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Chris Smither on his latest album 'All About the Bones'


Chris Smither learned to play music in New Orleans on his mother's ukulele. He loved the blues as a kid, but he started his career as a folk artist in Cambridge, Mass., in the music scene there. That was almost 60 years ago.


CHRIS SMITHER: (Singing) Some will make you ugly. Others make you smile. It don't matter, they all clatter, yeah, when they end up on the piles. All about the bones, all about the bones, all about the bones.

GONYEA: Now Smither is on the road touring to support his latest album. It's his 20th. It's called "All About The Bones." We're catching him in Madison, Wis., before his show there. Chris, welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

SMITHER: Thank you, Don. It's great to be here.

GONYEA: So you turn 80 years old this year, and that is a fact that you don't shy away from. In fact, the very first song on this album is the title song, "It's All About The Bones." It introduces us to the Grim Reaper. You take us right into the graveyard.


SMITHER: (Singing) Grim Reaper comes a calling, says it's time to go. You say, OK, I'm coming, yeah, you're moving mighty slow.

GONYEA: I'm listening to it, and I'm like, all right, here we go.

SMITHER: (Laughter) Well, it's one of those things that gets harder and harder to ignore the closer you get to it. When you start to realize that you're closer to the end of your life than you are to even the middle, all these things that at one time seem sort of theoretical become quite real.

GONYEA: I mentioned in the intro that you kicked off your career in Cambridge, Mass. How did you end up there? And talk a little bit about that scene in the mid-1960s.

SMITHER: I got there because Eric Von Schmidt told me I should go. I was still in New Orleans when I met him.

GONYEA: He's another of the kind of legendary folk singers of that era.

SMITHER: That's right. He was very helpful to me. He was very encouraging. And he said, oh, you should get up there. Well, I took that as the word of God, and I went. (Laughter) I got - I thought I would do it for a summer, you know, to see how it worked out, and now it's been almost 60 years.

GONYEA: Is Cambridge where you met Bonnie Raitt?

SMITHER: That's where it happened. Yeah. Bonnie was a Cliffie. She was at Radcliffe at the time. But more importantly, she was actually hanging out with Dick Waterman, who took care of a lot of the old blues guys when they were rediscovered - people like Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James, people like that. I spent a lot of time at his house because I wanted to meet those people. And they were just hanging out in the living room, playing guitars, and there was this redheaded gal hanging around, too. That was Bonnie.


BONNIE RAITT: (Singing) But I need someone to love me, someone to really understand.

GONYEA: She landed a record deal pretty early on and recorded one of your songs, "Love Me Like A Man."


RAITT: (Singing) Believe me when I tell you, you can love me like a man.

GONYEA: That is a very young Bonnie Raitt. I suspect you never get tired of hearing her sing that song.

SMITHER: No, I don't (laughter). I don't. It's one of the best things that ever happened to me, either personally or professionally. It was pretty wonderful. I remember when she recorded it, she called me up at 2 in the morning. And, you know, she has a way of talking that's unmistakable. It's very loud and very brash. And I was half asleep. She says, Chris. (Laughter) And I go, yeah? And she says, it's Bonnie. Hey, we're in the studio. I want to record your song. And I said, cool. I said, do you want me to rewrite it, like, from a woman's point of view? She says, I already did it (laughter). I've told people that I wrote it, and they said, oh, no, Bonnie wrote that song. No guy wrote that song.


RAITT: (Singing) Believe me when I tell you, you can love me like a man.

GONYEA: So here's what I guess we can call a fun fact. More recently, Kelly Clarkson also recorded "Love Me Like A Man." That had to make you feel good.

SMITHER: I knew that she liked the song. I haven't even heard her version of it yet.

GONYEA: No kidding. Can we play some of it?

SMITHER: Of course, you can.


KELLY CLARKSON: (Singing) I just want a man, baby. Won't have to worry to understand. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Who won't have to put himself above me, no, who can love me like a man.

GONYEA: So you've never heard this?

SMITHER: No. God, I can't believe it. When did that come out?

GONYEA: About a decade ago.

SMITHER: Well, that's amazing. I sort of knew that she had recorded it, but I'd never heard it. And I can't believe it's been 10 years. But what I really love is that with her and Bonnie and Diana Krall all recording that song, I find myself in the position of having written a blues standard. I think that's one of those (laughter) bucket list things that you can chalk up to a musician's life.

GONYEA: We focus so much on your playing and that acoustic folk-blues style. But I don't want to overlook your lyrics, and I find myself chuckling at lines as they roll past. And there's one where you sing...


SMITHER: (Singing) And if it wasn't for the devil, there wouldn't be a lot to do.

GONYEA: If it wasn't for the devil, there wouldn't be a lot to do.

SMITHER: That's, you know, a long time coming. I've started thinking about this basic problem between God and the devil since I was about 10, I think. It's just something I felt like putting into a song. Sometimes songs run away with me. I sit there, and I write this - start off with a little conversation between God and the devil, and it turns into a song.


SMITHER: (Singing) He thinks he doesn't know me 'cause he don't look at the back of his head. Yeah, but my face is in a pillow when he's lying on his back in bed.

GONYEA: It's like one of those old blues songs that it might have been written by your old heroes, Lightnin' Hopkins or Mississippi John Hurt. When you listen to those guys now, those old blues masters, now that you're a wise old blues guy yourself, do you hear them differently than you did when you were a kid?

SMITHER: Oh, they take me right back to where I was when I first heard him. There's a quality to it. It's not so much the technical proficiency, but it's the feeling. The genuineness of the feeling and the power behind it that still affects me. It still affects me the way it always did, even when I was a kid. It's real people talking about real things, and you just can't beat that sort of thing.


GONYEA: I want to close out this interview with the song "Time To Move On." It ends the album. It was written by Tom Petty. Is this the first Tom Petty song you've covered?

SMITHER: It is. It is. My producer's been after me for years to record a Tom Petty song, and he finally had his way. But I love this song. I just love it. And I love Tom Petty. I've always liked Tom Petty. He had hit after hit after hit. Most of them don't sound like they were supposed to be hits. That always gives me hope, you know, that something might happen yet.


SMITHER: (Singing) Broken skyline moving through the airport. She's an honest defector. Conscientious objector. Now her own protector.

GONYEA: Kind of brings us full circle, too. We can't listen to a Tom Petty song without somewhere thinking about mortality. He died too soon.


GONYEA: But I also don't want to create the wrong impression here. It's a joyful song that he's written...

SMITHER: Oh, it is.

GONYEA: ...Here for really uncertain times.

SMITHER: It is. It's time to move on and time to get going. And he's right. No time to give up. Let's go.


SMITHER: (Singing) Time to move on. Time to get going (time to get going). What lies ahead, I've got no way of knowing.

GONYEA: Chris Smither's new album "All About The Bones" is out now. Chris, thank you so much for talking to us.

SMITHER: It's a pleasure. Thank you.


SMITHER: (Singing) Let's get going. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.