An old college friend introduced me to Chris Smither more than two decades ago. At first, I thought he was mostly a fine interpreter, a unique fingerpicker, and a compelling performer.
Sometimes, that first impression sticks with you for a long time, too long.
Over the years, I bought every Smither recording and hosted him twice at my series, North Shore Point House Concerts. He’s about as genuine and unassuming a guy as you’d find, especially given his considerable career.
But I confess it wasn’t until his third appearance at the series this summer that I fully realized the genius of his writing. I was standing in the back, working the camera as I always do, and it struck me. He’s smartly philosophical. He’s emotional. He’s funny, and self deprecating. These songs stick longer after his fingers stop picking, his feet stop tapping the groove, and his voice fades away.
In the last decade and a half, he’s been prolific, releasing one fine album after another. I’m convinced many of his songs will endure as classics. He deserves to be in the same conversation as our finest writers, artists like John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt, David Olney,and maybe even the great Randy Newman (and just a notch below Springsteen and Dylan).
“Lyrics are the part I work the hardest on, and that love of language and poetry came naturally,” Smither says. “I grew up with language professor parents and I can’t begin to tell you how many times around the dinner table discussion I would be sent to grab a dictionary or a thesaurus to check something. The fact is most people take language for granted and some of us have an obsession with it. I do.”
Smither is thoughtful, insightful, tackling the mystical. He’s particularly poignant about the passage of time.
Take “Leave the Light On:”
If I were young again, I’d pay attention – To that
A taste of endless time
It’s just like water – it runs right through our fingers
But the flavor of it lingers – Like a rich, red wine
In those days we were single – we lived them one by one
Now we hardly see ‘em – they don’t walk – they run
But I’ve got plenty left I’ve set my sight on
Don’t wait up – Leave the light on – I’ll be – home – soon
Can’t you see…I can’t explain.
I’m a little like a link of chain
Just a ring around another.
Runnin’ in and out again.
And then there’s “Small Revelations:
Simple to see where we come from
Harder is where we are
That’s the core of the treason
The promise is never the answer
Well, why do you need to know?
There ain’t a rhyme or a reason
Try to stay in the season.
Passion is feeling in motion
Compassion is standing still
This isn’t just a vocation
Hearing is letting it happen
But to listen’s a work of will
Beware of cheap imitations
Thankful for small revelations.
He’s also funny and self deprecating. As in “Lola:”
Lookin’ for my Lola, she’s drinkin’ rum and Coca Cola,
Smokes big cigars,
she drives big cars around.
Folks say she’s gonna reach the top,
but she says that’s just her first stop.
Well it’s hard to believe
But I’m telling you your heart would soon recover
But you don’t want it to, you love this aching agony
‘Cause it’s noble, but it’s true
You won’t forsake this pain for other lovers
Happiness would fill your mind with misery
Time will wound all heels, and it ain’t pretty
With any luck at all, she’ll find some dope that you can pity
Your loss is measured in illusions
And your gain is all in bittersweet intelligence
And your winsome smile will lose some of its innocence
Your winsome smile
Your winsome smile will lose some of its innocence.
Finally, there’s his classic “Love You Like a Man:”
All these men I’ve been seein’ they’ve got their balls up on the shelf
You know they could never love you baby, They can’t even love themselves.
You know if you need someone who can. Well, I could be, you know, I could be your lover man.
You better believe me when I tell you I could love you like a man.
Smither turns 70 today, though he looks and acts far younger. He’s still out there on the road alone, driving to one gig after another. Each night, his words resonate long after his departure.