CHRIS SMITHER Interview
Common Fence Music
Sat., 9-24, 2005
BY SCOTT HEMEON
Sometimes something, or in this case, somewhere
just finds itself in my focus through coincidence. New Orleans
is that somewhere.
Besides being the target
of Hurricane Katrina's wrath, Washington's shame, and endless media coverage,
The Big Easy was already on my mind. Some friends of mine from Newport are producing
a documentary about a New Orleans cultural dance phenomenon called "bounce." I
was down there in June for my honeymoon. And I'm glad I went when I did.
It is hard now to envision the future of
the Big Un-Easy. This city, known for its capacity to party, its
rich legacy of spicy food, colorful people and interesting
architecture, became fertile ground for musical creativity, most especially
as a midwife to jazz. Chris Smither became a grandchild in that
line of heritage,
having grown up there.
Although Smither was raised on gumbo, he
was born in Miami, went to college in Mexico, played the coffeehouses
of Greenwich Village, and now lives in Arlington,
Mass. He hasn't been to New Orleans since last year's Jazz & Heritage Festival,
but nonetheless feels the city's tragedy.
Smither has friends there and the
city has adopted him as a native son. He fears that the "taste" of
the town - best described in a Mark Knopfler song, 'The Planet of New Orleans" -
might be forever washed away.
" New Orleans has always had a catastrophic sensibility," he noted, "and
that is part of its charm. It has an other worldliness that might get sanitized
right out of it when they rebuild."
Smither, who will perform for Common Fence
Point Music Saturday, Sept. 24, has influences running as wide
and deep as some parts of the lower
When asked to cite some, he offered up Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin'
Hopkins. (Smither first heard Hurt on a record called "Blues at Newport 1963.")
Those are the deep ones, and in Smither's
assessment, responsible for his guitar style. The wide influences
include songwriters he admires
Mitchell, Randy Newman and Paul Simon. The confluence of these styles
can be experienced on Smither's 2003 CD "Train Home," his 11th album since
1970. The title cut has a nice easy drawl to it, as comfortable as your favorite
dungarees, but then is peppered with verses that lay down a cadence much like
Tom Waits (an artist Smither admires) without the intentional quirkiness and
cigarette rasp Waits often employs. Another cut, "Confirmation," has
a story of soft resignation mixed with some sneakily clever use of
rhyme all cradled in flourishes of pretty guitar.
Smither's approach to his craft usually
starts with a guitar part he likes, and then he sings some words
over that part. The words aren't
consequence but are connective tissue employed to hold the song together
where it is going. He then might jettison those initial lyrics or
they might prove to be more prescient and worth keeping and ultimately
This intuitive style doesn't mean that
Smither doesn't appreciate songcraft or the artists who favor it.
" I really enjoy Randy Newman's work," he said, "his use of irony." (Speaking
of irony, Randy Newman's song about another historic flood, "Louisiana 1927," has
been mentioned a lot lately.)
Smither finds "a lightweight cynicism" in Newman's work that he hopes
to transmit through his own songs. He mentioned Paul Simon. whose lyrics and
word stylings he appreciates for their sheer "sonic value" and clever
usage - how they shimmer, regardless of meaning.
" 'The Boy in the Bubble' comes to mind. I have no idea what he is talking
about but it sounds great," he said.
The disaster in New Orleans crystallized
the importance of Americans recognizing and preserving our common
heritage. That city had more
than most and it
remains to be seen how much was lost. Chris Smither represents
the best of that heritage,
an uncompromising, eclectic and thoughtful singer-songwriter
whose talent will be on display in the rare intimacy of Common