Even though he left New Orleans nearly a half-century ago, acoustic legend Chris Smither has practically been a local fixture of late. Last year found Smither in town to record his double-CD, Still on the Levee, which revisits songs from throughout his career with Allen Toussaint, Loudon Wainwright III and other admirers. He returned to play an acclaimed set at the Blues Tent during Jazz Fest, and will be back July 26 at Chickie Wah Wah. Smither’s travels have taken him to the Boston area (he now resides in the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts) and through a catalogue of songs that’s equally personal and philosophical; his rough-edged voice and elegant fingerpicking remain impeccable. Though he’s never had that elusive crossover hit, he’s had some high-profile covers—Bonnie Raitt, for one, sings his praises wherever possible. A few months away from his 70th birthday, Smither shows no signs of slowing down.
Your new album Still on the Levee is a career retrospective, but you re-recorded everything instead of using the originals. Why did you decide to go that route?
Well, I just thought it would be a lot more interesting, just the idea of going back to New Orleans and working on the stuff down there. When you do old songs, people are always asking how you keep them fresh. And the idea is always to get back to where you were when you wrote them, so why didn’t I go back to where it all started? It just didn’t seem like it would do it justice to go back and get the original tracks—they already exist, people already own them, so what’s the point? The idea was more to see how the old clothes fit on the current person.
Was it a comfortable fit?
To tell you the truth, I was kind of amazed at how well they held up. There were some songs that I had to go back and listen to, because I didn’t remember how they went. And some of the recordings disappointed me—this guy sounds so young and uninformed. But I played them all and it came back to me, the way I used to feel. They’re good songs that I can still inform; they’re open to being manipulated in a new sensibility. I’m almost 70 now and there are songs on there I wrote when I was 19—like that first one, “Devil Got Your Man.” I can’t believe I tried to write something that world weary, and I suppose I thought it was convincing back then. But it’s much more convincing now, I sound more like that.
Your new album has a recent song of yours, “Leave the Light On,” where you say you’re looking forward to being 100. Sounds like a change in perspective?
I’ve been living backwards in time ever since I can remember. I do everything late and I do everything backwards. I didn’t even become a father until I was 60 years old; we adopted this little girl from China. Now I realize that I have to live to be 100, because by then she’ll be 40 and she can forgive me for everything I’ve done wrong. That song is probably the most honest self-portrait I’ve ever done.
You played locally for a few years before moving Northeast in the ’60s. What sort of scene was there in New Orleans for a blues-based acoustic artist?
There wasn’t one. And I’d say that’s still the case—there’s a lot of horns and a lot of keyboards in New Orleans, but not a lot of guitar. And there’s more now than there was then, but it’s all electric guitar—just like in my 20s, when they didn’t even know what an acoustic guitar was. I couldn’t wait to leave, to tell you the truth. I was really into all the old blues guys, Lightnin’ Hopkins and all the guys being rediscovered. They all played the Northeast and they all played California, but they didn’t play New Orleans.
So you moved to the Boston area and became part of the legendary Cambridge folk revival.
Yeah, and it was already changing to a certain extent. I don’t think there’s a musician in the world that comes onto a scene that isn’t told, “You should have been here a couple of years ago.” That’s certainly what happened to me. Things were already becoming more rock and roll and the electrification of what I thought was folk was underway. People were moving to California, dropping acid and joining rock-and-roll bands. But I always had a lot of work, as much as I could use—until I got to the point where I was drinking so much that I couldn’t work anymore.
I know you got that out of the way a good while ago. Did the recovery process show up in what you were writing?
I cleaned up when I was about 40; that would have been in the ’90s. In terms of writing—yeah, there’s a lot of stuff in there, not so much between the lines as right in there. But it’s usually couched in more general terms. What I really feel is that I was sick for a long time and then I got well. I don’t understand exactly how that works and at the time I didn’t understand why I got well, but you try to take what comes. And give expression to the realization that you are everything that happened to you; you wouldn’t be the same person if you hadn’t done that. The success you have is as much due to the mistakes as what you did right.
The Cambridge scene was political as well as musical. I’ve heard stories about you and Bonnie Raitt being on Harvard Square together during the anti-war riots.
What I remember was that we thought at the time that we were changing the world. And it’s sort of disappointing to realize that we didn’t change it at all. I was going to say that we still have the same kinds of people and the same kinds of crooks—but in some cases it’s the exact same crooks. I imagine that every generation goes through the sort of disappointment that they didn’t make the difference that they thought they were going to. And things are better now in some ways, but we still do things like spend 10 years and trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in a place like Iraq. You would have thought that 20 years ago we would have learned to not do that kind of thing. I still feel like I am trying to show people that the good things that they can have don’t have to come at the expense of others.
Your roots are in the blues, but there were also songwriters that you gravitated to early in your career, like Randy Newman.
Randy Newman was a huge revelation to me. He and Paul Simon, in a strange way, were instrumental in showing me how much could be told in a song, and also in plain language. Randy Newman painted these wonderful figures, these vivid scenes. I think of him as the Matthew Brady of pop songs, creating these indelible images of some of the strangest people you’d ever want to meet. But not in language that was obscure or that you couldn’t understand—not like Dylan, you didn’t have to be obscure to be mysterious. Randy Newman showed me that you could just say it straight out and that was weird enough. Paul Simon gave me a sense of the weight of words—what they weigh and how they feel in your mouth, regardless of what they mean. He showed me how to write in such a way that the meter never feels forced.
Even though you left town at an early age, did New Orleans leave a mark on you?
You now, it’s an interesting thing—I don’t understand what I took out of New Orleans, but everybody else hears it. I remember one time I was playing a festival in California, the subdudes were playing and so was another New Orleans band—I don’t remember the name, but they were friends with Dave Alvin and he and I are pretty tight. These guys had just listened to my set, and they said, “Where you from, man?” I said I lived in Massachusetts and they said, “No, man, where are you from?” I told them and they said, “I knew it!” They could hear it and I’ve been told that many times. My own producer has asked me a million times why I do certain things, like tapping your feet backward, with my heel on the downbeat and my sole on the upbeat. That has to do with where I’m from.
Your show in town will be part of a train tour that you’re doing; you and a load of fans are riding from Chicago on the train Arlo Guthrie sang about, the City of New Orleans. What’s the idea?
I’ve done several of these in the past, [tour producer] Charlie Hunter brings them together—we’ve done them with Dave Alvin and Peter Case. The people that come along are just diehard fans, mine or theirs, and they pay good money for it. They ride on the train, there are a lot of workshops and a lot of conversation, and there’s a naturalist onboard explaining what kind of countryside is going on. Then we have a concert at either end of the trip. It’s a good hang more than anything else.
So when you do turn 100, how will you commemorate that?
If I can still move, I’ll have a farewell concert.