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In a Lower Key

by John Rodat on September 29, 2011

Chris Smither

Chris Smither’s backstory reads a bit like an origin myth for an archetypal folk superstar—if folk music produced “superstars.”

Smither was born in Florida, but before his family settled in New Orleans, he had also lived in Ecuador, Texas and Paris, where he got his first guitar. He briefly attended college in Mexico City (where, curiously enough, he was introduced to the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins), then traveled back to Paris via New York City, where he stopped specifically to catch a set by Mississippi John Hurt.

Shortly after returning to New Orleans from his studies in France, Smither dropped in unannounced on folk icon Eric von Schmidt at Schmidt’s place in Florida. Schmidt advised that the young guitarist head to one of the burgeoning coffeehouse communities in the Northeast, and Smither opted for Cambridge, Mass., over the MacDougal Street scene in Manhattan. When he did arrive, he found von Schmidt performing at a Harvard Square club and was invited up onstage by the same man who’d sent him there in the first place.

In the years that followed, Smith developed a reputation as a knock-out fingerpicking guitarist and a songwriter of quiet insight and quick wit. Bonnie Raitt, who scored with her cover of a (gender-adjusted) Smither tune, “Love Me Like a Man,” says that Smither is “[her] Eric Clapton.”

In a different world, or a different genre, Smither might have been a celebrity. Or the inspiration, anyway, for a Country Strong-style feature film. (Smither’s own career trajectory may well have been inhibited by the fact that he was, in his words, “basically drunk for 12 years.”) Instead, Smither has won the admiration of his fellow musicians and a rapt, if modest, following.

The crowd at the Iron Horse for an early Saturday show was exactly that: rapt. This was a focused, listening crowd. The room had a reverential if not a particularly festive vibe; but that may be the best way for a relative newcomer to Smither’s work, such as myself, to experience him.

Smither is a highly accomplished guitarist, and his singing has a raspy appealing warmth. But neither his playing nor his singing emphasize memorable melody. The downside of this, let’s call it melodic modesty, is a feeling of sameness to the songs. But it does allow for a focus on wry storytelling and pithy turns of phrase that clearly resonated with the audience.

In “Origin of the Species,” a song inspired by Smither’s incredulity at the slowness of the American public to accept evolution as a fact, he cracks, “I’ll just sit back in the shade/While everyone gets laid/That’s what I call intelligent design.”

His heartbreak songs, too, contain little witticisms, as in “No Love Today,” in which a philosophical fruit-and-vegetable vendor sings, “I got okra/Enough to choke ya/Beans of every kind/If hungry is what’s eating you, I’ll sell you piece of mind/But this ain’t what you came to hear me say/And I hate to disappoint you, but I’m gonna disappoint you/I’ve got no love today.”

Smither’s work is clever and deft, but homespun in feel. His low-key and affable stage presence matches the music. In fact, in covering Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” Smither highlighted perhaps the difference between himself and the “folk” superstar: Smither doesn’t seem to mind if you know exactly what he’s talking about.