Chris Smither is one of those rare artists who seems to get a little better with each passing year. His style is a little easier. His voice and musicality a little deeper. He's more relaxed. Smither, whose new album is called "Hundred Dollar Valentine," hit fame early with the song "Love You Like a Man," which became a standard after Bonnie Raitt covered it on her 1972 album "Give It Up," but it wasn't until the 2003 album, "Train Home," that Smither really began to hit his peak.
"I brought all that I had to that," says Smither. "I realized how much discipline was involved in great songwriting."
He'd also recorded a few albums prior to that with player/songwriter/producer Stephen Bruton, who taught Smither how to have fun making albums and also, being a great songwriter himself, helped Smither feel good about his songs.
"It was immensely validating," says Smither. "I respected him so much as a musician. ... He was the first person who understood what I thought was good about my music and it was what he thought was good about my music."
Born in Miami and raised in New Orleans, Smither latched on to music early. While his style owes more to country blues, it wasn't the blues that first had a deep impact on him.
"I think it was probably the 78s I listened to with my grandfather," says Smither. "'Tumbling Tumbleweeds,' 'Ghost Riders in the Sky' ... Western songs. He liked things like that. He lived in Kansas and I can remember listening to 'Ghost Riders' over and over again and feeling this little thrill of apprehension in the part where he would see these riders in the clouds. I used to go out and try to see them because the sky in Kansas has clouds like that! I would lie on my back in the prairie out in front of his house. It was captivating. Those songs told stories and they just did something to me."
From there, he discovered Mississippi John Hurt, Lightinin' Hopkins and other greats. His guitar style still bears their heavy influence. Bob Dylan also became a major influence.
"Dylan's biggest influence on me was simply understanding that you could write your own songs," says Smither. "I heard 'Don't Think Twice' by Peter, Paul and Mary and then I heard Dylan's version. I don't know why it had never occurred to me that these old blues guys I loved wrote their own songs, too, but it didn't."
It also became clear that successful artists in the era were nearly all writing their own songs and Smither decided he could, too.
"Devil Got Your Woman" was the first song Smither wrote and ended up on his first album, 1970's "I'm a Stranger Too!"
Smither's career might have had a faster rise were it not for more than a decade of alcoholism. However, when he cleaned up and returned to recording and touring, he was a better artist than he had been before.
He says he's always writing notes here and there, but he doesn't write songs until he's ready to record an album. Sometimes he doesn't quite know what he's come up with.
"The very first time I performed 'Leave the Light On' in public, I put it in the middle of a set in New York and the whole crowd stood up to applaud," says Smither. The song became the title cut to another of Smither's best discs in 2006.
He says the song "Father's Day" (also on "Leave the Light On"), which paid modest tribute to Smither's dad, was probably the hardest he's ever worked on a song.
"I think because he was still alive at the time," says Smither. "Writing the song and being totally honest about it and knowing that he's gonna hear it and it's about him. At least for this son it was an excruciating exercise in self-discipline. I was enormously pleased with the result and so was he. ... He loved it. He called me up and told me so."
With: Chris Smither, Moses Atwood
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 29
Where: Knoxville Visitor's Center, 301 S. Gay St.
Tickets: $10, available at www.tennesseeshines.com
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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