Smither serves up sublime storytelling at Steve’s today |

Smither serves up sublime storytelling at Steve’s today

There is a long tradition in civilization of storytellers, rapturous word spinners who gathered people around fires on cold winter nights to tell them stories about themselves.

In the past 50 years in America, the role of oral storyteller has been assumed primarily by singer-songwriters. These are the artists who have taken it upon themselves to address humanity directly and reveal its hidden secrets, a trend given its clearest articulation by Bob Dylan’s famous imperative, “Come gather round people, wherever you roam/and admit that the waters around you have grown.”

Chris Smither is heir to this tradition. Smither plays tonight at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale, an ideal place to gather on a cold November night and hear such a storyteller.

Smither is on tour to promote his new album, “Train Home.” It is the 11th album for the artist, who has been on the American music scene for more than 30 years. His latest offering is an intimate, personal record, one man’s struggle to discover what it might mean to be human.

Smither recorded most of the album in his home near Boston, and one feels throughout it a level of comfort and ease in composition. It is a record of a songwriter whose voice has reached maturity, who is now at home in his artistry. As the title of the album suggests, Smither, perhaps for the first time, finally feels himself to be on the right track.

“This is a sound that’s been coming along for a long time,” he said about the album. “Finally I’m getting to the point where my vocals are something I can be comfortable with. It’s the sound I’ve been trying to project since I was 23.”

Perhaps the strongest song on the album is a Dylan cover, “Desolation Row.” Although Smither clearly takes inspiration from Dylan’s version, he and producer David Goodrich have made the song entirely their own. It’s a disturbing track even in the original, probing the depths of corruption, estrangement and despair.

In the new version, Smither’s acoustic guitar, tapping foot, and dark, plaintive voice carry the melody while, in the background, as if just out of sight, Mike Piehl’s ironic, martial drum marches the song irrevocably to its despondent end.

If a complaint could be made about Dylan’s original version, it would be that the track is all anger and despair, with no hope of redemption in sight.

Smither avoids this pitfall through the back-up vocals of Bonnie Raitt. Her line provides a masterful counterpoint to Smither, singing above his dark baritone, and her soft, reassuring voice acts as an angelic accompanist for Smither’s journey into the spiritual Hades of desolation row.

While Dylan’s version is clearly the song of a young man, angry and excitable, Smither’s version is more somber and more accepting. It is the more mature version of the two and in many ways more penetrating.

It is almost unfortunate that Smither included “Desolation Row” on the album, for it is such a powerful track that it runs the risk of overshadowing Smither’s own songs, which are themselves well crafted and insightful.

The theme of maturity continues in Smither’s own songwriting, from an existential acceptance of one’s present lot in the title track (“I don’t think I see much for me in visions of the past or ever-after/Now is what can be, all the rest is wait and see”) to the mundane acceptance of aging in “Confirmation” (“I never was good lookin’/But now I’m too old to let that get me down”).

Perhaps the most penetrating of his songs is “Outside In,” a four-minute treatise on the unknowability of the self, especially in times of crisis. It is folksy, at times lighthearted, but the implications are large and deceptively insightful:

“It takes a sense of balance on this tiny little ball, with a tiny mind still big enough to think about it all …/There’s a riddle in the middle of that universal spin, but we’re out here on the edges where it gets a little thin. So just for once permit yourself a carefree little grin from the outside lookin’ in.”

“Train Home” is the type of record that demands a close listening. Conveniently, Chris Smither is the type of artist whose voice you want to listen to. It is warm, insightful and, at last, mature.

[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is]

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