Appreciating Chris Smither at 70

DSC_9209An 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
little-known dimension
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

DSC_9218Or “Link of Chain,” another favorite:

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.

DSC_9198And then there’s Smither on relationships in “Winsome Smile:”

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.

 

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Magic Moments: A Decade of House Concerts

It was the nightmare I’d feared for over a decade of hosting 60 house concerts: a rogue storm, threatening almost from the time Tara Nevins and Carol Elizabeth Jones took the stage, finally unleashed a torrent about an hour into the show.

Oh, it had rained before on nights I’d hosted shows at my series, North Shore Point House Concerts, but we always either had rented a tent or put the performers in the spacious wood garage. Hours earlier, my sound man and I, coddled by the clear forecast, had decided to set up outside under blue skies.

By the time the sheet of water descended, we’d covered the stage with one canopy and the sound board with another. People raced to shelter onstage, in the garage, and in the house. “We should go inside and just play acoustic,” Tara said, huddling onstage as people retrieved garbage bags to cover the instruments.

Fans with umbrellas and garbage bags ferried others inside during the deluge. There was food. There was drink. I shared bottles of Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek that I’d stashed away for the after-show. The air conditioning couldn’t keep pace; makeshift fans were fashioned.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth fixed themselves a fresh drink and sat in front of the living room fireplace. Furniture was pushed to the walls and people crowded in, many settling on the floor at their feet, a new fashioned bluegrass sit-in. Others crammed the entryway and the nearby dining room, some talking, others jockeying for a spot closer.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth played, and played, and then, when they wanted to finish, the crowd begged for one more, an old fiddle tune. A couple who attends nearly every show sat cross-legged right in front, fanning them as the music got hotter and hotter. A Donna the Buffalo fan, at his first North Shore Point show, swayed against the rear wall, occasionally singing along, encouraged by the Woodford Reserve and the moment. A daughter, up from Durham with her father, mouthed the lyrics to every song (Here is a link to their review of the evening).

They played everything they knew, outlasting the storm. With every song, every laugh or bit of applause, every shared nod, the evening became symbolic of the magic that’s happened time and again on these nights.

House concerts are many things. They’re about exploration, the thrill of discovery, of finding a new voice worth hearing. They’re about intimacy, a chance to break down the barrier between artist and audience. They’re often the only chance to get a coveted songwriter to play in this town (or many other towns, apparently; we’ve had fans travel from Nashville, Durham, D.C. and other far-flung locales for shows).

They’re about becoming a part of a community, meeting people with a shared interest in music — and maybe beer and wine and conversation. No doubt, dozens of those connections have been made at my house over the past decade. They’re about people like Bill, Mary, Mike, Wendy, Marc, Lou, Minnie, Gail, Sid, Ron, Gayle, Pat, Kelly, Russ, Barry, Charlie, Lisa, Ray, Sound Man Jim, and others who attend show after show, probably almost as much for the community as the music.
To me, house concerts, at least, my house concerts, ultimately are about these shared moments, moments created by the performer, but enabled by the setting and the community.

In the early days, artists and particularly their agents had to be convinced to book a house concert. Because of our attendance — we’ve had up 205 people at a show although a usual crowd is 80 to 100 — I’ve been able to make guarantees that made them easier to convince. Now, there are hundreds of house concert series, large and small, regularly and irregularly scheduled, across the country. They’re a part of the business plan for songwriters new and old. For every show we host, I could book five more.

At our series, all the donations at the door go to the artist. We front the money for sound, lights, chairs, when necessary, and a small stage when necessary. We do shows in three formats, outside, inside our spacious old garage, and in our living room, depending on the season and the demand for seats. Only a couple of times has the door failed to meet my guarantees and the one time the shortfall was serious happened to be the night a couple of regulars decided (not knowing) that they’d make a huge donation to help cover our costs. So, yes, each show is a nervy game of “will I cover the guarantee?,” but as host it’s my job to get the artists a decent payday.

