[Interview] Chris Smither

Smither engages audiences with original tunes and original takes on covers.


Chris Smither mines the past while keeping his focus sharply on the now.

The singer-songwriter, who plays the 20th Century Theatre April 10, has been honing his craft for more than 50 years. His songs have been covered by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Dave Alvin, Mary Gauthier, Tim O’Brien and the Dixie Chicks.

In turn, he is recognized as a wonderful song interpreter, putting his own spin on tunes written by Bob Dylan, Jesse Winchester, John Hiatt, J.J. Cale and Lowell George among others.

He displays both skills on his latest album, 2018’s “Call Me Lucky.” For example, who could have imagined the world needed another version of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” the 1955 tune that is one of rock ’n’ roll’s building blocks?

“My producer, David Goodrich, we get together … when I’m writing songs for a project,” Smither says. “We were having this conversation (before recording “Lucky”) and he asked if I was going to do any covers, and I said I hadn’t really thought about it.

“We got off the subject of covers, but at the time of the conversation, Chuck Berry was still alive. He had just turned 90 and had put out another record. We were going, ‘Jesus, what does Chuck Berry sound like at 90? Do you think he’s gotten more laid back?’ Then (Goodrich) leans over to me and says, ‘Hey, play ‘Maybellene,’ but play it in a minor key.’ ”

This is a good place to explain there is a reason Smither is a great songwriter: he is a thoroughly engaging storyteller. Most of the periods at the end of his sentences are followed by laughter, then by an enthusiastic return to the tale.

“I don’t think Chuck Berry ever played in a minor key in his life. So, we started playing around with it for about 15 minutes, then just looked at each other and said, “Oh, we got to do this.”

More laughter.

While “Maybellene” is a revelation in its minor-key freshness, the other covers are surprising and entertaining as well. “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” the 1930 country blues classic written by Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, has likely been recorded by as many people as “Maybellene.” But “She Said She Said” from the Beatles’ 1966 “Revolver” album is as endearing in Smither’s world weary voice as it is an unlikely choice from the catalog of the world’s most popular band.

As for the originals, “Nobody Home” stands out as Smither takes aim on the shaky state of the union:

“I saw a big white house down on Pennsylvania Avenue,
I said open up the gate, this can’t wait, and they said who are you,
I said I was a citizen just tryin’ to cut a deal,
For a Russian unicycle with a missin’ wheel, they let me through,
I saw a clown with a combover tryin’ to float a loan,
Through the CIA while he tweeted on his phone,
But there ain’t nobody home.” 

It’s no surprise that an artist who started his career in the coffeehouses of Boston in the 1960s has strong political opinions, but it’s reassuring that he adds context to the conversation about a landscape he says he has never seen.

“I think we’re going to survive it,” Smither says. “I certainly hope the proof we’re going to survive it happens before I finish up (laughs). I don’t want to go out on this note, that’s for sure. It encourages me to live a long time.”

Amen, brother. Call him lucky, but Smither proves that success comes when preparation meets opportunity. Let’s all be prepared for that opportunity.


2019 - Listen

Chris Smither takes pride in crafting his songs and in interpreting those of others. That care is the foundation of a career that spans more than 50 years.

Bill recently caught up with Chris.


Each week, Bob Hust and Bill Thompson feature the best songs – old and new – from artists they have loved for many years and others they have just discovered. The best songs transport people to a time and place. That’s the foundation of BS&B.

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