July 10, 2014

Chris Smither: 50 years of music, still singing

Blues-folk songwriter Chris Smither commemorates 50 years in music with three projects, Thursday show.

When his producer and manager suggested that Chris Smither commemorate his 50th year in music with a retrospective set, the blues/folk singer-songwriter wasn’t sold on the idea.

“They said, ‘Come on man, you only turn 70 once in your life and you’ve been doing this for 50 years. There’s songs that have been out of your repertoire for so long, people don’t even know that you wrote them,” says Smither, calling from his home in Massachusetts Tuesday.

He didn’t want to take a typical greatest-hits approach, though. Instead, he re-recorded two discs worth of material covering his entire career with producer David Goodrich in New Orleans, where Smither grew up.

On the album, “Still on the Levee,” he’s joined by New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint; fellow veteran folkie Loudon Wainwright III; members of Morphine; Boston-based trio Rusty Belle; his sister Catherine Norr; and his 9-year-old daughter Robin, who wasn’t exactly hyped about being included at first.

“I felt like she was indulging me,” he says of the young fiddler. “How did she put it? ‘Dad, it’s not really my kind of music.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. This is special. This is the whole story of my life, and you’re part of the story of my life.’ ”

Smither let Goodrich choose most of the material, which has caused him to unearth forgotten tracks on tour. He plays Stage Door Theater July17.

“I tend to be a little hard on myself and have sentimental favorites that aren’t exactly illustrative or representative,” Smither says. “There are songs I am so glad we recorded that I would never have touched.”

One of those is the first track, “Devil Got Your Man,” which is also the first song Smither ever wrote.

“I never would’ve done it if Goody hadn’t talked me into it,” he says. “He said, ‘When you listen to it on your first record, it’s like listening to a 23-year-old. What you could do with this song at 70 is entirely different.’ ”

Smither calls songwriting the “hardest thing I ever tried to do consistently,” but he no longer agonizes that he’ll never write another one.

“If I sit and wait long enough, it’ll come,” he says, recalling the time his father – a professor at Tulane – witnessed Smither writing “No Love Today” on his dad’s back porch over the course of three days.

“He was nervous as a cat – ‘Why can’t you just write it down?’ ” he remembers. “That’s not how it happens. You got to coax it and tease it.”

“Still on the Levee,” which is out July 22, isn’t the only way Smither is celebrating his golden anniversary. All his lyrics are compiled in a book, “Chris Smither Lyrics 1966-2012,” and a tribute album featuring Wainwright, his old friend Bonnie Raitt, Dave Alvin, Josh Ritter and others will be released in September.

It may be the aspect he’s excited most about looking back.

“I love listening to other people do my songs the way they think of them,” he says of the final test of a song’s strength. “It not only works for you, it can go out and cross the street by itself.”

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