They said, "You have a blue guitar, You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are Are changed upon the blue guitar."
(from The Man with the Blue Guitar by Wallace Stevens)
Chris Smither was not the first guitarist moved by Wallace Stevens's poem, but he may well have been the first to go out and buy an azure-tinted Alvarez-Yairi primarily for the blue hue.
"I wanted something that sounded good both acoustically and electrically but that wasn't too expensive, so that in case something happened to it, I could always buy another one. I bought this guitar about four years ago; I was immediately attracted to the color. I've sort of become associated with it -- maybe somebody doesn't remember Chris Smither, but they remember `the man with the blue guitar.'"
Smither chuckles at his predicament. "But now they don't make them any more! I don't know what I'll do if something happens to this one."
Smither's conversational voice is nearly as compelling as his crooning: at once gruff and silky, edgy and melancholy. It's the voice of a man who's been around the block, drained a bottle or two, and wielded a hammer as often as a guitar.
It wasn't supposed to have been that way. When Smither turned his back on his anthropology studies at Tulane in the early Sixties and lit out for Cambridge on the advice of Eric Von Schmidt, a folk/blues hero of the day who was immortalized by an offhand comment Bob Dylan made on his first album, he quickly attained a measure of success most pop musicians only fantasize about -- a major-label deal with Poppy (RCA). "I was thrilled, I was excited, and I was dumb," he admits sheepishly. "Twenty-two, 23 years old. They said, `Hey, kid, we're gonna make you a star,' and I signed away half the publishing rights. I had a lot of unreasonable expectations that didn't seem unreasonable at the time. I believed I was going to be a star."
Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple. Smither's first two albums, I'm A Stranger Too and Don't It Drag On, garnered their share of positive notices from the rock press but contributed little to RCA's bottom line. In 1974 Smither recorded Honeysuckle Dog, which was never released, and a decade-spanning dry spell ensued.
"I went into a long decline and stayed drunk for years. I had no management, I wasn't actively pursuing gigs. I'd do little shows here and there, people who'd seek me out. But basically I started building houses.
"I started getting back into it about three years ago when I suddenly realized that when people asked me what I did for a living, I said I was a carpenter. I'd been working in construction for so long that I'd stopped calling myself a musician. I had to do something." That's when he bought the Alvarez-Yairi.
"I had been pretty healthy for about two years, and I figured the time was just right. I needed a new record out, so we brought an audience into a recording studio and winged it. From that point on, the record took on a life of its own."
The record, 1991's Another Way to Find You, found its way onto the Village Voice's year-end best-of list, and was nominated for a 1992 NAIRD (National Association of Independent Record Distributors) award for folk album of the year. It helped gain Smither entree into the prestigious New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where the finger-picking, foot-tapping singer-songwriter elicited standing ovations for his intense solo performance. It has become one of Flying Fish Records' biggest successes, if not the biggest, and has outsold both of Smither's two RCA/Poppy releases from the Seventies.
It hasn't hurt that two of Smither's tunes, "Love Me Like A Man" and "I Feel the Same," were covered by close friend and fellow folk/blues musician Bonnie Raitt. While it wouldn't be fair to say that Smither has ridden on Raitt's coattails, the association has not hurt him. "Bonnie and I have been friends for a long, long time, since before either one of us made records. It feels great to have someone like her on my side. She's an extremely loyal friend, and she's always given me lots of credit. She used to come and sit in the front row and watch me play back in the Seventies. I didn't even know she played the guitar -- no one did."
Now the rest of America is beginning to discover what Raitt was on to way back then. Touring behind Another Way to Find You, Smither has appeared in clubs from the Bottom Line in New York City to the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, and in folk festivals from Newport to Winnipeg. He's appeared with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dr. John, Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, J.J. Cale, and, of course, Bonnie Raitt. Along the way he's collected more than his fair share of accolades, from the Washington Post ("as feverish as a devil's bargain"), the Village Voice ("In his quiet way, one of the most riveting, disturbing performers I've ever seen"), and Rolling Stone ("Smither's songs are put together with a real facility and feeling for the language") to Blues News ("Chris Smither shows us that the potential of the acoustic guitar hasn't yet seen its limits").
His timing, both on-stage and off, could not have been better. Acoustic music is enjoying a renaissance, and Smither is one of its most accomplished practitioners. "They're starting to sell a lot of acoustic guitars these days," Smither notes. "A friend of mine gave me an advance cassette of Dylan's new release. I haven't heard it yet, but he says it's just Dylan and an acoustic guitar. Of course, Dylan's been following my career for some time. No doubt he's seen the great success I've had with it."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Smither's upcoming dates at the Riverwalk Blues Festival and the Cactus Cantina will be a homecoming in the truest sense of the word. Smither was born in Miami, at Jackson Memorial Hospital. "The last time I was down there was about fifteen years ago. I was touring with Townes Van Zandt. We played someplace in Coral Gables, looked like a converted ice cream parlor full of wire-backed chairs."
It is suggested to Smither that post-Andrew South Florida might be the ideal place for a musician with his unique talents. He can play the blues one day and swing a mean hammer the next, maybe pick up a few bucks between gigs working construction in Homestead. He laughs at the prospect. "Hell, I wake up in the morning and shake my head. I can't believe I'm doing this for a living. I don't tell people I'm a carpenter any more when they ask me what I do, and I don't dream about stardom. I'm just happy to be able to support myself doing something I love. I like my job. It's better than carpentry, although I don't look at houses the same way any more."
CHRIS SMITHER performs at 3:00 and 7:45 p.m. Saturday at the RiverwalkBlues Festival this weekend at BubierPark, Las Olas Blvd and Andrews Ave,Ft Lauderdale, 764-1912. Admission is $5. He also performs at 9:00 and 11:00 p.m. November 14 at Cactus Cantina, 630 6th St, Miami Beach, 532-5095. Admission is free.