TBT – Byther Smith Moves People And Tells His Story With “Mississippi Kid”
This week’s Throwback Thursday looks at a classic from the estimable Byther Smith.
Byther Smith has been called an “American Original.” For years he fought in the ring, and he has been fighting outside the ring ever since. He’s fought adversity, racism, and poverty. He’s fought to play the authentic, meaningful blues he has lived and loved, and he has fought to get his due as the true master player he’s been for almost six decades now.
Born in Monticello, Mississippi, Smith had it rough from the word “Go!” His mother died when he was one, his father when he was two, and his sister died in a house not very long after that. By the time he was 15, he was grown far beyond his years, and left Monticello. His travels would take him through Dallas, Houston, and other Gulf destinations. Eventually he would find himself in New Orleans, and then Arizona. Here he would pursue boxing, and playing the bass, while he worked driving a truck. By the time he turned twenty one, his cousin J.B. Lenoir had provided the final piece he needed to complete his blues toolbox. He told Smith “Play you. Just play you.”
In time Smith found himself in Chicago, playing guitar as a sideman with the likes of Robert Lockwood, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Otis Rush. Playing with that kind of talent, his skill couldn’t help but grow. His reputation as a capable, steady, and responsible sideman grew, and eventually Junior Wells hired him to play with him at Theresa’s. As time went by, Smith put six daughters through college, and went on the road with some of the finest artists around including John Lee Hooker, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
By the time he recorded Mississippi Kid, his Delmark Records debut, Smith was more than ready, and capable of telling his own life’s story as only he could. Bob Koester produced, and as usual, let the music happen without a whole lot of intervention. The sound and mix are excellent; it’s as though we are right there in the room with Smith and the band, who are tip-top, tight, and living on the beat.
As the album unfolds, Smith tells his story, and he doesn’t pull any punches. The lyrics are every inch as vivid and honest as the music. From the opening bell of “Judge Of Honor,” with it’s glorious groove, all the way until the relaxed, slow thumping album closer, “Mississippi Kid,” every song is a chapter in the amazing Byther Smith saga, told with brutal honesty, and bluesy fortitude. “Don’t Hurt Me No More” is a Byther Smith trademark classic, as is “Give Me My White Robe,” with its silky smooth playing, and B.B. King flavor. “President’s Daughter” features guitar that has a lyrical, vocal quality, while “Runnin’ To New Orleans” is yet another story, delivered up with a passionate groove.
Smith deftly moves us through his music ever smoothly, with a confident, knowing hand. “That’s what that rhythm has got to be. Like that jab. Bip-Bip-Bip. You got to move a man across the ring. That’s what my blues is all about. Movin’ them peoples.” Although he might favor B.B. King here, or Freddie King there, Smith is always original, never a cheap imitation of anyone else. This album has stood the test of time, and is still regarded as the classic it is because it comes from the heart. The level of musicianship here is the holy grail that most artists today constantly strive for, and the mastery of Byther Smith is that he makes it seem so effortless.