The reward, of course, is being the maestro of those magic moments, so many over roughly 60 shows. We had a successful free trial run with Michael Lille, a superb songwriter native to Nofolk. The first show we booked asking for a donation came six months later and featured Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, a duo I’d heard on NPR. True to the shows that would follow, the informal setting encouraged them to try a song so new that Tracy read the lyrics from a notebook page. What I called the “dark womb” song appeared years later after Dave’s tragically early death on Tracy’s solo album as “Mother, I Climbed,” a haunting meditation on faith.

Indulge me looking back over a decade of the moments since that first show. Garland Jeffreys saying he didn’t need an introduction, then walking among the milling crowd, singing “Moonshine in the Cornfield” a cappella winding his way to the stage. Greg Trooper, master storyteller, mesmerizing on a chilly October night with a tale about a guy in a bar in Oklahoma, who during the break, told him he sounded just like one of his favorite songwriters, Greg Trooper.

Jeff Black bringing men to tears closing his first set with “Sunday Best” and “Gold Heart Locket. ” Jim Lauderdale saying the house had a “great vibe,” writing a song between sound check and the show, and then enduring an evening during which the electricity flickered during the first set until we realized the line into the house was literally burning out and ran extension cords to the side with good juice. Eliza Gilkyson‘s delight at returning — and then returning again. Kim Richey enchanted by her first house concert such that she sang until her voice surrendered (and then enchanted my children the next morning). She wasn’t the only first-timer. Garland Jeffreys, Dave Alvin, Steve Forbert, Marshall Crenshaw, Tom Russell, Tara Nevins, and others were house concert virgins who left converts.

There was Jason Ringenberg swinging his guitar and narrowly missing decapitating a front row fan and stomping the hardwood so hard with his boot heel that people checked for dents during halftime. Jimmy LaFave and band (a rare band show) coming into the garage on a threatening night and openly wondering if it could hold 90 people (including some outside space) and whether it was a good idea, then blowing the roof off during a summer shower and raving about the vibe and the community after the show. Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell and band hitting on all cylinders on a raucous and sweltering night. Don Dixon and Marti Jones, together again, leading the audience singing “Praying Mantis” as a round. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s very young daughter singing on stage for the first time. Sam Baker showing up with John Fullbright and Natalia Zukerman, two artists I didn’t know well, and deciding it would be cool to sit in the round with Kevin Welch and play songs all night, which the four of them made memorable. Amy Rigby making some of the men in attendance noticeably uncomfortable with songs like “Balls,” “Cynically Yours,” and “Beer and Kisses.”

The guys in Jimmy LaFave’s band lingered after the show to talk with fans. “You’ve got a special thing going on here,” one veteran of the road said. We hear that a lot, and, like hearing a regular has discovered a new favorite artist, it never gets old.

There are the before show dinners, at their best a respite for good food and conversation (at their worst, when musicians are late, a rushed feast as fans file in). Peter Case remembered the seared salmon with champagne vinegar potato sauce and requested it the next time. Mary Gauthier, once a chef, offered a bow to the honey gingered pork tenderloin. Eliza Gilkyson gobbled up the black bean and rice salad. Madison Violet squirreled away the leftovers for the long, after-show road trip to Toronto.

After the show, there’s often bourbon and BS. Welch, Baker, and Fullbright sipping bourbon and discussing an artist’s responsibility to his audience. David Olney debating racism in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” firing bourbon-laced ice at his antagonist. Trooper telling tales about Dan Penn, finishing songs for Aretha by writing in a studio closet. Martin Stephenson and his dobro player sitting out back, joining with a few regulars with guitar to play until 3 a.m. 

Performers often suggest artists to book. Welch and Richey recommended David Olney, a songwriter I didn’t know Months later at the show, a regular sitting in the back stopped me to whisper: “This guy is **&^* incredible. Where did you find him?”

Those moments are why I’m still excited before every show, why I’ve already booked shows into 2012 with artists like Steve Forbert, Garland Jeffreys, Kim Richey who’ve been here before, and artists new to North Shore like Nora Jane Struthers, Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin, Peter Cooper and Eric Brace and the legendary folk/blues master, Eric Andersen.

So I’m pouring two fingers of Knob Creek and raising a toast, not to the past,  but to the future and another decade of magic moments.