When Chris Smither and his twin sister were 12 years old and living in Paris, their linguist professor father, who had been traveling Europe, returned one day bearing gifts.
“He came back from Spain and said, ‘Here’s a guitar. Think you can handle it?’ And I was off and running,” recalls Smither, 74, from his Amherst home. “I hadn’t brought my ukulele with me to Paris, and I missed it terribly. He knew that.”
A few years prior, Smither had learned ukulele from his uncle: “I found it and thought it was a guitar because I wasn’t very big. My uncle said, ‘Nah, that’s a uke. Wanna learn to play it?’ He showed me three chords. I took off.”
Born in Miami in 1944, the Smither twins, Chris and Catherine, grew up in New Orleans, where their father taught at Tulane University.
Though “obsessed” with guitar, Smither went on to study anthropology in college. While in Mexico for an excavation as a freshman, his favorite find was the new guitar he bought in Mexico City. “I was really interested in pre-Colombian cultures in southern Mexico. I went on a few digs down there. But the further I got into my academic career, the more I was into buying and playing guitars,” he says with a laugh.
If his childhood sounds like “The Royal Tenenbaums,” his next chapter was more “On the Road.”
One day in the early ’60s, he and a buddy rolled into Sarasota, Fla., looking for folk troubadour Eric Von Schmidt. They found him in the phone book, were told “Come on over!,” and ended up at a jam at Von Schmidt’s place with half the members of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.
Von Schmidt, the Pied Piper figure of the ’60s Boston folk scene, told Smither, “ ‘Oh man, you should come up to Boston . . .’ So I did,” Smither says. “I think he was a little shocked. I sort of dropped everything in my life and went to take up vagabondage and guitar playing.”
“Everybody’s goal was to get into Club 47. Which I finally did. I managed to play there once or twice,” says Smither of the storied folk joint now known as Club Passim.
Smither returns to Passim for a sold-out show Friday with a batch of new originals from his 2018 album, “Call Me Lucky,” among a half-century’s worth of songs that are all distinctly him: the tapping feet, the beat-heavy finger-picking, those John Prine-meets-Professor lyrics.
“Chris Smither’s songwriting is magnetic. His unusual fingerpicking style grabs my ears, but the thing that keeps me rapt is his ability within a couple lines to have you chuckling with glancing blows of sharp wit, then reeling after a gut punch of profound observational truth,” says Matt Lorenz, who performs as The Suitcase Junket. Smither tapped the Western Mass.-based multi-instrumentalist as a studio musician for “Call Me Lucky.”
“I also find it inspirational that his writing just keeps getting better. I mean, that’s what we all hope for as artists, but it’s pretty great to see someone actually living it,” says Lorenz, 37, who has also toured with Smither.
Smither’s is a catalog heavy on trying to understand where we came from, why we’re here, and Vonnegut-esque nuggets of wisdom. “Most of my songs are just about existence — the big questions. Love, death, hunger, ‘Why am I doing this?’ All those things,” says Smither.
A Smither 101 syllabus might include witty science-vs.-religion via Darwinism (“Origin of Species”); rueful musings on that “little known dimension” called time (“Leave the Light On”); pinings for simpler times (“Caveman”); and many songs on the self-awareness of the lonely human condition, including “Help Me Now.”
“Beyond his music, he’s a great guy to spend time with; smart, funny, no bull. I look to him as a role model,” says Lorenz.
It’s a good description of Smither. There is no act, no bravado. All smile-creased eyes, mop of still-dark hair, voice patinated to a gruff, bluesy bass. In an interview, he’s warm, laughs easily, has peaceful sense about him. Onstage, he’s apt to laugh randomly while in a jam, smile, and shake his hair, an almost childlike thrill at what’s happening.
He is, today, an amalgam of his childhood passions: anthropology, music, and language. If he weren’t a musician, he’d be “some kind of academic,” he says. Smither speaks fluent French and Spanish. “I can feed myself in German. I can say a few things in Chinese.”
“My father was a language guy,” he says. “He just dropped us kids into a French public school, without speaking a word of French. Inside of two months, we were pretty fluent. I learned Spanish because I went to Mexico City and did the same thing to myself that my father did to me when I was 12.”
The professor’s kid felt right at home arriving in the college town of Boston in the ’60s, where he “got work right away, mostly over on Beacon Hill” and “started songwriting seriously.” His guitar playing emulated his two heroes, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt. “They’re still the foundation stones where I build everything I do on guitar.”
In Cambridge, he met Radcliffe College student Bonnie Raitt, who eventually covered Smither’s “Love You Like a Man” (repurposed into “Love Me Like a Man” on her 1972 album “Give It Up”).
Smither “can’t play without tapping” his feet, so about 25 years ago he started mic-ing them. And after getting an aortic valve replaced a while back, he’s back on those famous feet.
So how long after arriving in Boston before he felt he made it?
“About 40 years,” he says with a laugh. “Seriously. I’ve been doing this over 50 years, and except for the last 15, 20 years, it was pretty hand-to-mouth. I just persisted. And so far I’ve been lucky.”