‘An American original’ and an Amherst presence: Folk/blues veteran Chris Smither debuts new album ‘Call Me Lucky’

  • Chris Smither’s lastest album, “Call Me Lucky,” on Northampton’s Signature Sounds, is the 18th of his long career. Photo by Jeff Fasano

  • At 73, Chris Smither plays fewer shows than he used to, but his playing has never faltered. The New York Times writes that he “turns the blues into songs that accept hard-won lessons and try to make peace with fate.” Photo by Jeff Fasano

  • “Call Me Lucky,” Chris Smither’s new album, debuted in the no. 2 slot on the Billboard Blues Chart. Image courtesy of Chris Smither

  • Chris Smither, seen here at The Parlor Room in Northampton, began his music career on the Boston/Cambridge folk circuit in the mid 1960s. Gazette file photo/Carol Lollis

Staff Writer
Published: 4/4/2018 4:39:39 PM

In the first line from the opening track of his new album, Chris Smither poses the kind of question that has been a hallmark of his career, in which he has often written about a search for meaning and reflected on life’s mysteries: “They call me lucky, but I don’t know why.”

But as the veteran singer-songwriter and blues-folk guitarist sees it, he is pretty lucky: At 73, he’s still writing great songs, still touring the country (and overseas) to play, and he has his family and home in Amherst to return to.

After a brief health scare a couple years ago that sidelined him for a few months for an operation to replace a heart valve, Smither says he’s feeling fine and enjoying the touring.

“Things are going pretty good,” he said during a recent call from his home. “I don’t have as much energy as I used to, but I’m a hundred percent, physically. And when I get up on stage and start playing, I think ‘This is what I do, and I still enjoy it.’ ”

Smither, whose new album, “Call Me Lucky,” is on Northampton’s Signature Sounds label, plays the Shea Theater in Turners Falls Saturday at 7 p.m. He’ll be joined by his longtime producer, David “Goody” Goodrich, on guitar and Billy Conway on drums.

The two-disc record features his first batch of original songs since those on his 2012 album, “Hundred Dollar Valentine,” as well as a few covers, something he has typically done on previous records. And on the second disc of “Call Me Lucky,” Smither and his band offer alternate versions of some of the new songs (listen to him channel Leonard Cohen on take two of “Down to the Sound”).

Those extra cuts came from a bit of serendipity and exploration in the studio, Smither notes, where the supporting musicians recorded some alternate takes — including one flat-out rocker — of the music and then had him, sans guitar, sing over the top. “It turned out to be a lot of fun,” he said.

On the album, Smither is joined by Goodrich on guitar and keyboards, Conway on drums, and Matt Lorenz — the one-man Valley band better known as The Suitcase Junket — on violin, guitar, piano and harmony vocals. For good measure, Lorenz even throws in some whistling solos on two cuts.

“I’m so impressed with his inventiveness,” Smither said of Lorenz. “When we were planning for the record, Goody said to me ‘Who else do you want to have on this?’ and I said, ‘I want Matt Lorenz.’ Goody looked at me and said, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t think of him!’ ”

Like the best of Smither’s albums, “Call Me Lucky” offers a mix of blues and folk, delivered with his trademark gravelly vocals, crisp finger-picked guitar and droll wit. But the album, recorded early last summer outside of Austin, Texas, puts added emphasis on his voice as he sings about love, loss, mortality and the state of the world.

The work of engineer Keith Gary, and the recording facility itself — Blue Rock Studio — went a long way, Smither said, “to getting rid of any confusion of where you place the vocals” in the songs. “Gary did a great job — I couldn’t be happier with the way everything sounds.”

Taking up his  songwriter’s pen

As his fans know, Smither, originally from New Orleans, has been on the musical hustings for over half a century, from the time he moved up to New England in the summer of 1966 and quickly became a fixture on the Boston/Cambridge coffeehouse circuit. In 2009, he moved to Amherst from the Boston area.

Bonne Raitt, Diana Krall and Emmylou Harris are among the artists who have recorded his songs, and he has long been a critics’ favorite: The Associated Press once called him “an American original, a product of the musical melting pot, and one of the absolute best singer-songwriters in the world.”

But Smither jokes that he’s not the most prolific writer around. “I try to put out a record every three years or so, and when the time comes for something new, I have to get off my ass and start writing, make sure no one thinks I’ve expired.”

His last record, “Still on the Levee” in 2014, was a career retrospective marking his 70th birthday, on which he reworked and re-recorded 24 songs from throughout his career. The following year, when he might have begun working on some new tunes, he had to have a heart valve replaced and spent three months at home recuperating.

Not surprisingly, some of the songs on the new album, like the folky “By the Numbers,” examine mortality: “One more time into the deep unknown / One more time into the soul / One more run to get this done / Then let it go.”

But as a line of the toe-tapper “Too Bad, So Sad,” puts it, Smither is still something of an “old dog [who’s] got some new tricks.” One of them is the humorous blues song, “Nobody Home,” in which he satirizes Donald Trump (“a clown with a comb over tryin’ to float a loan / through the CIA while he tweeted on his phone”) and digital obsession (“Believe me when I tell you it’s like bein’ alone / Hangin’ out with numbers in a cyber zone”). 

Then there’s the old-timey sound of “Change Your Mind,” on which Goodrich plays the diddley bow, and the new arrangement Smither developed for Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” a song he has played for years as an acoustic blues-rocker; on the new album, it becomes an almost foreboding folk ballad, played in a minor key.

Around the time Chuck Berry turned 90, in 2016, Smither says, he and Goodrich were talking about future covers he might do, “and he just said ‘Try doing “Maybellene” in a minor key.’ That’s pretty much where that came from.”

“Call Me Lucky” has another unusual cover: The Beatles’ “She Said She Said,” a 1966 song with churning electric guitar that John Lennon wrote when he was experimenting with LSD. It was one of the first Beatles songs that really grabbed his attention, Smither says, and for a Lennon memorial concert in New York he was invited to play in a few years ago, he started developing a finger-style version on acoustic guitar.

His heart surgery prevented him from playing at that show, he notes, but last year Goodrich heard him playing part of the song “and he said, ‘Hey, you have to finish that! Let’s put it on the record.’ ”

Smither also got some inspiration for the new album from home, where he lives with his wife (and manager), Carol Young, and their daughter, Robin, who’s 13. As Smither tells it, he was working on one of his new songs — he thinks it might have been “Everything on Top” — and he called Robin down to his bedroom to listen.

“She said ‘Do I have to?’ ” he said with a laugh. “But after I played for her, she said ‘That’s nice, Dad … your songs actually say something.’ And I said, ‘Robin, that’s just about the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me.’ ”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Chris Smither plays the Shea Theater in Turners Falls Saturday at 7 p.m. with David Goodrich and Billy Conway. Kentucky singer-songwriter Joan Shelley opens the show. Tickets
are available through smither.com and signaturesoundspresents.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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