Singer-songwriter and guitarist Chris Smither can seem Zen-like at times, rolling through his song "Link of Chain" with only constant change as an anchor. At other moments he's a hardcore realist, building fences to protect himself emotionally on "No Love Today." Smither also has a devilish side--poking fun at serenity-seekers on "Mail Order Mystic" or even sending himself up on "Up on the Lowdown." Each of these characteristics could be reflected in the cawing crow over the artist's shoulder on the cover of Live as I'll Ever Be, his most recent CD. Historically, the symbolism of the big black bird ranges from that of the Tlingit people--who viewed it as a creative force--to that of ancient Greek mythology, in which the crow's distinctive voice was considered prophetic. In Europe, the bird is a sign of death, while in some Eastern religions the warbler is a divine messenger.
The huge and fervent fan base Smither has amassed over the past 30 years could probably find even more obscure crow symbolism to ask the musician about, but he doesn't seem interested in such conjectures, offering a simple explanation: The cover drawing is by his lifelong friend Eric Schmidt, whose nickname happens to be "Crow."
"If it weren't for Eric I might not ever have been in music," Smither said in a recent phone interview from his Boston-area home. "I met him in Florida and he encouraged me ... said I should move to the Northeast. We've been friends ever since, so it's symbolic that the crow is behind me on the cover." Smither goes on to say that the crow (or raven) is a symbol of death (the name of album is Live as I'll Ever Be--get it?) and that one of the songs, "Shake These Blues," has a powerful image of crows in it.
As difficult as it is to interpret the symbolism in Smither's songwriting, it's even harder to pin a name on the kind of music he plays, falling somewhere between blues, folk, roots music and Americana.
Not what you'd expect from someone who was born in New Orleans, but rather than soak up the sounds of jazz and R&B along Bourbon Street, Smither found inspiration in his parent's record collection. "I got into Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin' Hopkins from their records," Smither says. "My parents had old folk music from the '40s, and I was playing folk music," he adds. Soon he was playing tunes by the Everly Brothers and, later, Bob Dylan. "But none of them ever played in New Orleans, and I wasn't getting any attention playing there so I left," he says.
At 22, Smither moved to Boston to join the scene he'd heard about from his friend Schmidt. There he met Bonnie Raitt (who later recorded his song "Love Me Like a Man") and landed a recording deal with Poppy Records, home of singer-songwriter, Townes Van Zandt. Two releases, I'm a Stranger, Too! and Don't it Drag On (now reissued together on one CD) exposed Smither to a wider audience, but then his career stalled. His third album (tentatively titled Honeysuckle Dog), which featured Dr. John and Little Feat's Lowell George, was never released, and Smither found himself having to get a day job. "For a while I was a construction worker," he says of those years. "I spent 10 years drinking and trying not to cut my fingers off. Then I got tired of being sick and tired."
Smither's return to music began in 1985 with the release of the understated It Ain't Easy album, which led to his signing on with prestigious folk label Flying Fish Records. By the early '90s, he was making waves in the music business: His Happier Blue received the NAIRD award for best folk recording of 1993. And, at the time, there was also a radio format that would play an artist who was influenced by both Lightnin' Hopkins and Dylan--Americana.
"I think Americana helped, because radio is extremely important," Smithers said. "The kind of music I do--and my colleagues do--is very difficult to categorize, and when something doesn't have a name, it's hard to market it. At the same time," he adds, "it's a shame we have to name everything. No one had to categorize Bob Dylan's music."
Along with making music that isn't easily categorized, Smither and Dylan have something else in common, the blues. While Smither covers blues tunes both in concert and on disc, his feel for the genre runs deeper than that, as evidenced by his emotive guitar playing, rooted in the loose rural sounds of Texas. His singing voice also has the languid feel of the blues: Words run together easily, as if he were singing on his front porch rather than in front of an audience or a microphone. But being seen as a blues artist is just another label Smither shrugs off.
"I don't think of myself as a 'blues guy,' it's just one of those handles they put on me before Americana," he says. "A lot of my stuff is based in the blues, but so is Bob Dylan's."
Religion is another area that Smither skirts around. When you mention the Zen in his song lyrics he immediately identifies, but then throws out a koan: "I would not describe myself as a Buddhist, but that doesn't mean I'm not one."
Ultimately, it is abstractions such as these that make his music magical--his last three studio recordings--Up on the Lowdown, Small Revelations and Drive You Home Again--have been gems. On these albums, recorded in Austin with producer Stephen Bruton, the music floats like a cloud: at times dark and almost threatening, at others wispy and humorous. Smither's lyrics are simple but profound, ably served by his rootsy guitar playing.
But it's his voice, so mellow and seemingly untrained, that makes it seem as if just about anybody could tell these stories. It's a place that Smither has come to not through practice, but through personal growth.
"Comes a point, I think, if you do any art long enough, particularly a performance art, that you finally learn you have to keep yourself out of it," Smither explains. "When I was a kid, I thought I had to be a star. People should be paying attention to me instead of the music."
These days, he's content to let his songs do the talking. "If you let the music speak, people will pay plenty of attention to you," he says.
"It took me an awfully long time to learn that. It's an old man's approach, versus a young man's approach."