SPRING LAKE — Thirty years ago, Chris Smither was traveling from gig to gig in worn-out clunkers with odometers topping a quarter-million miles. It was a hectic, nomadic life, where the greatest satisfaction came when he was finally able to unpack his guitar and play his songs for folks for a couple of hours.
The fact that Smither is flying from his Massachusetts home to perform Saturday at this weekend's Stringbreak Music Festival at the Sertoma Youth Ranch says a lot about how far the 67-year-old musician has come since then. Though Smither is still apt to spend about 200 days on the road every year, it doesn't come with quite the sacrifices that it once did.
"It's certainly a lot easier these days," Smither said by phone earlier this week. "Flying sure eliminates a lot of hassles. Maybe it says a lot about how much I prefer to stay home when I can."
Although Smither's modest fame hasn't come close to making him a household name, he is something of a dean in the world of six-string troubadours, with an ever-growing, enthusiastic following among non-mainstream music fans, who have high regard for his thoughtful songwriting and intricate, skillful guitar playing.
Smither, who grew up in music-rich New Orleans, took an early interest in the blues of Robert Johnson, Skip James and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Highly touted in an era during the late 1960s when folk and blues-based music was finding a mainstream audience, he seemed destined to create a stir in the business.
Smither's first two albums, for an independent label during the early 1970s, were widely praised, but failed to sell. However, two original songs, Love (Me) Like a Man and I Feel the Same, found their way into the notable repertoire of Bonnie Raitt.
By the 1980s, Smither had pretty much given up music and turned his attention to making a living as a carpenter. He also began drinking heavily.
"I spent about 10 years pretty much wasted," Smither recalled. "But then, as I slowly got it together, I remembered I was a musician."
Smither's 1992 comeback release, titled Happier Blue, signaled he was ready and willing to give it another try. Before he knew it, his phone was ringing off the hook from club owners and festival promoters wanting to book him.
Since then, Smither has recorded nine more offerings, including Hundred Dollar Valentine, set for release in June. In addition, he's been busy scoring the soundtrack for a film in development called Leroy Purcell, which is based on a short story that Smither wrote several years ago.
For Smither, the process of making new music is much easier these days.
"I guess I still write the songs and make the records so that I can go out and play," he said. "Except that now I actually look forward to it. I've learned how to do it, and I'm very eager to get stuff recorded once I've written it."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.