In 1970 I was on assignment from Zygote magazine to interview a young Texas songwriter named Townes Van Zandt. I struck up an instant friendship with this twentysomething guy who could view life like he was staring at the sky from the bottom of a well. Townes was on the folk-blues label Poppy Records along with another incredibly gifted young guy, Chris Smither.
Smither had a great debut record called I’m A Stranger Too! The album lived on my turntable that year and still has pride of place in my collection. Smither was straight out of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt, a natural picker with a voice older than his years and a knack for telling a story. He’d picked up that knack by bouncing around from place to place—New Orleans (where he grew up), Paris, Mexico City, Greenwich Village, Harvard Square.
Forty-two years later, he’s added his own hard-luck stories to the ones he was only imagining back then. His most recent album, Hundred Dollar Valentine, is surprisingly his first recording of all-original material. Smither’s songwriting style has grown long, convoluted branches from the hard core of his blues, but his guitar technique is still nimble, with all the soulful nuance and intricate architectural sense that continues to set him apart. Townes and Lightnin’ and John are gone now, but Smither is still with us—and a return to New Orleans, where he spent his formative years, is always a special occasion.Chris Smither, Chickie Wah Wah, 2828 Canal St., 8 p.m. December 13, $15.