The Foot-Tapping Music of Chris Smither
10/22/2015 02:22AM ● Published by Phil Reser
Strike a ChordNovember 2015
By Phil Reser
With only a guitar, his voice and foot-tapping rhythm section, Chris Smither squeezes more emotion and wisdom out of a song than anyone you may have experienced.
“My finger picking is a basic thumb and two-finger style, syncopated for the most part,” says Smither. “And the foot-tapping, that’s something that I just can’t stop doing. If you tie my feet down, I can’t play. Seriously, it’s pathetic. I’ve had producers try to keep me from tapping my feet and they would finally give up and let it be part of the music. It took me a long time to actually realize that I should emphasize it in my performance. I should make sure that people in the audience can hear it.”
There were situations when he would be feeling good before a show, yet the performance would fall flat, and he didn’t know why. “Finally I realized that usually in those situations the stage I was on was carpeted and my feet wouldn’t feel right and I couldn’t hear them,” he says. “So then, I started using a board under my feet, if the stage was carpeted. Then I went to placing a mic on the board, so the audience could hear my tapping better.”
His enduring singular guitar sound is strongly influenced by the playing of Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin' Hopkins.
Growing up in New Orleans, La., where he first started playing music as a child, he left home in 1965 to join the burgeoning folk scene in Cambridge, Mass.
It was the mid-’60s and acoustic music thrived in the streets and coffeehouses, and Smither forged lifelong friendships with many musicians, including Bonnie Raitt who went on to record his songs, “Love You Like A Man” and “I Feel the Same.”
By the early ‘90s, Smither's steady nationwide touring and regular release of consistently acclaimed albums cemented his reputation as one of the finest acoustic musicians in the country.
Says Smither, “Of the three things that I do, singing, writing and playing, I think I’m best at writing, but the thing is, the other stuff has to be there too. It all has to be rhythmically complete. I think of the music and tune as the delivery system. For me, the meat of the product is the lyrics. The delivery system has to be efficient at least, if not exceptional. So it all fits together and you really can’t separate the parts. You need to have it all clicking at the same time.”
His latest double CD, “Still On the Levee,” is a career-spanning retrospective double CD that reinterprets favorite songs from his 50-year career. To make the album, he returned to New Orleans and enlisted a diverse cast of backing musicians, including his daughter Robin on fiddle, Crescent City piano legend Allen Toussaint and Loudon Wainwright III.
“I don’t have a mainstream audience,” he says. “I have a good following because I’ve been doing it for so long and the style is for someone who wants to think about what’s being said lyrically. Most mainstream music is not designed to be meaningful or to think about the lyrics; it’s for people who just want to dance. If you want to dance, party and have a good time, and even scream at the performers during a show, it works just fine for that purpose. There’s a lot of very talented people doing exactly that kind of music. I would never put it down, in the slightest. It’s just not what floats my boat.”
Friday, Nov. 20
Pilgrim Congregational Church in Redding
www.oaksongs.org • www.smither.com