Home Valley Advocate Rattling those musical bones: Folk/blues veteran Chris Smither releases his 20th album...

Rattling those musical bones: Folk/blues veteran Chris Smither releases his 20th album ahead of 80th birthday

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Chris Smither
Chris Smither

By STEVE PFARRER
Staff Writer

When Chris Smither found his live gigs shut down during the worst months of COVID-19, he figured it might at least be a good opportunity to write some new songs — something the veteran folk/blues singer and guitarist admits is not the easiest process for him.

Road warrior: Chris Smither, the acclaimed singer-songwriter based in Amherst whose career began almost almost 60 years ago, has released his 20th album, “All About the Bones.” Photo by Joanna Chattman

But the pandemic came and went and “I didn’t write anything,” Smither said with laugh during a recent phone call. “There just wasn’t enough cultural compost around … it was this period of surreality that didn’t really lend itself to writing.”

But his creative wheels started turning again in the last couple of years, and Smither has now released his 20th album, “All About the Bones,” a collection of lean but carefully crafted tunes built around his trademark fingerpicked guitar and foot tapping that explore themes of mortality, the passage of time, love and friendship, and more.

He’ll play those cuts and more when he comes to the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence June 1, where he’ll be joined by his guitarist and producer, Dave “Goody” Goodrich. Singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey, a longtime friend, will open the show. (Unfortunately, tickets just sold out a few days ago.)

On “All About the Bones” (Signature Sounds/Mighty Albert), Smither is joined by Goodrich on varied guitars, Zac Trojano on drums, BettySoo on background vocals and accordion, and Chris Cheek, a noted jazz musician, on saxophone.

Noted singer-songwriters and good friends Peter Mulvey, left, and Chris Smither play the Bombyx Center for Arts & Integrity in Florence June 1. Photo by Carol Young

They’ve created a distinctive sound and vibe, with threads of mystery and occasional darkness, all built along the philosophy of “less is more” from the backing musicians: the mostly spare drumming and guitar lines of Trojano and Goodrich, respectively, close harmonies from BettySoo, and Cheek’s mournful sax.

At the center of the record is Smither’s weathered voice and his crisp acoustic guitar, a sound he’s polished since the mid 1960s, after he moved from his home in New Orleans and became a regular in Cambridge/Boston music circles, penning bluesy songs like “Love You Like a Man” (which his friend Bonnie Raitt, with a few lyric changes, turned into her first big hit).

Also at the album’s center are Smither’s lyrics, a mix of irony, droll humor, careful observation, and deep reflection. As he puts it, “I think a lot of the songs come from the standpoint of someone’s who been on the planet for a long time.”

Indeed: Smither will turn 80 in November, and as one of the elder statesmen and acclaimed songwriters on the national acoustic music circuit, he’s always aware of his longevity.

“It’s kind of staring you right in the face,” he said with a laugh.

The album’s title song, which is also the opening track, sums up some of those ideas. It takes the form of a conversation with Death himself, who makes a visit to the singer to remind him of the elemental nature of the human body.

“Grim reaper comes a callin’, says it’s time to go / You say OK I’m comin’, but you movin’ mighty slow … It’s all about the bones, all about the bones, all about the bones.”

It’s a moody, minor-key blues, just a handful of chords, with Smither’s acoustic riffs and runs backed by Goodrich’s ghostly electric guitar fills and a taut sax solo by Check — and it sounds like it might have been written deep in the Mississippi Delta about a century ago.

‘A talisman for me’

Smither says that first track actually was born from a jam session he had with Goodrich, as his producer began playing a bass riff and Smither joined him on acoustic guitar.

“The first words I came up with were ‘All about the Bones,’ and we just sat down and knocked off the song from there,” he said. “It was kind of remarkable.”

He’s built up a close rapport with Goodrich, a former Valley resident who now lives in Austin, Texas and has produced and played on his albums for years; Smither says he trusts his friend’s musical instincts and judgment implicitly.

“Dave is kind of a talisman for me,” Smither said, chuckling. “When he has an idea, I listen very closely.”

It was Goodrich’s suggestion, for instance, that Smither cover a Tom Petty song — “He’d been talking about that for years,” he said — and so the album closes with Smither’s version of “Time to Move On,” an upbeat number that Smither transposed to a different key to perform in his style. Goodrich adds a bright solo on electric guitar to give the song extra lift.

Smither is known for his crisp, elegant fingerpicking, a style he’s called “one-third Mississippi John Hurt, one-third Lightnin’ Hopkins, and one-third me.” Gazette file photo

Elsewhere on the album, Smither offers another dark blues in tone and lyric content, “If Not for the Devil,” that moves off into what sounds like unusual Major 7th chords. “Digging a Hole,” by contrast, is a jauntily picked, droll number about someone who’s his own worst enemy: “It’s hard to give instruction / To a fool for self-destruction.”

Another witty tune is “Down in Thibodaux,” a profile of an archetypal crack fiddle player out in the Louisiana bayou who’s modeled in part on a man who lived next door to Smither when he was growing up in New Orleans, a fellow whose last name was Boudreaux.

“I never knew his first name,” said Smither. “Even his wife called him Boudreaux.”

He hadn’t worked before with BettySoo, an Americana singer and songwriter from Austin, but he says her subtle harmonies, and her work on the accordion, became an indispensable part of the album: “Her sense of what a song needs is amazing.”

As he sees it, “All About the Bones” also owes some of its sensibility to being recorded last fall at Soneland Studio in Easthampton, after Smither made his last few albums in New Orleans and Texas. He says he was interested in working with co-owner Justin Pizzoferrato, one of the engineers, though Pizzoferrato has more of a background with rock and roll bands.

“Dave was familiar with the studio, and I liked the the idea of having an engineer who could come to the music from a different perspective,” he said. In the end, Smither says, Pizzoferrato gave his guitar a particular clarity and sharpness that he really likes.

Looking ahead to his June 1 Bombyx gig, Smithers says he’s excited about having Mulvey, who lives in Florence, on the bill. (The two are doing a 10-show tour together.) They met back in the early 1990s when Mulvey, early in his career, opened a show for Smither, and they’ve toured together a number of times since.

“He’s great,” said Smither. At that very first gig they shared, he recalls, Mulvey “gave a commanding performance, and my crowd just ate it up, and that doesn’t happen all that often with people who come to see me.”

And later this summer, Smither will play some gigs with BettySoo as well.

“It’s great to have your friends with you when you’re on the road,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected].

Source: ValleyAdvocate.com