For someone who’s spent the last 50 years making music, Chris Smither seems remarkably nostalgia-free. “I’m actually playing better than I ever have,” he asserts, “and I’ve got better crowds — these are the good old days.” Nevertheless, the tour that brings the troubadour to Forty Acres in Durham on Sunday, November 9, finds him supporting a 50th anniversary retrospective record, Still on the Levee, and by extension, its unofficial companion piece, Link of Chain. The latter is a tribute album featuring Dave Alvin, Bonnie Raitt, Josh Ritter, Jorma Kaukonen and others covering Smither’s tunes.
“The funny thing is that it makes everybody think that I’m about to quit,” laughs Smither, 70, “and I’m not.” In his native New Orleans, Smither cut new versions of songs from all across his career for Still on the Levee, distilling a half-century into two CDs, with guests including Allen Toussaint and Loudon Wainwright III.
Smither’s commandingly craggy baritone, bluesy acoustic fingerpicking, and piercingly poetic lyrics have made him a triple threat since his days on the ’60s Cambridge, MA folk scene. And while he might be best known through his song “Love You Like a Man,” which has been covered by everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Diana Krall (as “Love Me Like a Man”), the admirers assembled on Link of Chain expand his sphere of influence further.”I’m so thrilled when somebody does one of my songs at all that I don’t really get critical,” says Smither, “But I always loved the way Bonnie did ‘Love Me Like a Man’ on that live album, Road Tested. And I always liked John Mayall—he did a version of ‘Mail Order Mystics’ [on 1993’s Wake Up Call].
“Comparing the music scene he started out in and the one he finds today, Smither reckons, “The nice thing is that you don’t need a record company anymore. The bad thing is that there are no record companies anymore [laughs].” But the veteran road dog still finds joy in stomping the boards, literally—when playing solo, he keeps the beat by banging his foot on a piece of wood. “I still play almost 100 shows a year,” he says, “but that’s half of what I used to play all the time. 100 shows a year, that seems like a piece of cake to me.”
While Still on the Levee doesn’t contain any new material, Smither’s already got a few tunes in the hopper for his next album. “They’re coming,” he assures, “I’ve got three of them started, I can feel the juices going now. It’ll probably take me another year but there’ll be something new coming along. The motivation is to have that feeling inside that you’re still relevant, you’re still doing something…to feel worthwhile.”
Smither performs at the Five Oaks Clubhouse in Durham on Sunday. Tickets are available for $25 here, and find more information about the show and venue here.