Christopher Smith is both craftsman and artist. Too often these days we get caught up in such definitions and usually there is a difference, but like the sculptor who creates incredible beauty out of blocks of wood and stone, so does Smith with his music. And with Smith, there are stories beneath it all. Interesting and amusing stories of life and people, not unlike the folksingers of the recent past and present—John Prine, Steve Goodman, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Russell.
His subjects range from a birth on a train (California Zephyr), an upbeat folk/swing number which allows his stable of sidemen full rein (and they take full advantage), to a murder ballad (Home To Jesse), to an irreverent look at Catholic girls which should have you laughing (Sacred Heart, and didn't we all dream…) and all points between, mostly with sense of humor matched by his quick turn of phrase. While some musicians write lyrics, Smith writes musical short stories, and writes them well.
There is a touch of ragtime in some of the songs, some country, some swing, a whole lot of folk—the title track, Gravedigger's Boy, for example, nods very slightly in sound and feel to an old English waltz. It is acoustic and proud of it, but don't let that throw you. It is good stuff and played with the touch of the masters (in other words, these guys can play! Every damn one of them!). Huge pats on the back, though, to Chojo Jacques, whose fiddle raises the musical bar, and Arthur Lee Land, who plays lead guitar with incredibly deft touch.
The man here, though, is Christopher Smith. The upbeat Take Me Back Delilah and somber Home To Jesse (oddly enough, also upbeat, if somber and upbeat can be used to describe the same thing) gives Smith his own chance to shine. A little guitar, a little bass, a lot of banjo—all Smith and all very impressive, indeed.
And the comparisons continue going through my head—Jim Ringer, Jim Post, Townes Van Zandt… Good company, indeed.
Christopher Smith: Press
San Francisco songwriter and kindergarten teacher Christopher Smith is an entertainer in the mold of a Steve Goodman or a Livingston Taylor. You can hear the wink and the smile in his warm tenor voice, and you can sense his deep love for Tin Pan Alley and the American Songbook in his upbeat, light-hearted songs. Although this is an album of all-ages material, it's no surprise that he has two albums of children's music as well.
Christopher understands three often-forgotten principles of songwriting. First, he doesn't try to do too much with a song: He takes a single interesting observation and lets it fill out the entire piece. For example the title song "Gravedigger's Boy," portrays a gravedigger's son, dirt under his fingernails, standing like a wallflower at a dance. That's it: nothing else happens. He isn't redeemed by some forward lass coaxing him onto the dance floor. It's all about the observation (and the music, a lively waltz that contrasts perfectly with the gravedigger's son's flatfootedness). Second, he makes certain that his songs are timeless and universal: That gravedigger's son could have been at that dance 1897 or 2007. Similarly "Simple Pleasures" could be an ode to the pleasures of home, written a hundred years ago and "California Zephyr", based on the true story of a woman who gave birth on a westbound train, uses a ragtime beat and barrelhouse piano to create the sound that was popular in the heyday of railroads. Finally he writes songs to entertain. "Michigan Roll," in which a woman is deceived by a man who flashes a "Michigan Roll" - a $20 on the outside and "scratch paper on the inside" - ends with the refrain "the next morning she cried. She felt empty inside ... just like that Michigan Roll." "Makin' My Own" has a moonshiner promise, "If you die drinkin' my shellac, I'll give you all your money back."
Performing songwriters all too often neglect the fact that performers are entertainers. Christopher Smith plainly is not in that category. This is, above all, an entertaining album, and one that will make you eager to see these songs performed live.
With their simple fiddle/acoustic guitar backing, some of the 12 original songs on Gravedigger's Boy may make older listeners think of Hamilton Camp's engaging early-'60s folk ("He Takes the Train" even name-checks the folk broadside Sing Out).
Smith sings in a clear, easygoing tenor. His uptempo songs, with a full band, are funny, ironic and laced with a sly wit. He explains the song "Home to Jesse" this way: "I always wanted to write a murder ballad. Took me a while to figure out who I wanted to murder." In the best folk tradition there's a nod to the bottle ("Makin' My Own") and a wink for all the pretty girls ("Pumpkintown"). Scam artists get their due in a tune called the "Michigan Roll."
When he gets serious, Smith's more subtle ballads are sweetly sung, bordering more on longing than sentiment. The title tune won Best New Song at the Mountain Stage Festival, and for good reason: "Gravedigger's Boy" is a knockout. Smith takes a step away from a simple folk song into real heartbreak territory without being saccharine: "As the partners take hands and glide 'cross the floor / He's got no one to dance with, he don't ask anymore." It's a hard trick, and Smith pulls it off well.
The album is nicely packaged and comes complete with a booklet and notes on the songs, which are as fun to read as the lyrics. This is Smith's fourth album, including two albums for "the six and under set" (making Smith possibly the coolest dad and kindergarten teacher in the San Francisco area.
I truly enjoyed Gravedigger's Boy - every song on the CD is stellar!
Gravedigger's Boy is one of the most original collections of songs that you'll ever find on any album."
"Simply one of the best albums of the year. I don't think there's a bad cut on the album. Do you have any idea how seldom it is I can say that about an album - any album?"
The song "Gravedigger's Boy" is a classic!
“Subterfuge or concealment isn't necessarily a storytelling prerequisite, but writing and delivering so that the reader or listener doesn't cross the finish line first is a must. Christopher Smith has such tale-telling talent.”