Photo: Jo Chattman


The year 2024 is shaping up to be a big one for Chris Smither.

The folk-blues singer, songwriter, guitarist and foot percussionist released his 20th LP, All About the Bones, on May 3 and turns 80 on Nov. 11. Smither will spend much of the year touring the album and treating audiences to his one-man-band brand of performance on which he serves as his own accompanist on acoustic guitar and mic’d boots.

The eclectic Bones is a full-band effort, with longtime producer and multi-instrumentalist David Goodrich, drummer Zak Trojano, saxophonist Chris Cheek and harmony vocalist BettySoo filling out the sonic landscape without taking away from the singular sound that makes Smither a genre of one.

As he prepares for what promises to be a busy year, Smither spoke with Jambands via email about the new album; his approach to songwriting and performance; his influences; and more. 

Kristopher Weiss: When someone asks me, ‘Who is Chris Smither?,’ I’ll play your music for them. How do you answer that question? 

Chris Smither: I usually just say that I’m a guitar player and a singer and a songwriter. Then, they usually say, ‘Oh, what kind of music do you do?’ And I say, ‘Good music.’ Then, I tell them where they can find it if they want to hear it. 

KW: I’ve been listening to the new album and there’s a lot going on in there. Darkness. Light. Looking inward. Looking for something bigger. Ballads. Hard-charging rhythms. Whimsy. Reflection. What was going on during the writing process?

CS: Mostly it was just a constant search for something to say, or actually something to start saying. Getting started is the main thing – keep writing – you can stop and figure out what it means later and shift it around. I often don’t know what the songs are about until they’re half-finished. All of those different moods and styles are just the sorts of things I think about. I think a lot.

KW: Where did these songs come from?

CS: From inside my head. Sometimes, it feels like they come from outside someplace, and I’ve heard a lot of songwriters say that they believe they do come from outside. But I decided a long time ago that that’s just trying to avoid responsibility for them.

KW: Are they related or just friends? 

CS: I would say they’re mostly just friends. Thematically, they’re all over the map, but I’m an old man now, and the end of the trip is getting more real and that gets reflected more in the songs – so they’re related that way sometimes.

KW: Are they contemporaries or spread out over time? 

CS: They’re pretty contemporaneous. It took me forever to get them going once I decided to do the record. I had most of the musical ideas for a while; that’s often the easiest part, but the lyrics were tough. I’m lucky to have a producer, David Goodrich, who has a knack for prodding me in just the right way. Once I got started, it happened pretty quickly, like about six months.

KW: And what do the titular Bones represent? Skeletons from the past? Joints? Money?

CS: I think they represent the essence, the inner frameworks of things, ideas, structures, the elements that hold those entities together, the things that are lasting after you strip away all the fluff.

KW: Rare is the songwriter whose well keeps producing over decades. How do you keep yours primed? 

CS: Honestly, I think it requires re-priming every time. I don’t write constantly. I let long periods go by without writing anything. Then, when I decide it’s time for some new stuff, getting the pump going again is the hardest part. I think it’s as much sheer determination as anything else. Ultimately, I know it’s what makes me happy, so I pursue it.

KW: How has songwriting changed for you over the course of 20 albums and nearly 80 years? 

CS: In the beginning, I had no idea of what I was doing or how I was doing it. It was a big mystery, and I was often terrified that it would never happen again. Sometimes, after each song, certainly after each record, I would think, ‘I’ll never be able to do this again.’ After a time, though, one begins to develop a sense of craft, the knowledge that after the first inspirational flash, there are techniques one can employ to exploit and expand the initial concept. I now have an inner conviction that if I just work at it, it will happen. It might take a while, but it will happen.

KW: What comes first: the words or the melody?

CS: Almost always the guitar part and the tune come first, 99 percent (of the time). Sometimes, I have a phrase, an expression, a fragment of a lyric that I think might work somewhere, but usually it’s a blank slate until I’ve got the musical framework in place.

KW: One of the many fun things about listening to music is finding the threads that make up the tapestry of what’s in the air at the moment. I’ve always had a difficult time doing that with you. So, who are your influences and what/who do you listen to when you’re not working?

CS: My earliest influences were the country-blues greats, wonderful guitar players, like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt. Then, when I started writing songs, I realized that I was definitely not the son of a sharecropper in the Deep South, I was the son of a university professor, and was going to have to learn a new way to talk about what was on my mind, not your typical blues lyric. Randy Newman and Paul Simon were two people who opened my eyes to what could be done. I’m a little embarrassed that these days I don’t  listen to a lot of new music, and the stuff I do listen to is by people like me who’ve been doing it for years. I’ve always got time for Mark Knopfler, a great storyteller and superb musician, and lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Tom Petty, trying to analyze what was his uncanny ability to come up with hits, to find that little nugget that just makes a song stick. It’s not something I’ve ever tried to do consciously, and maybe I never will, but I truly admire it, whatever it is.

KW: Do you consider making music work? Or is it more about the play for you?

CS: Writing the songs is work, though exhilarating at times, the travel part of touring is work, performance is play.

KW: Do you see yourself primarily as a songwriter, a guitarist, a percussionist, a performer or something else entirely?

CS: I see myself as a performer, and I do all of those thing in pursuit of delivering a show that will make people feel better, if only for a little while.

KW: Onstage, how do you manage to keep rhythm and melody straight and separated in your mind and make them blend as they move to your hands and feet?

CS: I try not to keep them separate. That’s where the trouble starts, as though you were thinking of the parts of your body as separate elements while you try to walk and chew gum. You have to think of it as an integrated whole. There’s a lot of muscle memory involved, to the point where should someone ask me what the lyrics to a particular song are, I have to mime playing guitar in order to recite them.

KW: What motivated you to mic up your boots and become your own percussionist?

CS: When I realized that if the floor was carpeted I didn’t play as well, because I couldn’t hear or feel my feet. Then I thought, ‘If I need to hear it, maybe the audience does, too.’

KW: What’s that look like in your rider? Do you ask for a piece of plywood as John Hartford did?

CS: No, I don’t need a board that big because I don’t stand up and dance when I play. I have a small board that I bring with me.

KW: You had some long gaps between projects in the 1970s though the 1990s. What changed to make you so dramatically up your output and what keeps you motivated now?

CS: I was too busy drinking to make music. I had to get over that. And after I did just that, doors started opening in my mind and in the world.

KW: What’s next for you?   

CS: I haven’t thought about it much other than to know that it’s going to be a busy year touring, getting out there and putting the music in front of a lot of people. Past that, I’ll just follow my own advice in the song ‘Completion,’ to take what comes and forgo anticipation.