Americana singer-songwriter Chris Smither loves a performance. It’s an ineffable thing, he says; what’s born of audience and entertainer becomes greater than the both of them, rendering both merely participants. At 68 years old, Smither has spent the better part of his life playing for a crowd, night after night and town after town, building a mutual mood that ceases to be when the final note is played.
“It’s very ethereal. As soon as the evening is over, it disappears, the thing that you’ve created,” Smither said. “But I just love watching it happen.”
Such philosophical musings aren’t uncommon for Smither. His latest album, Hundred Dollar Valentine, opens with the title track, a light ditty about a missing sweetheart that closes on a clever twist, and then dives into deeper meditations on life and death.
His voice saunters through the cutting lyrics “Dancing on the edge of the stage/Won’t be long before the fall” on the following track, “On the Edge.” Later on the album comes “All We Need to Know,” titled like a pronouncement, with its talk of “the grand illusion of design” delivered in a tone of worldly-wise gravitas backed by the wailing of a harmonica.
It’s existential, but without crisis. Rather, there is hope, he says. His outlook is one most closely aligned with Eastern philosophies, he explains – no supreme being, no higher ruling intelligence.
“To me, that’s kind of a relief, you know, because otherwise you sort of have to feel that somebody’s got it in for you,” Smither said.
Such is Smither’s big-picture blues, embracing a genre known for its emotive capabilities and contemplating the whys of the world with his voice and the finger-picking sounds of an acoustic guitar.
“In blues, you get these occasionally brilliant little insights and lines, and some of those lines get used over and over again in songs,” Smither said. “And I said that’s how I want to write. I don’t want to write just one or two of those lines. I want to write a hundred of them.”
Folk singers like Burl Ives first caught Smither’s musical attention, but hearing the blues from Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt was a turning point.
“To hear these guys playing and realize they were essentially playing rock and roll but doing it all by themselves was just a revelation to me,” Smither said.
Their influence sparked what would become a storied musical career for Smither. Fifteen albums and scores of songs followed, some of which have taken on new life in the hands of songstresses like Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall.
The way he looks at his career seems to reflect that same matter-of-fact attitude with which he cherishes the fleeting moments on the stage, and contemplates the manner of the world. He tries to develop further his guitar style and to tackle more sophisticated songwriting. A Grammy or a hit record probably aren’t in his future, he says, but that doesn’t matter so much to him now. He’s accomplished more than he thought he would, and he’s comfortable with that.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky to have made it through most of my life doing something that I just love to do, and I’ve been paid for it – for the most part, pretty well,” Smither said. “It’s hard to complain. I don’t look for a lot more. I’ve just about got most of it.”
• Chris Smither will perform at The Birchmere Saturday at 7:30 p.m. For more information about Smither, visit smither.com.