Chris Smither is an American treasure. Not counting the dozen career-interrupting years from Nixon to Reagan that he spent drunk, he has been writing, covering, recording, and performing folk and blues songs with a clarity, warmth, and depth that makes most other troubadours seem either sloppy or lazy by comparison.
At the core of Smither’s sound are his nimbly picked acoustic guitar, his stomping foot, and his splintery, experience-soaked baritone voice. At his emotional core is world-weary drollery balanced against a stoicism that stares not so much into the abyss as at mystic shores that at their closest seem a leap of faith away. Universalized sympathy seeps through his music’s every crack, providing eloquent succor to anyone stuck between existential hard places and rocks.
Smither turns 70 this November. To mark the occasion, he has recorded Still on the Levee (Mighty Albert/Signature Sounds), a two-disc set in which he revisits 25 of his most enduring original compositions with the occasional help of like-minded collaborators such as his daughter Robin, the roots-rock combo Rusty Belle, members of Morphine, and Loudon Wainwright III. Most of them, however, he approaches solo, as if too much help would deprive his songs of their powerfully lonesome conviction.
What makes Still on the Levee more than an anniversary gimmick is the same quality that makes it impossible to see Smither in concert too many times. He invests so much of himself in each performance that it’s not only like hearing the songs for the first time but also like hearing him hear them for the first time. Also, Smither has woven a conceptual thread through the collection by concluding each disc with a version of “Leave the Light On,” as moving a song about hoping to get old before one dies as has ever been written.
“These races that we’ve run,” he sings, “were not for glory, / no moral to this story, / we run for peace of mind.” He’s wrong about the moral and maybe the glory, but he’s right about the peace. Never has half empty sounded so half full.
And there’s an encore: Link of Chain: A Songwriters Tribute to Chris Smither (Signature Sounds), in which 15 Smither admirers entertainingly adduce the tuneful and archetypical nature of his ruminations. Although nine of the songs are Still on the Levee duplicates, redundancy never sets in.
There’s the quality of the performances for one thing. Jorma Kaukonen’s “Leave the Light On,” Dave Alvin’s “Link of Chain,” Josh Ritter’s “Rosalie,” Paul Cebar’s “No Love Today,” Loudon Wainwright III’s “A Place in Line,” Peter Case’s “Caveman,” Tim O’Brien’s “Origin of Species” (a good-humored attempt at fitting the square peg of biblical literalism into the round hole of Darwinian skepticism)—even listeners encountering them for the first time in these versions will recognize them as the artfully honest attempts to come to grips with age-old conundrums that they are.
But it’s the women—Mary Gauthier, Eilen Jewell, Patty Larkin, Heather Maloney, Aoife O’Donovan with Stephanie Coleman—who establish Smither’s capacity to speak for humankind as a whole and to suggest that it can bear at least a little more reality than T.S. Eliot believed. And then there’s the live version of Bonnie Raitt singing “Love Me like a Man,” the studio version of which first brought Smither to the attention of the masses 42 years ago.
“This is a Chris Smither song,” she says by way of introduction, “one of my favorite artists who’s still touring, and you’ll love him if you haven’t seen him.”
That's putting it mildly.