An account of Byther Smith’s early days almost reads like a parody of the archetypal hard-luck-bluesman story. He was born in Mississippi in 1932. His mother died in childbirth when he was a toddler, his father died six months later, and one of his sisters was killed in a fire not long after that (all of which Smith recounts in “Live On and Sing the Blues” on his 1988 Razor LP, Housefire). He moved to Chicago in 1957, where he’s been performing and recording since the 60s. Smith’s voice modulates from a lupine growl to a flat-out roar, and his lyrics are equally intense. Housefire featured no less than two suicide threats (“Wait and See” and “Here I Am”), one declaration of homicidal intent (“Martha Dear”), and several excursions into icy paranoia (e.g., “The Man Wants Me Dead”). His latest album, All Night Long (Delmark), is almost jovial by comparison: there’s only one death threat (“Walked All Night Long”), and a few offerings, such as “Mother You Say You Don’t Like the Black Colors” and “Is He White or Is He Black?,” sound practically playful. But he’s still a long way from feel-good music: on “Please Mr. Dee Jay,” Smith warns that he’s “the devil’s son…/ You don’t play these blues, I will burn you in my daddy’s fire,” and on “Cried Like a Baby Child” a cuckold wails, “I gave you water when you when you were thirsty / I gave you food when you were hungry.” Smith’s leads, which alternate between long, passionate lines and stuttering barrages, often add to the bleakness. But his guitar work can lighten the mood as well–on “Look Over Your Shoulder” (a promise of fidelity, not a stalker’s threat) his slithering solo provides a joyful contrast to the minor chords of the song. Tuesday, May 6, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy’s Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.