To Find You, it put him right back in the groove, winning awards and filling bars across the country. Since then, he's been prolific and celebrated; today, where the Dixie Chicks still sell more Patty Griffin than Patty Griffin, Chris Smither has transcended life as "the guy who wrote that song" to become a headliner again, reemerging from the dark eighties to impress a new generation with his foot-stomping blues/folk guitar style, his throat-scratching Florida by way of New Orleans tenor drawl, and his interpretation of both his own well-crafted tunes and familiar standards from the folk canon.
At his best, Smither's signature sound is a holdover from the days of Leadbelly, before blues and folk music split into distinct genres. Like those that came before him, he can play fast and loose with tempo, speeding through phrases on the guitar in raw emotive power. What distinguishes his style from the great grandaddies of interpretive fingerplucking is a preference for fastfinger slide over chord-playing, and a mellow, weathered grin all his own that shines through his lyrical play to flavor even the most wistful of folksongs.
The edgy, bluesy style Smither favors in performance is best featured on Another Way to Find You, in all its live, foot-stomping glory; his produced work shows an equally gifted ability to play the power of that wailing voice and sweet guitarplay off a full wash of sound. Here's a full house of covers from his second wave of fame -- a trio of solid tracks from Another Way, and a pair of more recent, more produced cuts -- just to prove that you can rise again:
- Friend of the Devil (orig. Grateful Dead)
- Down in the Flood (orig. Bob Dylan)
- Tulane (orig. Chuck Berry)
- Rock and Roll Doctor (orig. Little Feat)
- Real Fine Love (orig. John Hiatt)
Chris Smither sells all his in-print works, from 1984's amazing It Ain't Easy to last year's solid Leave The Light On, through his website, so you know where he'd prefer you buy them. Unfortunately, if you'd like to go back to his work from before the resurrection, you'll have to scour the used recordshops -- but they're well worth the vintage price, if you find one in good condition.
Today's bonus coversongs are a full house, too:
- Smoothjazz chanteuse Diana Krall covers Smither's Love Me Like A Man
- Bonnie Raitt covers Love Me Like A Man, too (live, from Road Tested)
- Chris Smither's original 1970 version of Love You Like A Man
(our first NON-cover here on Cover Lay Down!)
- Smither makes Roly Sally's Killin' the Blues his own
- Shawn Colvin covers Smither's version of Killing the Blues