Veteran Chris Smither returns with a new take on a very traditional blues.
Signature Sounds, 2012
8.5 / 10.0
Chris Smither is as close to a living musical legend as you can get. The only problem is that, outside of the world of blues, no one seems to know it. Starting in 1970, Hundred Dollar Valentine is Chris Smither’s fifteenth solo record. As with any good journeyman, that list of recordings is only a miniscule amount the recordings the man has actually been present for. An early student of blues pioneer Ric Von Schmidt and pals with contemporary heritage legends like Bonnie Raitt and Dr. John, Smither has a rich musical history but never quite has the crossover success of Bonnie or Mac. As a matter of fact, his closest claim to fame is having a few song covered by Raitt. Nonetheless, Smither continues to make music and I can’t help but admit that I’m grateful for that. With Hundred Dollar Valentine, Smither proves both his own quality as a songwriter and the continuing vitality of the oldest school of acoustic blues.
Smither has claimed Lighting Hopkins as a major influence before, and that seems to be the strong case with Hundred Dollar Valentine. The only other musician I can think of making music with this kind of vintage right now is Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna). For his part, Smither’s voice is a lot stronger than Kaukonen’s and I think he is also doing more with the genre than just about anyone I’ve ever heard. The major problem with modern blues players, and most heritage acts in general, is that they use the genre as some kind of dusty homage to an America that doesn’t exist anymore. With Smither, you have songs written in an undeniably modern voice. He doesn’t need to constantly remind people that he’s playing the blues, and boy do I appreciate that. Much like Levon Helm’s Dirt Farmer album, Smither doesn’t come off as a play actor. He doesn’t have time to mess around with posturing. Thankfully, posturing is completely unnecessary when you can write songs like these. Not only is Smither’s lyric writing and delivery choice throughout, but the accompaniments are also pitch perfect. Whether it be the smoking harmonica on the title track or the haunting strings of “On The Edge”, the music here sounds like it came from ‘professional’ musicians. There isn’t any fat, and Smither plays freely with the arrangement styles to best fit each individual song. This helps the songs stand apart from one another and stands as proof of Smither’s well-earned veteran status.
The understated acoustic blues playing and Chris Smither’s woozy vocal delivery make Hundred Dollar Valentine the perfect record for any Sunday morning coffee or late evening reminiscence. Since the first listen, I have been able to find something new to appreciate with each successive spin. Modern like-minded songwriters like Will Oldham or Christopher Paul Stelling would do themselves a favor by learning a thing or two from Chris Smither. He seems to have mastered the art of the slightly spacey, laid back sound without ever drifting into the realm of sleepy, aimless, or lazy. Smither plays a long-forgotten style of blues from an age when the differences between all genres was particularly hazy, yet he doesn’t seem to be looking back at all. This is the kind of record you point to and say, “This! You do it like THIS!”
“Hundred Dollar Valentine”
“On The Edge”
“What They Say”
Purchase Chris Smither’s Hundred Dollar Valentine