Smither says songwriting is the hardest thing he's ever done. "It's my strong point and the bane of my existence," he says, laughing.
Smither will bring new songs from his 11th recording, "Train Home," when he plays Ashland Coffee & Tea Thursday. The new CD matches spare studio overdubs with the live elements that made his 2000 recording, "Live As I'll Ever Be," his biggest hit yet with his fans. Smither recorded his intricate fingerpicking and vocal parts in his home in three days. Producer David Goodrich added band elements in the studio later to try to create the best of both worlds.
"It's very organic, very rootsy. ... There's nothing that the slightest bit gets in the way," Smither says. "With the age and experience factor I realize I actually do know what I'm doing."
Smither's performing career stretches back to the '60s, and his recording career began in the early '70s so Smither has a right to feel confident. Raised in New Orleans, he started out singing traditional folk songs and Everly Brothers tunes. But his orientation changed when a college roommate turned him on to Lightnin' Hopkins. "I was losing interest in academia very quickly," Smither recalls. That led to Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt.
He visited legendary Greenwich Village folkie Eric von Schmidt in Sarasota, Fla., in the mid-'60s. Receiving encouragement from von Schmidt and others, Smither quit Tulane University and headed to the Boston and Greenwich Village folk scenes where he began to write his own tunes. His self-taught guitar style and sturdy voice found listeners and he released a couple of records in the 1970s. Bonnie Raitt and others recorded his tunes. But Smither was partially derailed by a record company hassle. He also spent "10 years as drunk as you can possibly get," as he puts it. By 1989, it was time for a change, and Smither decided to resurrect his career.
"I suddenly looked around and remembered I was supposed to be a songwriter," he says. "It turned out I had lots of fans left over."
Now, after more than a decade of playing at international and American festivals and clubs, Smither sounds comfortable with the life he once almost threw away. "It's been a steady slope up," he says. "These are the good ol' days. Really." S
Chris Smither plays Ashland Coffee & Tea Thursday, May 15. Mark Erelli opens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17.50. Call 798-1702 for information.
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