Chris Smither’s first album I’m a Stranger Here Myself dates back to 1970, a year known for the for the Kent State shootings, Detroit muscle cars, and a time when sweet baby James Taylor and the paranoid Black Sabbath could both be on the top ten best selling records of the year charts. It was a strange time, but Chris Smither was a strange dude so he fit right in. The Crescent City blues man let his six string guitar do most of the talking, something he still does today. These are strange times, too, and Smither has not gotten normal. In fact, after more than 40 years of recording, he is doing something different this time. He has written every song on his new release, Hundred Dollar Valentine.
Smither has always been a decent songwriter. You might know Bonnie Raitt’s raucous cover of Smither’s “Love Me Like a Man” or his own interpretation of blues artists such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt. Smither’s had always mixed his original material with renditions of past masters. Now he’s doing it by himself.
On guitar, Smither is a master of the folk blues. His guitar rings like a church bell one minute and a then wails like a dying animal the next. The New Orleans native’s secret weapon is how he makes the oddest sounds come off as the soundtrack to our daily lives. Maybe that was the case when he was growing up, because the musical tradition of his hometown seeps into every song. He’s supported by of drummer Billy Conway, cello player Kris Delmhorst, slide guitarist David Goodrich, harmonica player Jimmy Fitting, violinist Ian Kennedy, and additional vocalist Anita Suhanin. These artisans hone their craft by playing with Smither and letting him go on his instrumental journeys.
Then there is the voice. Smither’s vocals recall that of the Black bluesmen he emulates. The vocals are creaky and stuffed; like he’s got cotton in his cheeks and is unable to swallow. Smither uses this to great effect, as if his coarseness makes him more authentic. Smither’s weariness can come off as shtick, but he mostly keeps it under control. On some songs, such as the bouncy “Place in Line”, Smither even lightens up and sings more plainly. Seeing life’s blessings means being clear eyed and clear voiced, the song suggests.
There may be nothing here that Smither hasn’t done before, except totally relying on himself for musical material. He comes off as an old time blues player in an electronic world of Facebook, iPhones, and no one cares about what albums rule the charts anymore. Smither still asks the big questions about why do we exist, what is love, and why do we do what we do? He’s no closer to finding the answer than he was 40 some years ago. He might be a clown, but one whose funny bone has been sliced by the knife of life. Smither uses words to that effect, as he dismisses self-knowledge (and knowledge of all kinds) as helpful in the final analysis of existential dilemmas. He can tell us where he came from if not where we are going. Smither still has the blues. Maybe that tells us all we need to know.