A Belated Tribute

to you, Chris Smither

Prior to Chris Smither’s concert this past spring at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, I told my husband, “This time I’m going to stay to meet him after the show. We always rush off. I just want to tell him, thank-you.” But there wasn’t an opportunity that night, as there had been many times in the past. It’s understandable. Chris Smither, if I calculate correctly, will turn (or has already turned) seventy-eight this year (according to one of his songs, he was born in ’44). He’s been doing concerts for a long time and has had many post-show meet-and-greets with his fans. Maybe that night, he just needed a well-earned break. I missed out on thanking him in person, but I still feel determined to express my appreciation for him and his music.

So, thank-you Chris Smither.

Thank you for all your soulful songs, all your funny songs, your irreverent songs, all those that made me laugh or cry because they rang true for me. Thanks for all the songs that made me think and think, for your wise words, your humility, your honesty. And for your excellent guitar playing and foot tapping. Nimble, playful, upbeat, downtrodden or desperate, whimsical or resilient — all the moods and tones and timbres depicted in your lyrics were enhanced by your multifaceted musical talents.

Many of your newer songs are musings on a long life, on your many experiences, the lessons you’ve learned. Often your melodies relay honesty about not knowing all the answers, and further, accepting that ignorance with a shrug and a smile. Life goes on, you seem to say. This is what we’ve got, understandable or not. Embrace the lot – good or bad. Sometimes you just can’t choose. Make the most of it. Whistle a tune. Carry on.

On your album, Time Stands Still (2009, Signature Sound Recordings), the title song is an ode to time: She let me know a long time ago, it’s better to say just what you mean. Truth to tell, it hurts like hell, but it keeps me clean. And then there’s the quip: She’s so fast, I know I’ll never last, she’s by me now, but I don’t really mind. I oughta know, cause I move so slow, my shadow often kicks me from behind.

The mundanity, uselessness and confounding circularity of over-thinking are laid forth in the song, “Open Up” (from the album Leave the Light On, Signature Sound Recordings, 2006): I don’t think for pleasure, it’s just hard not to do, My thinking is a measure of how much I need a clue . . . The tune ends with: One small suggestion, quit all these questions, open up, just open up your heart.

Still, you acknowledge the unfettered descent of depression and dark moods, despite all efforts to resist their plundering. Again, from Leave the Light On, and in the song, “Shillin’ for the Blues” you reveal a basic formula: Take a little slow resentment and an ounce of small regret, half a cup of wounded pride that has not faded yet; Add a pinch of passion and a double-shot of booze, When your self-respect is crashing, you can drink it up and cash in on the blues. — Yes, sometimes life stinks. We become exhausted and succumb to desolation. Occasionally, we need a break from all the well-intended, sensible, good advice we receive from others and the two-bit contemporary psychology readily available through the media and the internet. All that advice can be helpful, but not until you’re ready to hear it and use it. Sometimes, you need to cry or hide away, to ponder and reflect, before you’re able to try again.

When our son was in prison a few years ago, a difficult and soul-searching period, my husband and I attended your concert in Asheville, sitting on one of the Grey Eagle’s well-worn couches. You played a variety of tunes, from funny and self-deprecating, to dolefully blue to upbeat, to daring, to philosophical and musing. During the last two songs (and I don’t remember which), I lost control of my emotions and sobbed, tears streaming down my cheeks, right there in front of you. I was embarrassed and hoped you hadn’t noticed. I’m glad you touched those nerves though. It helps to feel the pain. I figure it’s part of getting through it.

It was my eclectically-a-tuned, audiophile husband who introduced you to me almost forty years ago, while we were dating (I, too, am growing older). He’d had some of your earlier recordings. I listened, liked what I heard, and purchased many of your newer releases over the years. I can’t count how many times we’ve seen you. Several times in Asheville and Charlotte, once in Johnson City, and before we moved south from the D.C. area, at the Birchmere in Alexandria, the Barns of Wolftrap, and the Ramshead Tavern. Your performances and songs will always be fresh to me.

Fresh and maybe a little chilling, as in the song, “No Love Today” from the album Drive You Home Again (Hightone Records, 1999): I got ba-na-na, watermelon, peaches by the pound, Sweet corn, mirleton, mo’ better than in town, I got okra, enough to choke ya, beans of every kind, If hungry is what’s eating you, I’ll sell you peace of mind, But this ain’t what you came to hear me say, And I hate to disappoint you, But I got no love today . . . Not a welcome refrain, if you’re hurting, but there’s also the heartening reminder, put simply: In the end no one will sell you what you need, You can’t buy it off the shelf, You got to grow it from the seed. Most of us have heard some version of that before, but somehow it comes home to roost -it’s more palpable, tender and evocative when you sing and play it (further intensified by your musical accompaniment, especially the bleating heartfelt saxophone played by John Mills).

Your latest CD, Call Me Lucky (Signature Sounds, 2018) is one of your most reflective. Partly, I figure that’s because you are older, and you’ve had more lifetime to consider. I played the tune “Down to the Sound” for my son (happily, no longer in prison). The tune resonated with me, and I thought he might also appreciate it: . . . it all comes down to the sound, Of something longing to be, It spins around in the lost and found, Til we learn to see . . .

I felt the words and music alight in me and lift me up: a recognition of self, a bold self-acceptance, acknowledgement of one’s better attributes, one’s flaws, with no apologies but with no undue pride either. “When it sounds like me, I hear my name, It seems like a picture slippin’ out of its frame, Takes most of the your wishes to make it come true, They’re mostly for free, but you pay for a few. Hearing this, I imagine glimpsing a reflection in a picture window and pausing, before discerning who or what I see. “Oh, that’s me,” I say. Then I walk on, humming, not stopping to fix my hair or worry over a blemish or stand up straighter.

I could go on reciting your lyrics and explaining why they mean so much to me, but I think you get the gist. Your music has made my life better. It has helped me through some tough places. I can shrug my shoulders more often now. not take myself so seriously, which is a good thing. Your music, grace, and humility are gifts to the world.

For those reading this who don’t know you: Listen to a Chris Smither song, then another. A whole album. Really listen. Smile, laugh, cry. Find some wisdom, while you’re at it. Time is ticking away. Chris Smither won’t be around forever, even if his music will. If he makes it to one hundred, he’s got twenty-two years to go. While you’re both here, check him out, and then tell him thanks. Better yet, do it in person.

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