Chris Smither – Train Home

Chris Smither
Train Home

Chris Smither has been doing what he does for years now, and what he does is pretty simple. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a well-worn boot heel, Smither spins out haunting, surprisingly melodic blues. Like the late John Lee Hooker, Smither metronomically taps out the rhythm with his foot (Smither makes sure each performance space doesn’t have a rug or carpeted floor) while working his gruff voice through the highs, lows, and in-betweens of songs of hard living and redemption.
He’s been at this for more than 35 years now. Smither’s first album, I’m a Stranger, Too, came out in 1970, but he’d been performing for years prior to that. Part of the general quality of his output probably has something to do with its infrequency: in 33 years Smither has put out only 11 albums.
His latest, Train Home, finds a spiritual, meditative Smither contemplating a place in the world. He sings on the title track, “The why we’ll never know, we passed that long ago / Is and was is all we’re ever gonna be.” The lyrics are, indeed, not exactly typical blues fare. Smither, a lot like Jimmie Dale Gilmour, is sort of a country mystic, though never a heavy-handed one. “Let it Go” is a blow-by-blow account of realizing the author’s car has been stolen, which he tries to take in Zen-like stride, as he conversationally speak-sings, “I know attachment is the root of my suffering, cuz it hurts me, it hurts me deep inside.” This album is like that, switching back and forth between the quotidian and the otherworldly, from the down-to-earth “Lola,” an archetypal heartbreak song, to a beautiful (though truncated) cover of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” to the splendid raunchiness of Mississppi John Hurt’s “Candy Man.”
It’s important to mention that Smither is a master guitar player. He picks out complicated figures seemingly with ease and minimal accompaniment (besides the aforementioned foot, most of the songs the album features an additional guitar, some unobtrusive percussion, and a harmony vocalist). Smither’s voice can truly carry a song, beneath its gruff exterior revealing depths of hurt, tenderness, playfulness, and, sometimes, a gruff interior. What’s most striking to the careful listener is how intricately crafted Smither’s songs are. The best example of this, and the album’s tour de force, is Smither’s take on Dave Carter’s “Crocodile Man.” Smither growls the lyrics and picks out a typically intricate, up-tempo melody, but even through the rapid-fire of the vocals, the character’s complicated personal history is revealed.
Smither combines lyricism, Delta blues guitar picking, and inspired songwriting to craft a unique, timeless sound.