Chris Smither calls Boston home, but in his lifetime he has covered a lot of ground. He was born in Florida and raised in New Orleans before he relocated to Beantown and started performing in the '60s. And where is he today? For a moment, he isn't sure.
"I had to look out the window," he admits after a slight hesitation. "It's full of mountains... looks like the Southwest... must be Albuquerque."
During a show at the historic Station Inn in Nashville a few weeks ago, Smither—who performs Sunday, October 29, at the Tractor Tavern—introduced the title track of his new album, Leave the Light On, with a crack about how he'd hoped to license the song to Motel 6 for an ad campaign. Alas, thus far no nibbles. Which seems odd. After all, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, and Diana Krall have dug his originals enough to cover them in recent years.
Leave the Light On is the 12th full-length by the bluesy, seasoned singer-songwriter, and a great introduction to his charms. First among them is his low-key singing style. In my notes from his Nashville show, the following comment stuck out: How can he mumble and be so articulate? Smither laughs at that observation. "It's very important to me that audiences understand the lyrics. Without the words, my music is worthless... Well, not worthless, that's 75 percent of it, easily. And people tell me that I do mumble, but they don't seem to have any trouble making out the words."
And his lyrics are well worth listening closely to. On Leave the Light On, Smither ventures into new territory, taking a vocal political stance on two tracks. "Diplomacy" takes aim at our inept national leaders, while "Origin of Species" pokes fun at intelligent design. And both do so with a grin firmly affixed. "If you can be clever, it keeps people from accusing you of taking yourself too seriously," he notes, citing Randy Newman as an example of another satirical songwriter he admires. "There are people who disagree with me, yet still laugh at those songs which are fairly topical in nature."
The disc also features a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna," recast in three-quarter time, and the immortal "John Hardy," the most-recorded folk song in history. Although he has loved the song since he learned it in adolescence, Smither says the last of the four verses ("there are a million," he chuckles) he performs has taken on particular resonance with age. In the song, after the gallows is blown down and John Hardy's life is spared, his jailers disregard this display of divine intervention and throw him back in the clink—prompting the narrator to concede that now he's seen everything and is ready to die.
"That's so consonant with how I feel about the way people treat other people," Smither admits. Hopefully, though, he'll stick around a while longer to keep singing about those sentiments... wherever he may find himself.