Chris Smither – Transcendental Blues
“I was still living in New Orleans,” he begins. “I’d been turned on to Lightnin’ Hopkins. I’d discovered Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James and a few other people on my own, and Eric Von Schmidt was in that crowd. A friend who was going to school with me at Tulane said, ‘Hey, Von Schmidt lives over in Sarasota. Why don’t you come stay with me over spring break and we’ll see if we can meet him?’ So I just called him up. I said, ‘My name’s Chris and I’m a big fan of yours.’ He didn’t even wait for me to say anything else and said, ‘Why don’t you come over?’
“He couldn’t have been more gracious,” Smither continues about Von Schmidt, who did the cover painting for Smither’s 2000 album Live As I’ll Ever Be. “He greeted us at the door, handed us a beer and invited us in. Most of Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band was there — Maria Muldaur and Geoff Muldaur, and Kweskin, and they were just hanging out. I was scared to death, but at the same time, I’d thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I’d never met anybody that’d actually made a record. My friends were pushing me to play something, and Eric asked me to play something, so I did.
“He was very encouraging and said, ‘Where do you live?’ I said, ‘New Orleans,’ and he said, ‘Aw, man, you gotta get up to Boston or New York, somewhere people can appreciate you.’ And he was right. For all its reputation as a music city, what was happening in New Orleans was not, you know, white boys doing blues.”
Smither arrived in Cambridge in 1965, just as the folk-blues scene at Club 47, the feted coffeehouse frequented by the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Tom Rush, was winding down. Smither played there once before ownership of the place changed hands (it’s now called Club Passim). He also gigged throughout the northeast, opening for acts that already were established on the folk and emerging singer-songwriter circuit.
“I was getting fat opening slots,” he recalls. “By that I mean chances to do 30- and 40-minute sets, instead of just 15 and 20 minutes, in front of people who would draw big crowds at the time. Ian & Sylvia. Tom Rush. Joni Mitchell. I did a week with Joni at the Main Point in Philadelphia. In those days you would stay at a club for four or five days, and you would do two or three shows a night. That week with Joni Mitchell established my audience in Philadelphia, and it’s a very loyal audience to this day.”
Smither eventually started headlining shows, and singers who now are more famous than he is would open for him. Tom Waits, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt were among them. Raitt would become one of Smither’s biggest admirers, not only recording two of his most enduring compositions (“Love You Like A Man” and “I Feel The Same”), but touting him from the stage and in the press as “my Eric Clapton.”
Raitt sings backup and takes the haunting slide breaks on the adaptation of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” on Train Home — a re-imagined, ambient version that ranks with Smither’s definitive covers of Dylan’s “Down In The Flood”, Randy Newman’s “Guilty”, Chuck Berry’s “Tulane” and the Grateful Dead’s “Friend Of The Devil”. It’s also the first time over the course of their nearly 40-year friendship that Raitt has played on one of Smither’s albums.
“I’ve always wanted Bonnie to be on one of my records,” he says. “But I also wanted it to be something that made sense to have her on, instead of just having her on because she’s Bonnie, especially after she started selling millions of records…. She just thinks the same way I do about the song. She feels about it the same way.”
Smither and Raitt met through their mutual association with Dick Waterman, the renowned manager of “rediscovered” first-generation blues greats such as Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi John Hurt. “You were always looking for a chance to go by Dick’s house because you never knew who was going to be there,” Smither says. He wasn’t aware, at the time, that Raitt was a musician.
“To me, she was Dick Waterman’s girlfriend,” he says. “One day I went by Dick’s house…he had moved from Cambridge to Philadelphia by then. Bonnie was there and I said, ‘Wanna hear some new songs?’
“‘Love You Like A Man’ was a new song, and I played that for her and she said, ‘Aw, man, you could do that on slide’ — she never wound up doing it on slide — and I said, ‘I don’t play slide.’ She said, ‘Oh, it’s easy, just look at this, and she picks up this guitar and starts to play. I had no idea. I’d known her for two years and I didn’t know she played guitar. She was shy and retiring then…a Cliffy! She graduated from Radcliffe but went right into playing music, which is a good way to use an education.”
By 1971, Smither had made a pair of brilliant, blues-steeped albums for Poppy Records (the same company to which Townes Van Zandt was then under contract). Those titles, I’m A Stranger, Too! and Don’t It Drag On, contained not just “Love You Like A Man” and “I Feel The Same”, but also “Every Mother’s Son”, “Lonesome Georgia Brown” and a handful of other originals that would form the backbone of Smither’s luminous catalog. Reissued as a twofer in 1997 by Collectables, those records are among the most enduring, if unsung, collections to emerge from the early singer-songwriter movement.
Raitt had embarked upon her recording career by the early ’70s as well. She was heading into the studio to work on Give It Up, her unsurpassed second album, and, remembering “Love You Like A Man”, phoned Smither to say she wanted to cut it. “I said, ‘Great, I’ll rewrite it,'” he recalls, “and Bonnie said, ‘I’ve already done it.’
“I was just gonna change a few little gender things, but she did a whole reworking of it, to the point where it’s not just a gender change but a whole sort of slow drag blues. Whereas mine is very up-tempo, very much more a sort of braggadocio thing, hers is a need/want thing. And of course, hers [which bears the title ‘Love Me Like A Man’] became the definitive version of the song. I do it, but her version is the one that paid the mortgage. It’s become so identified with her that there was a period in my career when nobody would believe me when I said I wrote it.”
Meanwhile, says Smither, “I still had dreams that I was gonna be a household word. I had what I thought was decent representation…management; in the end, it turned out to be less than ideal, but I was less than an ideal client…. The third album that I made [Honeysuckle Dog] got dropped, and that’s still in limbo. But basically, what was happening was I was starting to drink an unbelievable amount. That was pulling me down, essentially putting my career on ice for ten years. I didn’t really start to come out of that ’til 1985.
“I was just lucky,” he goes on. “I got well. Everything that everybody says about drug addiction is true, and alcohol is just one of those drugs. And if you get out of it, finally, you get to the point where it taught you a lot. It really did. I don’t regret it. I sometimes regret that it took so long, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be the person that I am now without it. To make a long story short, I suddenly realized that I still wanted to do this. I wanted to play and I wanted to write.”