Chris Smither finds new meaning in songs he’s recorded before

Chris Smither has always included a few covers on his studio albums, going back to his 1970 debut, “

Chris Smither has always included a few covers on his studio albums, going back to his 1970 debut, “I’m a Stranger, Too!”

“I’m one of the few people, or rather songwriters, I know that really likes doing covers,” Smither said from his home near Boston, a few days before heading out on a short Northeast tour that includes a stop at The Linda on Saturday night.

“I like to let people know that kind of thing, so that they can benefit by association — I’ll pick something really good, and say I’m with him.”

That was also the plan for the blues and folk singer-songwriter’s 15th album, “Hundred Dollar Valentine,” released in June. And in a way, Smither did play three cover versions on the record — only, they were covers of his own songs. The album is the first of his to feature all-original material.

“I had finished writing the songs, and I was looking around for covers to do,” he said. “And Goody [David Goodrich, his longtime producer] says, ‘Why don’t you cover yourself?’ I’m like, ‘What?’ [He says], ‘There’s songs of yours other people have covered, but people don’t get to hear what you do to them now.’ And they have shifted; the emphasis changes, the phrasing changes, it has a slightly different meaning. If the song holds up that long in the first place, I was probably on to something in the first place.”

Chris Smither

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, 339 Central Ave., Albany

How Much: $25

More Info: 465-5233 ext. 4,

“Every Mother’s Son,” a story song focusing on a murderous character, Joseph, with the refrain “This could happen to every mother’s son” from Smither’s 1972 sophomore album “Don’t It Drag On,” is a good example of this. A stark acoustic version closes out “Hundred Dollar Valentine,” followed by some in-studio chatter among the musicians revealing that the performance was the first time Smither had played the song, live onstage or otherwise, in years.

Different perspective

“When I wrote it, I was full of — I think I felt more like righteous indignation, more self-righteous about doing it,” he said. “Now, I do it from the perspective of — I’m 67 years old, so there’s a certain resignation, acceptance of the fact that people are gonna [mess] things up. It’s sort of a much more resigned statement of fact, as opposed to a sense of outrage. If you compare the vocal tenor of the two versions, there’s a lot more angst going on in the first one — I like it better now. It makes sense; it’s just the way I am now, so it’s more appropriate.”

“Hundred Dollar Valentine” continues the busy streak Smither has been on for the past two decades — since 1991’s “Another Way to Find You,” new recordings have come out like clockwork almost every other year. It wasn’t always this way — for much of the late ’70s through the ’80s, his struggles with alcoholism sidelined his recording career.

Nowadays, he writes and records regularly to keep himself on the road.

“I think really the main thing that I do is perform,” he said. “That’s what I do, and everything else is really in service to that. I make records and write songs so that I’ll have something to do onstage.”

Nonetheless, his touring schedule has slowed down a bit over the years, as he tries to get home every week to help take care of his 8-year-old daughter. Still, he’ll log close to 100 gigs a year — down from the 200 he would pull down in previous decades.

“I was afraid of it for a while — there’s a part of me that goes, if you don’t play as often, you won’t be as good,” he said. “But another part of me finds it kind of exhilarating. I don’t get as tired, so I come to it fresher. Maybe it’s a trade-off.”

In Albany, Smither will be going the solo route, as he’s done for much of his career. “I got into blues in the first place, acoustic, blues, because of something that happened when I first heard Lightnin’ Hopkins in the early ’60s,” he said. “Like any guy in his 20s in the ’60s, I was a huge rock ’n’ roll fan, and here I was listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins playing rock ’n’ roll all by himself. I didn’t hear the blues; I heard rock ’n’ roll, which was not too surprising.”

“Hundred Dollar Valentine” features a fuller sound than many of Smither’s previous albums, especially 2009’s stripped-down “Time Stands Still.” On this album, he worked extensively with a string section, a first for his records, as well as bringing some light drumming and more harmony vocal into the mix — although there’s no bass anywhere on the record.

“I like the fact that I used strings; I’ve never used string to that extent — I’ve always had fiddle, but never a string section-sounding thing,” he said. “If I understood how powerful it can be, I would have used it more before. It’s just a lot fatter.”

Boosting inspiration

Over the years, he has found that the best way to write songs is to almost force himself to write something, anything. Although he can’t necessarily control when inspiration comes, he can sort of help it along now.

“I used to write songs and really have no idea of how it was happening, or why it was happening, and I was always afraid that it would never happen again,” he said.

“You have to make some kind of mark on the paper, almost like a kick-start, and I’ve learned that; I’ve learned how to take advantage of certain situations, and how to take advantage of time. The mere fact of learning that you have to go close yourself off in a room and resolve not to come out for a few hours, compared to the way I wrote when I was younger, which was seize it when the moment comes. You have to do a little more thinking. In the end, it has to be a little more difficult than that or it won’t last.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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