Chris Smither “All About the Bones”

Signature Sounds, 2024

A rather stunning album from this soon-to-be octogenarian, his songwriting and playing talents as yet undimmed.

Cover Art for Chris Smither 'All about the Bones'You might be inclined to overlook Chris Smither when the names of the great singer-songwriters of the last fifty years in the Americana sphere come to mind (Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Steve Earle yes, even Bob Dylan) – you shouldn’t.  Smither is a master of the country blues but can turn his hand to virtually any roots style, sing like a folk master or one of the famous bluesmen, play a mean guitar and write songs of great artistry and vision and emotion that demand to be heard. And what is now remarkable is that his new album ‘All about the Bones’ is as good an album as he has made (he has made more than 20 in a career spanning 50 years and more) and that he is approaching his 80th birthday this year.

Smither was born in 1944 in Miami, was brought up in New Orleans and spent some of his late teen years in Mexico City and Paris. In Mexico City he was introduced to the music of blues giant Lightnin’ Hopkins and back in New Orleans to that of Mississippi John Hurt, formative influences on his musical style. Spending time in the folk blues scene around Boston (Eric von Schmidt became a friend) he introduced the world in 1969 to what became his most famous song ‘Love you like a Man’ which Bonnie Raitt recorded with great success on her second album.

In 1970 he released his debut album ‘I’m a Stranger Too’ on which the aforementioned-song appeared. After his second album a long fallow period followed, as Smither fought serious drink problems (‘I was basically drunk for more than 12 years’ he has said in interview) but he re-emerged in the early 1990’s,  following which there has been a regular string of albums, all highly acclaimed for the eclectic mix of his own fine writings and outstanding cover versions. As a writer he is up there with the best, as an interpreter he is peerless (and stands alongside Jimmy Lafave in that regard, in both choice and longevity).

On his new album, he tackles Tom Petty’s brilliant ‘Time to Move On’, and, in a somewhat unusual choice, Eliza Gilkyson’s haunting ‘Calm before the Storm’.  The rest are his own inimitable creations, kicking off with the title track. Smither’s deep gravelly voice enters after a short acoustic guitar lick and then Chris Cheek swoops into the mix with seriously smoky sax that really lifts the song into new instrumental territory for Smither – a brilliant start.

And on it goes, with a beautifully paced set of songs covering mortality, family, love, and religion. You can tell that his voice is showing signs of age although it is still a robust instrument, albeit deeper than on previous outings, but he chooses sometimes to use a Leonard Cohen approach, as in the lovely ‘Completion’. On other tracks he can replicate John Lee Hooker (‘If not for the Devil’). On a couple of tracks, he sounds like Jorma Kaukonen (‘Diggin’ the Hole‘ and ‘Time to Move On’). Apart from his sophisticated guitar playing, producer and multi-instrumentalist David Goodrich provides guitar, haunting accordion on ‘Calm Before the Storm’, and a keyboard/piano break on the aforementioned ‘Completion’. The revelations on this album, however, are the wonderful backing vocals of Betty Soo on nearly every track, using echoey effects on, for example, ‘In the Bardo’, and the scintillating atmospheric sax of jazzman Cheek. A listen to the beautiful ballad ‘Still Believe in You’ is a fine example of their impact, and the lyrics as simple, yet beautiful, as they come – “There is one thing which doesn’t always show,  I think you know it too,  As long as I believe you believe in me,  I will believe in you, I still believe in you”.

If, heaven forbid, this proves to be Smither’s last album, then he would retire on a formidable high: the set is short (and would have been shorter were it not for a Radio Edit version of Time to Move On, as well as the original studio version) but each song is perfect, hardly a wasted word, the tracks are uniformly within the 4-minute mark, and any longer might have been an indulgence. A fabulous recording.


About FredArnold 60 Articles
Lifelong fan of predominantly US (and Canadian) country roots music. Previously an avid concert-goer before wives, kids and dogs got in the way- and although I still try to get to several, my preference for small independent venues often means standing, and that ain't too good for my ancient bones!! Still, a healthy and catholic music collection helps ease the pain
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