Chris Smither is no stranger to Australia. The New Orleans-born folk/blues singer, songwriter and guitarists is in Perth on his sixth visit Down Under to support his latest album, Hundred Dollar Valentine.
The tall 68-year-old sings with the world-weary voice of an old blues man. He's known for his dexterous acoustic finger-picking guitar style that interweaves coffeehouse folk sensibilities with Delta blues technique. All the while, he keeps the rhythm by tapping his foot on a wooden board.
Smither's songs, which have been covered by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall and Emmylou Harris, point towards the stripped-down style of legendary blues players such as Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House and Mississippi John Hurt. His wry, intelligent lyrics encompass such big topics as life, love and loss, and are capable of conveying a wide range of emotions - from whimsy to heartache and despair.
His 12th studio album, Hundred Dollar Valentine is the first to consist entirely of his own material. In the past he's always included a cover from the likes of Bob Dylan, John Hiatt and Tim Hardin.
"I always like hearing other artists do covers because I like finding out what they're into and who they think of as kindred spirits," Smither says.
On the new album he "covers" three of his own songs that he wrote more than 30 years ago and were lifted, seemingly randomly, from his extensive back catalogue.
"Myself and Goody (producer David Goodrich) picked two songs (I Feel The Same and Every Mother's Son)," he says. "Then there's a back room session that produced a rough field recording of a lovely little song called Rosalie that I'd almost forgotten about."
These older songs confirm his unique knack of finding little turns of phrase that make a complicated idea work in a three-minute song. On the chilling track Every Mother's Son, written in 1972 about a guy who gunned down patrons in a Burger King store, he reflects on the cult of violence and mass shootings that have now become so prevalent in the US. "He's gone to town and bought himself a gun/This could happen to every mother's son."
The arrangements on Hundred Dollar Valentine are more fleshed out than previous recordings, with accompaniment from percussion, slide guitar, harmonica and strings.
The album has earned Smither a string of five-star reviews. Uncut magazine praised its "low-key philosophy played against an impeccable musical backdrop". Rolling Stone said, "Smither's roots are as blue as they come". Mojo Magazine made it their No. 1 Americana album of 2012.
Smither is keen to catch up with Raitt, who recorded a best-selling version of his Love You Like a Man, while they are both in Australia. The two singers' paths cross in Melbourne later this month.Chris Smither performs at Kulcha in Fremantle tonight. Tickets from the venue.
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