Chris Smither still refining his singular style
ARLINGTON — Chris Smither has hardly tweaked his formula over the past 30 years. He doesn't need to. His catalog is rich with albums that don't reinvent his acoustic folk and blues, but rather refine his style with each new release.
It's surprising, then, to learn the art of making records still doesn't come naturally to him, even at 67.
"It's gotten to the point where starting a new album still scares me," Smither says recently backstage at the Regent Theatre before his performance there later that evening. "There's a little lingering apprehension about whether I'll be able to do it again."
He's referring to the act of writing songs, which he does with pen and paper. He writes lyrics in large print on legal pads, scattering them around the floor to see how they flow.
"The music comes to me fairly easily," he says, "but the lyrics, what the songs are about, that all takes discipline. You have to go into a room and sit there and say, OK, I'm going to be here for three hours whether something happens or not. It used to be real fear. I'd look into an abyss and see nothing. Where's it going to come from? I still don't know where it comes from, but now I have faith."
That faith has carried Smither through four decades of uniformly top-notch records and songs that have been covered by folks like his old pal Bonnie Raitt.
"Hundred Dollar Valentine," which was released earlier this week on Signature Sounds, is his latest release. After a brisk detour into electric rock on last year's "Lost and Found," Smither has returned to his forte.
He debuted most of the new album at his Regent Theatre show, which felt like a homecoming. Smither lived in Arlington for 30 years before uprooting to Amherst a few years ago. He and his wife, who's also his manager, are raising a young daughter they adopted from China. They partly decided on Amherst so that she could attend a Chinese-immersion charter school there.
Smither's roots run deep in the Boston area. A New Orleans native, Smither is closely associated with the tail end of Cambridge's folk revival. At the encouragement of musician Eric von Schmidt, Smither arrived here in 1966 and played at Club 47 just once before it closed two years later (and eventually reopened as Club Passim).
For "Hundred Dollar Valentine," Smither wanted more complexity and put his trust in David "Goody" Goodrich, who has produced all of Smither's records since 2003's "Train Home." "Hundred Dollar Valentine" is their fifth one together, and Goodrich says not much has changed about what he hopes to capture from Smither.
"Chris is like quicksilver — you've got to catch him and be ready. There's no second takes once he gets going," Goodrich says, adding that he always tries to build a song around Smither's guitar playing and singing. "When he catches a wave, you have to have all the gear going. It's not the kind of thing where you can say, 'Hey, Chris, could you move the microphone back a few inches?' You don't want to mess up his flow."
As usual, the focus is on Smither's rhythmically complex guitar prowess, which often works in tandem with the percussion he creates with his feet.
"I think of myself as a pretty good guitar player," Smither says modestly, before clarifying with a laugh: "Here's what I say: As a songwriter, I'm a pretty good guitar player."
His singing, however, he thinks is getting better. "I don't mean classically beautiful," he says, "but it's gotten more believable. I'm more effective. I've learned how to get the songs across."
"Hundred Dollar Valentine" is Smither's first album entirely made up of songs he wrote. At least three of them — "I Feel the Same," "Every Mother's Son," and "Rosalie" (included as a hidden track) — originally appeared on his first recordings from the early '70s.
Hearing Smither reinterpret songs from his youth was a revelation to both the artist and his producer. As Goodrich puts it, "He's telling the story of someone who has lived now."
Sounding like the country cousin to the Hometown Throwdown, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' annual run of shows, the Hometown Hoedown is set for June 29 at the Middle East Downstairs. The four-act bill will gather two generations of local Americana acts, from the Swinging Steaks and Girls Guns and Glory, to Coyote Kolb and Dietrich Strause. . . . Singer-songwriter Antje Duvekot's new album, "New Siberia," is now available on her website (www.antjeduvekot.com) ahead of its official release in September. Duvekot will celebrate its release with three nights at Club Passim in early September. . . . Longtime booking agent Dana Westover has left his post at Johnny D's, the venerable roots club and restaurant in Davis Square. Randi Millman, formerly of T.T. the Bear's and now managing a stable of local bands, has replaced him. Already Millman has added some interesting shows to Johnny D's lineup, including Nona Hendryx on July 12 and Peter Asher (of Peter and Gordon) on Aug. 8.
James Reed can be reached at email@example.com.