In 1964, a 19-year-old guitar player from New Orleans named Chris Smither tried his hand at writing a song. The result was a languid folk-blues number called “Devil Got Your Woman,” and it would eventually appear on his 1970 debut, I’m a Stranger Too!
A half-century after he set pen to paper, he rerecorded the song for Still on the Levee, a two-CD career retrospective featuring new performances of old favorites.
His manager and producer both insisted the song be included, but Smither was hesitant
“There I was, just a kid singing these lowdown, world-weary blues, and I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about,” he recalls. “It’s hard for me to imagine myself as a 19-year-old sounding convincing singing those lyrics.”
As he approaches 70, however, Smither discovered he could finally do that song justice, which makes Still on the Levee less of a greatest hits and more of a testament to the durability of his songwriting. It’s one of three new releases, including a book of lyrics and a tribute album celebrating his long career.
Following a sold-out show in Chicago, Smither spoke with CMT Edge about working with a great band, going back to New Orleans and trying to figure out what he was thinking way back when.
CMT Edge: What led you to tackle some of your older tunes?
Smither: My last record, Hundred Dollar Valentine, was recorded with Billy Conway on drums and Jimmy Fitting on harmonica. That’s the core group I’ve been working with over the last few years. We played a festival in Massachusetts, and it was the best show we played. We really knocked their socks off. My manager and my producer both said I should record everything I’ve ever done with that band. Everything? Oh, god. But that’s where the conversation started. I didn’t understand what the purpose of it was.
When did it finally hit you?
I didn’t really understand until the project was about half done. It finally started to sink in that I really have been doing this for 50 years. There’s this enormous pile of stuff to sift through, but it took somebody like Goody [producer David Goodrich] to look at it from the outside. He put the whole thing together from the perspective of a guy who’s nearly 70. In order to keep old songs fresh, you have to get back in your head when you wrote it. What were you thinking? So we thought, “If we’re going to do this thing, let’s go back to where my career started.” And that’s New Orleans.
So place played a big role in these new recordings?
I think so. I left New Orleans when I was 22, and I haven’t spent much time down there since. It sounds corny, but during the three weeks we spent in New Orleans, I found myself sinking back into that old state of mind — that way of living and thinking about music that is quintessentially New Orleans.
I recently binge-watched all of Treme, and you know what I loved about it? It recognized and made no attempts to cover up the essential corniness of that city. There is an endearing corniness to New Orleans. When I was younger, I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to get up to where people were serious! Now I realize that that unselfconscious corniness is one of the most appealing aspects of the city. They embrace it in a way.
Traditionally, New Orleans has been a melting pot for so many musical genres and traditions — blues, folk, jazz, even country. Your music seems to reflect that aspect of the city.
When I was really young and just getting started, I was a pure folkie. Then I got into blues or what people refer to as folk blues — meaning not Chicago blues. I try to make sure whatever song I’m writing isn’t just another ho-hum folk tune. Basically, I do three things. I sing. I play guitar. And I write. The writing is the thing that I really obsess over the most. That’s where I put the lion’s share of my efforts. I try to say something. Of course, the longer you live, the more you find to say. If you keep your eyes open, everything continues to astonish you.
You’ve recorded hundreds of tunes over the years. How did you choose which ones to record for Still on the Levee?
That’s where a good producer comes in. Most of that work was done by Goody. There are 25 songs on here — actually 24 because we did one of them twice. And that’s out of about 45 songs that we recorded. We thought about doing a three-disc package, but you can impose on people’s attention only for so long. Goody had to make some hard choices, and most of them I agreed with. His main criterion was not how well it was performed, but how it represented a different period from my career. Does it illustrate a change in my singing or guitar playing?
Did these songs have new resonance for you after so many years?
Some of these songs I hadn’t touched in years. I would sit and listen to the original recordings and think, “What the hell is this guy doing?” I had no idea. Goody would come over. He didn’t know what I was doing either, but he would ask me how I would do it now. Don’t try to figure it out. Just take the song as it is.
I guess I impressed myself with the fact that the songs are sturdy enough to be reinterpreted from a more mature perspective. It’s difficult to explain because there are so many elements that go into it. My voice is different, especially my phrasing. There are lyrics I wrote that I couldn’t emphasize the way I can now. It’s like moving back into a house that you used to live in, but you don’t decorate it the same way. It’s the same house, but the furniture is different.