Chris Smither grew up in New Orleans in the 1950s, when there were still fruit and vegetable peddlers walking the streets and yelling the names of their wares as they passed.
Many years later, Smither used their street cries as the inspiration for his lovelorn and philosophical “No Love Today”. That number is just one of the great songs from a career spanning 50 years that’s given a new arrangement—with piano accompaniment from Big Easy legend Allen Toussaint—on the singer’s latest release, Still on the Levee.
The double disc is a retrospective, not a greatest-hits collection, Smither stresses. It highlights the excellence of his craft as a blues-based songwriter, and especially the many insights of his intelligent, simple lyrics. But Smither needed some persuasion from his manager and producer to warm to the notion.
“I just go day by day and never look back, really,” he says, calling in from New York City. “But by the time we got into the project I was really sold on the idea. It was a revisitation. I liked looking at songs I hadn’t looked at in decades, and also I liked coming back to the songs with a lot more experience not only about how to express myself with the songs, but how to treat them in the studio. It’s interesting to see how they hold up, and paint a picture of what the career looked like—instead of just putting them together from existing tracks, to actually go back and re-record them, re-imagine them as an almost 70-year-old.”
Still on the Levee opens with the first song Smither wrote, when he was 19, the pensive and melancholy “Devil Got Your Man”. The title provokes some wistful chuckles. “What does a 19-year-old know about devils?” Smither asks. “I probably thought I knew a lot at the time, but now I know I know a lot. What surprised me was how well the song held up—it didn’t bite off more than it could chew, in a sense. I kept it simple. And I think that what informs the song now is the depth of experience I’ve had, not only in living with devils—that’s hyperbole, I guess—but how much I’ve learned about singing, and how to express myself.
“What was really interesting was listening to the original recordings and being totally at a loss as to what I was doing on guitar,” Smither continues. “It was like listening to a total stranger. My producer was delighted. He said, ‘Don’t try to figure it out. Think of it as a song someone else wrote that you have to learn.’ So there were a lot of things at play and at work, although sometimes I’d be sitting there trying to learn it and all of a sudden my fingers would take off—it was like muscle memory would take over and start doing what my brain couldn’t remember. It took months to get the songs worked out, and it was an amazing experience.”
Chris Smither plays Electric Owl on Tuesday (October 7).