Byther Smith

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BYTHER Smith is a fighter, a scrapper, a hard worker and a survivor. He's been a laborer, a trucker, a machinist for 25 years and of course a blues musician. As a child in Mississippi he lost both of his parents, his mother in bearing her ninth child, his father six months after that. One of his sisters lost her life in a fire at home. Shipped off to Arizona as a young man, he took up boxing in part to deal with the pain.

"That was one thing that my heart desired," remembers Byther, "I felt like I was born to be a champion."

The fighter enters the ring, dragged there by his rage. It uncoils from his hunkering crouch and it bleeds from his eyes. He loads it up in his glove and tries again and again to pile-drive it into the other guy's head with all his accumulated might. The fighter fights his fight and win or lose he takes his rage with him. Back to the training room to get his measly purse or a pasting from the manager. Back to the tenement or shack where he's getting by until the big break that never comes. Back to work the next morning, and every morning, hurting and seething inside.

Byther Smith, the former boxer, is a musician who now fights his fight from stage and studio, sweating out his rage as he dances in his corner, sparring with the audience, battling with the world. He takes his anger and missed opportunities and dreams denied and muscles it into his instrument, knocking off hunks of raw emotions in dissonant chords and in jabbed, stabbed and lacerated notes. He spits it into his lyrics, and shouts it in strangled, unashamed cries and fiery exhortations.

"I loved boxing," says Byther. "I had 69 amateur fights and I only lost one."

His aunt, who had bought him a new Fender bass as an enticement to quit boxing, saw him "get whooped" by the white kid from California who knocked him down seven times in the first round. His aunt didn't know he'd been out partying the night before. She hired a lawyer and got a release from his contract. Annoyed by his aunt's intercession though, Byther moved back to Mississippi, and then on to Chicago. But he took that bass with him.

Byther Smith quit boxing on that day more than forty years ago, but he's fought on with his blues.

His songs reflect the rough-and-tumble life he's led; the personal losses and the harsh realities of growing up in Mississippi and struggling economically up North. His song-writing brings out the fighter in him. He writes and performs like a boxer: methodical, repetitive, hitting again and again. Many of his songs seem to go unresolved--like a no-decision ring match-up. Unresolved like an unrequited love, or like his desire to murder the man who's sleeping with his girl. Unresolved like his fits and starts musical career, or like his love for his tragically lost parents.

Like real life, sometimes songs just don't get neatly wrapped up.

That tension creates power in his compositions. As in a well-paced fight between two evenly matched contenders his performances create a near-tangible atmosphere, a palpable edge-of-the-seat uneasiness of mixed thrill and fear.

"I'm Your New Lover", with its eerie off-kilter, flatted bass line, and B.B. King-like vocals and guitar bursts is perhaps best representative of this. "I'm your new lover," he sings, but "if you need any money, give B.B. King a ring...if you need shoes, call on Buddy Guy." In other words, `I'm a bluesman who can give you love, not material things.' His ambivalence about fame carries over into "Live On This Man's Name", in which he states that Byther Smith may be famous but he's just carrying the name, and on "Thinking Real Hard" he acknowledges that this is a tough business and if he doesn't write good songs he won't be around long. Right on the heels of that he takes the listener to the very edge on the epic "Hey Mr. DJ", as he, "the devil's son," pleads with the media to play his song or else "burn in my daddy's fire."

Byther's one-two punch of gut-wrenching vocals and sharply focused, stinging guitar leads are ably showcased on "Daddy's Gone, Someone Loves You" and the opening track "Cried Like a Baby Child".

Illusion versus reality is a recurring theme in Byther's compositions. On the achingly executed "Something's Wrong With This Picture" he realizes that unlike the protagonist in a movie, he's not going to get the girl he loves, even though she also loves him.

The surprising country-western track "Is He White or is He Black" and the cajun-tinged "Mother You Say You Don't Like the Black Colors" take us back to Byther's early days in Arizona when he played upright bass in a country band for rodeos. Both are slyly contentious reminders that over the radio or on disk a musician's skin color is immaterial and sometimes impossible to ascertain--just ask Charley Pride.

Byther rejects the notion that he's been influenced by the song-writing style of his cousin J.B. Lenoir, who tackled such controversial subjects as taxes, race relations, Civil Rights, the Korean War and Vietnam War before his early death in the 1960s.

"There's no one in the world that influences me," says Byther. "I don't look to no man or woman for influences...God gives us talent."

"Deep down in my heart I only do what I feel....I feel God has given me the spirit...No man can give this to you...You can go to school for music: man can teach you chords...but man can't teach you soul and he can't give you feelings and inspiration."

As always, Byther is set to go at the bell and he jumps up for the next round, teeth firmly set, determined eyes locked on his target, arms, fists and hands at the ready.

He looks like a champion.

--Justin O'Brien