To say singer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Smither has been around the music scene for a while is a vast understatement. I mean, there is 50 years of creating great songs tucked under his belt and the prospect for even more. To celebrate his 70th birthday and 15th year of songwriting in 2014, his record label Signature Sound released two CDs: “Link of Chain: A Songwriters Tribute to Chris Smither” (which features Bonnie Raitt, Patty Larkin, Dave Alvin, Josh Ritter and Heather Maloney, just to mention five of the 15) and the double disc set “Still on the Levee,” which is a 50-year retrospective of his talents. To top it all off, he’ll be coming back to Maine for a show at Johnson Hall Saturday, March 28. For more information and tickets, visit www.johnsonhall.org or call 582-7144. To that end, I called him at his Amherst, Mass., home to chat about the show in Gardiner as well as those two momentous releases.

Q: To help prepare me for this interview, I received your two newest albums, which gave me many hours of listening pleasure. What was it like to hear your songs covered by so many great songwriters, in their own right, on “Link of Chain”?

Smither: I was thrilled. It’s the only time that I ever get to come to my own stuff as sort of an outsider. I mean, every single one of those people hear things in the songs that I never imagined and then bring them out.

Q: With “Still on the Levee,” you went back and revisited songs from your entire career. Did some of those songs surprise you when you came back to them?

Smither: They did, mostly in a positive way, I’ve got to say. I was a little apprehensive about it because some of them — for instance the very first one on the record, which is the first song I ever wrote, I hadn’t touched in about 30 years and some of the others were the same or nearly as long. So I said, “What am I doing, can I go back as a 70-year-old and do songs that I wrote as a callow youth?” And I was rather pleasantly surprised that while they may not be the strongest songs that I have ever written I didn’t paint myself into any corners.

Q: How so?

Smither: I didn’t commit myself to viewpoints that I would later have to say, “Oh my God, I don’t believe I said that!” So it was kind of gratifying to realize that I hadn’t done anything that was really embarrassing. Actually it was kind of fun to take them on and see what I could do with insights that were like 50 years old and try to bring them up to date.

Q: Have you ever performed at Johnson Hall?

Smither: I don’t think I have, no.

Q: Will it be a solo show or will there be backing musicians?

Smither: Oh no, it’s just me. I did a pretty long tour with the band, we probably did 12 or 15 shows, which is long for me. Everything I usually do is solo so now I’m back to being by myself.

Q: That way you can go where your muse and the audience takes you?

Smither: Oh yeah, that’s right. Actually, I love playing with the band, it’s like driving a car with an enormous engine, you know? You get so used to driving your little VW or something and then you get to drive a Corvette for a while, but it feels nice to get back into the (Bug) again. It’s like going from big boots to sneakers again, being by yourself. I love them both, but it’s a relief not to have to think about everybody else.

Q: Is it hard for you to put together a show because of all the songs you’ve written or do you just go out there on stage and wing it?

Smither: Oh, I pretty much wing it. I’ve been doing this for such a long time that it’s not really that much of a problem. The only time that it’s ever problematic is when I have new material, and I’m just starting to get some of that going now that I’ve finished with these retrospective projects. I’m sort of trying to crank out stuff for a new record and I’m trying to work that new material in. But if it’s material you’ve been playing for a while, it’s sort of an automatic rotation. It just falls into place, I don’t even really think about it unless it’s a really short set and I have to really think about what I’m going to play. I don’t even do set lists, I just go up and start playing.

Q: Is songwriting easy for you after 50 years of doing it?

Smither: No, it’s easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do. There’s a lot of torture and self-doubt that goes into it and even when it starts to go pretty well there are times when you go, “I like this, but is anybody else going to dig it?” In a sense it’s become easier, there’s a little less self-doubt now because I’ve got enough years of discovering I have an audience that will cut me some slack and give it a chance.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to pass on to the readers of this article?

Smither: Well, just that I’m happy to be coming. I’m happy they want to see me, if they show up I’ll be glad to see them and we’ll have fun.

Lucky Clark has spent more than 45 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.


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