By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

Chris Smither's guitar style was inspired by folk and blues legends,
including Mississippi John Hurt and Lightning Hopkins.
September 25, 2003

Guitarist Amos Garrett sings that he makes his home in his shoes. But folk and blues veteran Chris Smither has another use for his footwear: That's where he keeps his drummer.

Credit is given up front in the liner notes to "Train Home," his new HighTone CD: "Chris Smither: guitar, vocals, feet on all songs."

The CD also features the talents of some full-bodied humans, among them Bonnie Raitt. But when Smither is on the road, he travels solo, with a wooden board and a microphone for his feet.

It all started 10 or 12 years go.

"I just suddenly realized why sometimes I would not have a good performance, and it had to do with carpeted stages and whether I could hear my own feet," he says by phone from San Francisco. "I just can't keep my feet still."

Smither says that the music sounds "strangely empty" without the sound of his feet and that his manager suggested miking them.

"From that moment on, my live performances became so much more consistent and well received," he says.

The man with the blue guitar, a road warrior who hauls his guitar case and his feet from city to city for about 160 dates a year, got his start in the folk clubs of Boston and Cambridge, Mass., in the late '60s. He was 22, on his own and making money.

"Not a great living," he says, "but a living at something I would cheerfully pay someone to do. I still can't believe I'm making a living at it."

Smither will pick up another paycheck on Saturday night, when he plays the relatively small Focal Point in Maplewood in support of "Train Home."

The new album is his 11th, a mix of Smither originals and well-chosen covers by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and Bob Dylan.

The songs range from an up-tempo take on death in the title song to ruminations on love ("Never Needed it More") and our roles in the grand, universal scheme of things ("Outside In").

All are marked by Smither's dazzling guitar playing, a finger-picking style inspired by his hero Hurt, whose "Blues in a Bottle" was a turning point for the young Smither. To that point, the guitarist had been a three-chord strummer.

"I had no idea what finger picking was until I first heard Lightning Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James," Smither says. "Lighting was a one man rock 'n' roll band. I wasn't interested in being in a band, but I loved rock 'n' roll, and here's a guy who generated the rhythms all by himself. At first, I didn't think it was just one guy - I refused to believe it. I thought two or three people were playing."

Smither is in that league now, and his voice, thickened by experience, alternately growls and glows over the multiple ideas being expressed by his hands.

Like many artists, Smither bristles at labels, although he's squarely in the folk/blues tradition.

"Well, I'm blues the way Bob Dylan is blues," he says. "It started there. He's listened to a lot of blues, but that's not what he's doing. But I'll call myself blues if it'll get me a gig at a blues festival."

On "Train Home," Smither delivers one of his finest covers, Dylan's "Desolation Row." Backed by Raitt's voice and slide guitar and producer David "Goody" Goodrich's organ and piano, Smither makes the song his own, reworking the rhythm and slowing the tempo.

But the song sure to be a crowd-pleaser for years to come, as it was last fall during a show at Off Broadway, is "Let It Go." The song is a laugh-out-loud stolen-car lament that is half spoken and half sung over a jazzy foundation:

"Awww, man, they took my car . . . Three thousand pounds of wheels and sounds that used to make folks, used to make 'em stop and stare./Now except for a little pile of glass the pavement's bare."

The song will resonate with anyone who has lost a pair of eyeglasses, let alone a car, with this classic line:

"I keep lookin' 'round, it keeps not bein' there."