Here’s a little slice of honky-tonk heaven for your listening pleasure.
It’s our exclusive premiere of Loudon Wainright III performing Chris Smither’s “Place in Line.”
Wainright’s laid-back execution of this Dylan-tinged tune is extremely endearing. Cool piano and some great lyrics bring it on home.
The track is part of the recently released album, Link of Chain: A Songwriters Tribute to Chris Smither.
Released in celebration of blues icon Chris Smither’s 70th birthday by Signature Sounds on September 30, 2014, the album features friends and peers like Loudon Wainwright III, Bonnie Raitt, and Dave Alvin performing gems plucked from Smither’s deep catalog.
Smithers shares, “So, Loudon comes to New Orleans, wants to do ‘Place in Line.’ I said ‘You got a guitar?' He says ‘Nope.’ I said, ‘You know how you want it arranged?’ He says ‘Nope.’ I said ‘Well we'll come up with something,’ and we did, and you know what? It sounds exactly as if Loudon had written it, arranged it, had the whole thing planned...I was thrilled to be so manipulated. Totally effortless.”
Listen to it here:
Music fans know that Chris Smither has written a countless number of masterful songs during his 50-year career, but hearing this eclectic set of interpretations is a startling reminder of the depth of Smither’s catalog.
Signature Sounds owner Jim Olsen, who got the idea at a 60th birthday tribute to Smither at Boston’s fabled Club Passim, produced the compilation. “People were covering Chris’s songs and everyone’s interpretations were very different. You can’t really cover him straight because so few people can play like him and do that thing. It made you hear the songs in such a new way. I thought, ‘This guy needs a tribute album.’”
“That thing” Olsen refers to is Smither’s powerful combination of rippling, finger-picked blues and philosophical poetry. “Musically, he’s Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt and lyrically he’s Leonard Cohen,” says Olsen.
The album begins with Dave Alvin giving “Link of Chain” a spacious, big-sky feel that contrasts with Smither’s more driving original version. You can hear Alvin’s love for the song shining through his sandy voice. Alvin and Smither forged a strong connection when sharing a label (Hightone Records) and touring as the Monsters of Folk with Tom Russell and Ramblin' Jack Elliot in 1998. More recently they swapped songs with Peter Case on a Roots on the Rail Los Angeles-to-Seattle musical train trip. You’ll find Case’s intimate take on the wistful “Caveman” on this tribute as well.
Loudon Wainwright III gleefully performs “Place in Line,” and also appears on Smither’s recently released career retrospective double album Still on the Levee, which marks 50 years of songwriting and performing.
On the set Smither reconnects with his New Orleans roots, recording at the Music Shed, where guests like Allen Toussaint stopped by. The critics are impressed: Noted The Boston Globe, “Chris Smither is at an age where his legacy looms larger than ever . . . “Still on the Levee frames [him] as what he always has been: a timeless singer and songwriter.” And The Bluegrass Situation raved, “Stunning music. Great performances. Awesome songwriting. Great packaging. That should adequately describe the brilliance of this record.”
Many first took notice of Chris Smither in the early ’70s when Bonnie Raitt started covering his songs, making “Love You Like a Man” a staple of her repertoire and famously calling Smither “my Eric Clapton.” For this tribute album Raitt contributes a passionate live version of that tune, which she introduces by calling Smither “one of my favorite artists.” “I Feel the Same,” another song previously covered by Raitt, is devastatingly sung by Mary Gauthier.
Jorma Kaukonen, a fellow acoustic bluesman, delivers the buoyant “Leave the Light On.” A few of the artists on the album heard on the grapevine about a forthcoming tribute album to Smither and immediately offered their services. One of these offers came from Paul Cebar, who came up with an outstanding, “jungle band” version of “No Love Today” à la Louis Prima.
It is surprising to see which of Chris Smither’s satchel of songs the artists have chosen. There are wonderful renditions of “Rosalie” by Josh Ritter, “Can’t Shake These Blues” by Eilen Jewell, “Small Revelations” by Aoife O’Donovan, “Origin of Species” by Tim O’Brien, “Time to Spend” by Peter Mulvey, “Song for Susan” by Mark Erelli and Jeffrey Foucault, “Call Yourself” by Heather Maloney and “Train Home” by Patty Larkin. They all make for a remarkable link of chain to Mr. Smither and his songs.
1. Dave Alvin “Link of Chain”
2. Loudon Wainwright III “A Place in Line”
3. Mary Gauthier “I Feel the Same”
4. Josh Ritter “Rosalie”
5. Paul Cebar “No Love Today”
6. Eilen Jewell “Can’t Shake These Blues”
7. Jorma Kaukonen “Leave the Light On”
8. Aoife O’Donovan with Stephanie Coleman “Small Revelations”
9. Tim O’Brien “Origin of Species”
10. Bonnie Raitt “Love Me Like a Man” (live)
11. Peter Mulvey “Time To Spend”
12. Mark Erelli & Jeffrey Foucault “Song for Susan”
13. Heather Maloney “Call Yourself”
14. Peter Case “Caveman”
15. Patty Larkin “Train Home”