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Blues philosopher Chris Smither winks at mortality on 'All About the Bones'

Chris Smither (Courtesy Jo Chattman)
Chris Smither (Courtesy Jo Chattman)

Chris Smither is not afraid to have some fun with death.

“I think about it, and everyone I know that’s anything like as old as I am does too,” says the singer-songwriter about his typically wry references to the Grim Reaper in the title track of his new album “All About the Bones,” which came out May 3. “It's one of these things that starts as theoretical and then becomes ever more real. It’s just dealing with what is, that this is going to end sometime.”

That Smither can approach his own mortality in a funny and philosophical way is no surprise. For decades, he’s been the master of using his fingerpicked blues guitar sound as the backdrop for probing, existential lyrics. One would imagine that the COVID-19 lockdown would have given the hard-touring troubadour both lots of material and the time to write it, but he admits that his first album of new material since 2018 only materialized after he’d booked a studio.

“During the pandemic, I thought to myself that there's a silver lining: if I have to stay inside for a year or more, I can write a couple of albums’ worth of songs. I didn't write one,” says Smither from Amherst, where he moved about 15 years ago after living for decades in Arlington. “It turns out that I’ve got to go out there, looking at things and talking to people.”

Another track that showcases Smither’s unique ability to make a moving blues tune out of deep philosophy is “In the Bardo,” which references a Buddhist term for the period in between death and rebirth. “It’s a nebulous place where things get swapped around and the old turns into the new,” says Smither, who says the concept stayed with him after he read George Saunders' experimental novel "Lincoln in the Bardo."

The album also finds Smither revisiting his Louisiana roots on the smoky “Down in Thibodaux.” Although Smither grew up in New Orleans, he says he wanted to write “a song about Bayou country — those people and those towns. My next-door neighbor [growing up] was named Boudreaux, and he was from Thibodaux. He was a Western Union telegraph operator, and I never learned his first name. Even his wife called him Boudreaux.”

But Smither isn’t trapped by nostalgia. “Close The Deal” bemoans a society where “you can order the truth to go” and suggests that after “200 years in the making, we could throw it all away.” It reflects a relatively recent move by Smither into social commentary. “You know, for years I didn't really write like that at all,” he says. “I thought anybody who’s paying attention to my songs probably doesn’t have much doubt about what my political leanings are. I didn't. Because I thought to myself, ‘well, anybody who's paying attention to my songs probably doesn't have much doubt about what my political leanings are.’

“But then when things started to get really alarming, I thought, ‘well, you know, maybe I should be a little bit more specific,’ so I’ll have maybe one song like that on every record.”

In the studio, Smith turned to his longtime producer David “Goody” Goodrich. In concert, Smither is a subtle one-man band whose percussion comes from the miked sound of his tapping feet. That makes adding in other musicians without diluting Smither’s sonic trademark a challenge.

“There are not a lot of people who can play with Chris because he has so much going on. With Chris you’ve got the rhythm, the melody, the chords and guitar melodies, so that’s a lot of bases covered already,” says Goodrich. “So you think about what can complement, contrast and contradict what’s going on.”

Smither’s last recording featured Boston drummer Billy Conway, who died in 2021. For “All About the Bones,” Goodrich enlisted Western Massachusetts multi-instrumentalist Zak Trojano to play percussion. Goodrich says Trojano understood that Smither’s time is an amalgamation of his feet, guitar and voice.

The background vocals were provided by Austin, Texas singer-songwriter BettySoo, who has toured as Smither’s opening act. “She has these incredibly intimate vocal harmonies,” Smither says. “You almost don’t hear them sometimes, and yet they add a whole new dimension to the music.”

New to the Smither sound was Chris Cheek, a prominent jazz saxophonist who lives in Western Massachusetts. “When he picked up his horn and played, he just soared,” says Smither.

When it comes to recording covers, “Chris is very particular about what resonates with him,” says Goodrich. After years of pitching Tom Petty songs, Goodrich finally got Smither to do one: “Time To Move On.” In the past, Smither has done covers of key influences like Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry. “There was a concerted effort to record a song written by a woman,” says Goodrich. Smither’s wife and manager Carol Young suggested something from the pen of Texas songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, and Smither went with her “Calm Before the Storm.” “It’s amazing — that could have been a Chris Smither tune,” says Goodrich.

Smither will be playing with Peter Mulvey at the Narrows Center in Fall River on Friday, May 17, and City Winery in Boston on Saturday, May 18. A full-band 80th birthday tour is on tap for the fall.

“I write the songs and I make the records so that I can go and perform them,” says Smither. “And when you get some new material, even the old songs come back to life and gain a new perspective.”

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Noah Schaffer is a contributor to WBUR's arts and culture coverage.

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