For much of his career, Chris Smither’s had a reputation as a musician’s musician, a polite euphemism for toiling in relative, if comfortable, obscurity. He’s best known for giving Bonnie Raitt “Love Me Like a Man.”
That may not change with his latest, and it’s a shame. “Leave the Light On” is packed with wry wit and rugged charm. It’s full of touching moments like “Father’s Day,” where he arrives at a beautiful understanding of tenuous, yet enduring family love, along with passages of buoyant optimism.
The record’s tone is set with the leadoff track, “Open Up,” which melds a bemused sensibility to a jaunty Texas swing beat. He sounds a bit like John Prine when he reports “I don’t think for pleasure/it’s just hard not to do/my thinking is a measure of how much I need a clue.”
“I’m still flying blind,” he continues, but if that’s true, he still sees quite clearly.
Smither faces his own dark history on a few songs. “Shillin’ for the Blues” revisits his alcoholism and the resentment it fueled, while “Seems So Real” plunges him deeper into the abyss, as he sings, “if down were up you couldn’t get much higher.”
He also covers Lightnin’ Hopkins “Blues in a Bottle,” but with 21 years of sobriety, most of the record is a hopeful look forward rather than a ruminating backward glance. In the title cut Smither wishes he’d noticed “the taste of endless time,” but makes it clear he’s more concerned about what’s left to be gained when he sings “I’ve got plenty left I’ve set my sight on/don’t wait up, leave the light on.”
David “Goody” Goodrich’s stellar production and backup playing propel the disc. Enlisting help from Americana darlings Ollabelle, along with string wizards Tim O’Brien and Sean Staples, he gives “Leave the Light On” plenty of texture, but doesn’t bury Smither’s earthy essence beneath it.
Anita Suhanin, who’s done session work with Goodrich before, shines on “Cold Trail Blues,” her wind-tossed soprano the perfect counterpoint to Peter Case’s sad song of romantic loss. She also enlivens the title track.
On other highlights, Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” is transformed into a waltz to surprisingly good effect. “Origin of Species” is a hilarious send-up of the intelligent design movement, and “Diplomacy” is perhaps the most good-natured protest song anyone’s written in years. With his latest, Chris Smither proves that age and experience are reliable incubators of artistry.
More info: Chris Smither performs Thursday, September 21 at the Somerville Theatre and Saturday September 23 at the Iron Horse Music Hall