Chris Smither Rides the High Train
Story by Gary Alexander
Photos by Ray G. Ring IV
sundown last year at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, an imaginary
coin was tossed into an equally imaginary fountain with a devout sigh
which said "Wheew! I sure wish I had a copy of that!" It was a wish that
just came true...
The shadows were long but the light was still pure, if tinted toward
orange, and Chris Smither had just contributed a number to a round-robin
tribute to the extraordinary songwriter, Dave Carter, who had suddenly
died of a heart attack shortly before his scheduled appearance there
with his partner, Tracy Grammar.
With a choice to return to Oregon to grieve, which would have been
easily understandable to anyone with a quiet, steady thumping in their
chest, or to fulfill the couple's commitments to appear in performance
venues, Tracy summoned the courage for the latter course and had
gracefully forged onward, carrying Dave's banner of music.
To ease the burden of turning over so many freshly sensitive
numbers all by herself, other performers at the festival volunteered to
choose one of Carter's numerous golden tunes during an impromptu set on
the main stage. It turned out to be a tribute not only to the solidity
and versatility of Carter's songs but also to the professionalism of the
many artists able to master a performance of a given tune on such short
The highlight of the tribute, hands down, was Chris Smither's solo
rendition of Carter's smooth outsider romp, "Crocodile Man." His guitar
wound up and down the musical sides of the tune's twists as his vocal
took us through the story as if it had been built around him. Don't get
me wrong, Tracy's own vocal for it on their Tanglewood Tree album
was a thing to marvel at (and I believe I did in
that album) but Smither nailed it so naturally that when I ran into him
the following day I believe I insisted that he record it himself.
Chris just smiled, of course.
When the new Smither album arrived in my mailbox this week, I
flashed right back to that imaginary coin and the fervent wish that I
could hear him perform the tune again. There it was! Track four on Chris
Smither's Train Home! And what incredible company it keeps!
This album, produced by the fine guitarist David Goodrich- who
joins Smither's own masterful guitar on many of these tracks but plays
something called a "pinewood diddley bo" for "Crocodile Man," is a
landmark entry in the Smither catalog. I do not say that lightly.
Despite the awards he won for Time Out of Mind, I have to
consider Dylan's last landmark album to be Blood On the Tracks
(although Oh Mercy falls just a whisker short.)
More acoustically set than anything Smither has done since his
earliest efforts, the flow of songs offers an exquisitely mellow and
rhythmic journey from beginning to end. Three other songs, besides
Carter's, are cover-tunes with the motto in mind that "If you can't
bring something new to a tune, let it be."
A sort of surprise entry is the closer, "Kind Woman", written by
Richie Furay of Poco and Buffalo Springfield fame. Anita Suhanin's
intimate, throaty whisper of a backing vocal curls over Smither's
whimsically plaintive lead and sinks in like the warmth of a campfire to
reinforce those elements of the song that made us like it the first time
around. Disrobed to a plunked simplicity of arrangement, it stands sleek
and sturdy, like it just got out of the shower.
Mississippi John Hurt's "Candy Man" is the something old made
new on this excursion, rendered with turns and shadings even that
amazing old bluesman never tried. Then, speaking of Dylan, there's the
midstream showcasing of "Desolation Row" with a slow layering of
atmosphere, Smither's studious phraseology and Bonnie Raitt's back-up
vocals and slide maneuvering through the circus images into
plausibilities not usually associated with the song.
But the real story here, and the ingredient which makes this album
a potential classic, is Smither's development as a songwriter in his
very own category. Where most poets and songwriters seem to fade as time
stretches on, Smither has matured and blossomed, growing stronger,
adding ever more golden nuggets to his personal repertoire. Brightly
intelligent notions elaborated with concise musings, both lyrical and
rhythmic, shine through his dark pragmatic filigree of philosophy.
Spinning words, graveled out from the bottom of the tongue, are small
wheels within a line, turning off of wheels in connecting lines.
Small time is time that really matters, time won't make it any
bigger. Big-time plans are like a pistol in your hand with a long, slow
pull on the trigger... (from "Call Time")
Ponderously thoughtful, mysterious, humorous are adjectives that
can apply to the same song in almost any one of the seven original
pieces here. "Lola" and "Let It Go" edge toward hilarity and you'll find
someone familiar in both of them. John Gorka needed a sense of humor to
write two songs about his car being stolen but Chris actually makes us
laugh when he finds his gone in "Let It Go."
I know she ain't a good 'un, whatcha bet she wouldn' lose much sleep
if I should die today. She says the love ain't cheap, but the pain is
free and I say, 'But that sounds good to me!' She's got hooks to make a
fish think twice, but I ain't no fish, I'll pay any price. If I think at
all, I think, 'This feels nice!' (From "Lola")
The illusions are "genuine" in "Train Home," even if they may
not be what they seem to be. The tightly coiled meditations loop into
zen puzzles as Smither reminds us of how temporary we are in this pocket
of time on the title track and nearly makes us of think of Thoreau
interviewed for a radio commercial and asked what he was doing at Walden
Pond.... ("I'm chillin'," says Thoreau.) And we're thinking "well,
lighter on blues- up on the high end- almost a Randy Newman Meets Greg
Brown on Tom Waits Avenue effect..." But it's all pure Smither, if
you're not already tuned...at the top of his form...
And there's more, of course, including "Crocodile Man." Chris
didn't need anything beyond voice and guitar for this one but I'll take
it, happily, with bass and diddley bo and goat toes and all and still go
back to enjoy Tracy's take on it, also. She performed the song recently
at The Colony in Woodstock in one of the best shows of the past year
there, even though it was shockingly sparsely attended. It may take a
little while for folks to realize that not only is Tracy Grammer one of
the finest instrumentalists working in America today but also one of our
best five female voices. Even Dave and Tracy fans may not realize the
full extent of her talents not, she explains, because Dave kept her in
the background- he was always urging her to do more and more- "Ideally,
you'll do all the singing soon," he told her, "and I'll just lay back
and play back-up." "The hell you will," she countered.
Dave is gone but Smither's cover will soon be added to by many
more artists certain to gravitate to Carter's treasury of material.
Meanwhile, this story is a tease because you won't hear Smither play the
tune around here until he plays The Turning Point in Piermont on October
2nd or Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on October 26th or, if you can
hold your breath that long, Towne Crier Cafe on December 12, 2003.
The Train Home album, though, is due to be in stores on July
22nd. It may be the best recording Chris Smither has made to date and a
solid cornerstone for any collection.
is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of
interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names,
he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event;
science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for
national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and
complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of
presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have,
Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort
Posted on July 5, 2003