By STEVE PFARRER Staff Writer
(Published in print: Thursday, October 16, 2014)
It was almost 50 years ago that Chris Smither dropped his college studies in anthropology and, guitar in hand, headed north from his home in New Orleans. His destination was Boston and its burgeoning acoustic music scene. Smither, who’d been bitten by the blues and by the folk music boom led by Bob Dylan, didn’t have an exact plan in mind, but he figured he’d at least spend the summer up north to see what happened.
What happened was that Smither became one of the most respected singer-songwriters in folk music and a certified road warrior, playing as many as 200 shows a year. With his crisp, finger-picked guitar and weathered voice, he turns the blues, as The New York Times puts it, “into songs that accept hard-won lessons and try to make peace with fate.”
Now, as he stands on the cusp of turning 70, Smither, who moved to Amherst from the Boston area in 2009, has gone back to his roots in a couple of ways. With the retrospective album “Still on the Levee,” released by Signature Sounds this past summer, he’s re-recorded 24 of his songs spanning the length of his career — and all those tracks were laid down in New Orleans, the first time he’s ever made a record in his old hometown.
“It’s quite possible we could have gone anywhere and had the same kind of rejuvenating effect,” Smither said during a recent interview at Signature Sounds’ Northampton office. “But I personally was excited to go back. I left New Orleans when I was 22, and the three weeks I was down there recording was the longest time I’d spent since I left. … I was amazed at how much I got back into being there.”
To honor Smither turning 70 next month, Signature Sounds isn’t settling for one album. The label has just released a Smither tribute CD, “Link of Chain,” on which 16 songwriters and musicians interpret his songs. And on the weekend following Thanksgiving, the independent record label is hosting four concerts at Northampton’s Academy of Music to celebrate its own 20th anniversary: The debut concert, on Nov. 28, will feature Smither, with a number of supporting artists. (See sidebar)
Jim Olsen, Signature Sounds’ president, said the seed for the tribute album was a concert that friends of Smither held for him 10 years ago in Boston, playing covers of his songs to celebrate his 60th birthday.
“I was just kind of blown away by a lot of the performances, and for his 70th birthday, it seemed like a good idea to do [the two new albums] in roughly the same period.
“Chris is such a musician’s musician,” Olsen added. “He has so many fans in the musician world, I thought there’d be a lot of interest in doing this, and there was.”
As one example, singer-songwriter Mark Erelli, who once lived in the Valley, joined Greenfield-based Jeffrey Foucault to harmonize on “Song for Susan,” one of Smither’s early ballads. In a call from his home in Melrose, Erelli said Smither’s blues-inflected music, which he’d discovered in the early 1990s when he was in high school, has been a big inspiration in his own career.
“I toured with Chris is England and in the Mid-Atlantic, and the more I got to know him and hear him play, the more impressed I was,” he said. “He’s such a soulful songwriter, and his guitar playing is so distinctive, such a part of his songs. For me, he was a kind of a bridge between rock and traditional folk.”
Erelli recently released a tribute album himself, “Milltowns,” on which he covers selected work by the acclaimed (and late) New England songwriter Bill Morrissey. But, Erelli added, “I could just as easily have done a project like this with Chris’ music.”