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Real Music - Chris Smither - Still on the Levee - November 2015


Real Music - Chris Smither - Still on the Levee

by Robert Feuer

Veteran folksinger Chris Smither’s solo appearance at the Sebastopol Community Center on Nov. 22 is one that isn’t to be missed by fans of that genre, especially those with a sense of history. He’ll be presenting his repertoire, spanning 50 years of songwriting, in what he calls “a recognizable guitar style of three-fingered picking, with my feet mic’d as an added percussion thing.”

Smither, born in Miami in 1944, grew up in New Orleans where his dad bought him a guitar for his 12th birthday. At 17, while attending college in Mexico City, his boarding house roommate introduced him to the Lightnin’ Hopkins song “Blues in My Bottle.”  “I totally loved it,” he says by phone from his Massachusetts home. “I thought if I could learn how to do that, I’d be happy.”

In the mid-‘60s, Smither met prominent folksinger Eric Von Schmidt, who urged him to head north to explore a thriving folk music scene at Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass. “To me it was like the word of God, so that’s where I went,” Smither says. There, he felt right at home in a life he considered “ideal,” supporting himself by playing coffeehouses, and meeting people who offered him places to stay.

He met blues artists such as Mississippi John Hurt and Rev. Gary Davis, who were featured at Club 47, along with folkies like Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and Pete Seeger. A 17-year-old Joan Baez is reputed to have given her first appearance there, and with introducing Bob Dylan, who, since they had a full schedule, played for free between sets.

In Cambridge, and on forays to Greenwich Village, Smither also met Son House, Skip James, Phil Ochs, and Dave Van Ronk, who he describes as “quite approachable. I used to sleep on his couch. Everybody did, I think.”

As the ‘70s arrived, Smither released three albums, the latter joined by Dr. John and Lowell George. A break of over ten years followed, during which Smither says, “I wasn’t good at anything except drink. I was killing myself by degrees.”

Others he’s met along the way include Bonnie Raitt, “an old pal of mine,” he says. They became friends before either of them had done any recording. Among Smither’s songs she’s recorded is the classic “Love Me like a Man. Emmylou Harris recorded his song, “Slow Surprise,” for the film, The Horse Whisperer. He won major folk awards in 1993 and 2006, a year in which his song “Origin of Species” claimed #42 on Rolling Stone’s Best Songs of the Year list.

Smither believes the current folk scene is “pretty healthy. Plenty of kids are doing it.” He comes to Sebastopol with a recently-released 50-year double-CD retrospective, “Still on the Levee,” and a career that’s riding high. “I still get all the work I can handle,” he says. He sells fewer CDs due to online downloads, but this accessibility introduces people to his music. “I don’t care as long as they still show up at my gigs.”


Photo by Jeff Fasano