Chris Smither‘s 70th birthday release, minus some missing liner notes that completely misdirected listeners:
Never mind that Eric Von Schmidt gave him an early break by inviting him onstage at Passim’s in Harvard Square, or that the Boston Music Awards granted him Best Folk Artist status. Chris Smither remains a white blues singer down to his boots, the New Orleans kind, who shares more with Mississippi John Hurt than any Peter, Paul or Mary.
As a writer, Smither has seduced the very best singers: most on-ramps include Bonnie Raitt’s “Love You Like A Man,” and “I Feel the Same,” and turn left at Emmylou Harris’s “Slow Surprise” (on the Horse Whisperer soundtrack). But Smither has always been more than a writer, or at least refuses to overplay that hand. His sly yet self-deprecating guitar and understated yet layered baritone serves an indefatigable good taste. He specializes in below-the-radar numbers that flesh out his setlists with some of the best repertoire you can find this side of Johnny Cash, with same devotion to craft and scarred emotion. Listen to any song by a colleague Smither admires and you’ll hear something you never suspected beneath its surface, which is not just a matter of style but tone, coloration, and mood.
Take his Dylan covers, which veer from obscure to colossal. Smither sinks such considerable guts into “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Down in the Flood,” or “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” he makes these forays sound like the tip to an iceberg of the mother of all Dylan tribute albums. And not the folkie kind.
Many, many other covers turn your spine into jelly first at recognition and then for their inimitable gloss on familiar material. His rakish “Mind Your Own Business,” by Hank Williams, putters along with ironic glee until it starts hitting potholes full of payback. He also does rock standards like “Tulane” and “Maybelline,” but when he sings Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” the steady-rolling pleasure suddenly blows its muffler.
And with Neil Young’s “I Am a Child,” Smither reaches deep into that surreal Buffalo Springfield track for delirious question marks, as if he shared some parallel universe of suffering, analagous yet all his own. Like all the best blues singers, black or white, Smither makes you forget about race while singing about oppression. There he is, stealing home with another blues that never occurred to you: “Love’s Made a Fool of You,” by Buddy Holly.