Guitars, Influence, Going Solo, And Playing in the Band

. September 26, 2014.
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Chris Smither, with his weatherworn vocals and his busy blues-based fingerstyle guitar, has been quietly establishing his legend for the past half of a century. And he’s celebrating his 50-year run on tour with his latest album, Still On The Levee, a double disc retrospective reinterpreting 25 songs from across his little-known, yet prolific career. Current caught up with Smither in anticipation of his October 31 stop at The Ark and asked him about his new album, his guitars, and his development as a musician.    

Current: How did you select the songs to
re-record for your new album? 

Chris Smither: You know, I didn’t really have a lot to do with it. (Laughs) If it were up to me, I would pick all my favorites. But actually, my producer David Goodrich and I sat down and we listened to everything, all my records, and made a list of about 100 songs. And then we, mostly David, whittled that down to about 45 that represent different guitar stages and periods of my career. Then we went down to New Orleans and our intent was to record all of them. And we almost got that done, not quite. We got just over 40 songs. And we thought about putting out a triple album. That way we could have got them all on there, but we decided that two discs is really enough for someone to get through. So we’ll save the rest for later. Either make them available for download or put them on another CD down the road. 

Well it’s fitting that “Devil Got Your Man” is the first track on the album. 

Yeah, I wrote that when I was 19. 

You mentioned different guitar stages in your career. Do you remember the guitar you wrote it on? 

It was an Epiphone Texan. 

Still have it? 

Yeah, I have two of them. I still have almost every guitar I’ve ever owned. 

One got away? 

A big Guild F-50. I was really distressed about that. At the time I thought it was a good idea to trade it for another one, but I should have just bought the other one. You should hang on to guitars. 

I’m interested in first-guitar stories. Was yours a pawn shop pickup or a birthday
present? 

You hit it right on the head. It was a birthday present. When I was 9 years old, I started playing on the ukulele. And then my family moved to France for a year and a half when I was 11 and we didn’t take the ukulele with us. I missed it so much. My father was traveling all over Europe and right around my 12th birthday he went to Spain. When he came back he had a guitar with him. A Tatay Spanish guitar.

You never took lessons did you?

Never took lessons. (Laughs) At first I tried playing ukulele chords on it, but it didn’t work. I got a chord book and just started figuring it out on my own. 

Your hands do this, the axe does that.

(Laughs) Exactly. 

Can you talk a little about how not taking lessons, how not having any formal training has influenced your blues style, your   playing? 

It has its advantages and its disadvantages. You listen to records and you try to figure out how these guys do what they do. You get as close as you can, but you don’t always get it. You figure out something that works. You end up faking it, which becomes a style in its own right. It becomes the way you do things. And that encourages innovation. You develop a style of your own. I realize that if I had taken lessons, I would have learned what took me an awful long time to figure out a lot quicker. But I learned everything because I wanted to, not because I had someone telling me I had to. It was always fun. 

Fun on your own and not in a band setting.

Right, I never play with bands. I never really wanted to play with bands. That’s what appealed to me most about country blues. The first time I heard a solo Lightning Hopkins record, I didn’t even think about whether it was blues or country. It sounded like rock and roll and it was one guy playing it, which is what I wanted. (Laughs) And I didn’t want to play with a band because I was uneducated musically. I didn’t want anyone to know how little I knew. You know, to avoid exposing my ignorance. 

Your drummer on this album, Billy Conway, stands out for me. How did select him?

I’ve known Billy Conway off and on for years. We worked on a demo about 25 years ago, and the producer brought him on for that, and then I didn’t see him again for years. But he’s a good friend of Goody, David Goodrich, and he said we’ve got to get Billy. I said ok. 

His playing definitely follows your foot-tapping style.

Yeah, he incorporates all that really well. He’s got the best intuition of any drummer I’ve ever met. He understands how the song it supposed to feel even when you’ve forgotten. He reminds you of the thing you were doing last week, the thing that you’ve lost track of in the process. 

Chris Smither, 8pm, $26, October 31, The Ark, 

316 S Main St, Ann Arbor, MI 48104, (734) 761-1451