In celebration of Chris’s 70th birthday, Signature Sounds has released Link of Chain: A Songwriters Tribute to Chris Smither. The album features friends and peers like Loudon Wainwright III, Bonnie Raitt, and Dave Alvin performing gems plucked from Chris’s deep catalog. Music fans know that Chris has written a countless number of masterful songs during his 50-year career, but hearing this eclectic set of interpretations is a startling reminder of the depth of Smither’s catalog.
The album begins with Dave Alvin giving “Link of Chain” a spacious, big-sky feel that contrasts with Smither’s more driving original version. You can hear Alvin’s love for the song shining through his sandy voice. Alvin and Smither forged a strong connection when sharing a record label and touring as the Monsters of Folk with Tom Russell and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot in 1998. More recently they swapped songs with Peter Case on a Roots on the Rail Los Angeles-to-Seattle musical train trip. You’ll find Case’s intimate take on the wistful “Caveman” on this tribute as well.
Loudon Wainwright III gleefully performs “Place in Line,” one of the many Smither songs brimming with lyrics so fine they beg extensive quoting:
So often in the past you’ve said, ‘It’s here at last. Here’s my cornerstone.’
You settle in to stay, then someone tells you, ‘Hey, this is a loadin’ zone.’
Never time to do it, but you gotta think it through again and get away
And now tomorrow’s just your grand plan for yesterday.
Many first took notice of Chris Smither in the early ’70s when Bonnie Raitt started covering his songs, making “Love You Like a Man” a staple of her repertoire and famously calling Smither “my Eric Clapton.” For this tribute album Raitt contributes a passionate live version of that tune, which she introduces by calling Smither “one of my favorite artists.” “I Feel the Same,” another song previously covered by Raitt, is devastatingly sung by Mary Gauthier.
Jorma Kaukonen, a fellow acoustic bluesman, delivers the buoyant “Leave the Light On.” A few of the artists on the album heard on the grapevine about a forthcoming tribute album to Smither and immediately offered their services. One of these offers came from Paul Cebar, who came up with an outstanding, “jungle band” version of “No Love Today” à la Louis Prima.
It is surprising to see which of Chris’s satchel of songs the artists have chosen. There are wonderful renditions of “Rosalie” by Josh Ritter, “Can’t Shake These Blues” by Eilen Jewell, “Small Revelations” by Aoife O’Donovan, “Origin of Species” by Tim O’Brien, “Time to Spend” by Peter Mulvey, “Song for Susan” by Mark Erelli and Jeffrey Foucault, “Call Yourself” by Heather Maloney and “Train Home” by Patty Larkin. They all make for a remarkable link of chain to Chris and his songs.