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Mutual admiration

Twenty years separate Catie Curtis and Chris Smither. Nothing separates their love for folk music.

By Scott Alarik
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2009

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Chris Smither knows exactly what Catie Curtis is going through these days. When Curtis was a young turk in the 1990s songwriter revival, the bluesy Smither was reinventing his career, after the collapse of a major-label deal in the ’70s had driven him out of the business. He was coming up with a new wave of Boston songwriters like Curtis, Ellis Paul, Jonatha Brooke, and Martin Sexton. But Smither was older, among the ’60s revival’s last stars, a guy Bonnie Raitt called “my Eric Clapton.’’

“I just thought he was unbelievably cool,’’ Curtis said, remembering her youthful impressions. “He seemed like a guy with nothing to prove, very comfortable with himself. When you’re just starting out, that’s a place you really want to strive for.’’

Smither, 65, said he feels some of that same awe for Curtis, having watched her survive in the business this long. And he understands how she might have gotten her starry-eyed first impression.

“Hanging out with that new crop of songwriters was exciting, exhilarating,’’ Smither said. “An amazing percentage of them were doing very well, had things to say, and a developed style. At the same time, I had a confidence that I never had in my first incarnation, because they really weren’t doing anything that I hadn’t known how to do for 20 years.’’ Smither and Curtis have back-to-back CD-release concerts tonight and tomorrow at the Regent Theatre in Arlington.

Now it’s Curtis, 44, who seems like the confident veteran in a Boston folk scene brimming with eager up-and-comers. Most of her ’90s contemporaries have left Boston over the years, but she still loves the local scene and often shows up to jam with, or just support, budding locals years younger than she is. One thing she and Smither agree on: In folk music, older is nicer.

“When a rock band has a big hit, it’s like they’re time-stamped from that period,’’ Curtis said. “With folk music, we’re telling stories, and as our lives evolve, the stories evolve. People in my audiences are going through those same changes, so they like to see them reflected in my new songs.’’

That smart maturity shimmers on her new album, “Hello, Stranger,’’ a warm, lovely retrospective of audience favorites and timeless classics, done in a hootenanny-friendly country-folk style. In a songwriter world that too often sees only life’s darker shades, she is wonderfully able to write of life’s bright moments, without seeming smiley-faced or trite.

“I don’t think you have to torture people with emotional pain to keep them interested,’’ Curtis said. “I think that’s a mistake a lot of people make, thinking that it’s like a reality show, and the only thing that’s interesting is being grief-stricken and ‘angsty.’ I think I’ve become less self-conscious over the years, a little less obsessively intense. As you move into a place in our life where it’s no longer about seeking the perfect relationship, all kinds of things open up, in terms of writing about family and politics and philosophical issues. I certainly spend a lot more time thinking about those things than I did in my 20s.’’

Smither has a terrific new album, too, “Time Stands Still,’’ that wears his age proudly and potently in every searing note and sharply carved lyric. He trades on the big truths, the immutable, imponderable questions that only the bravest poets ask, caring less about answers than about what we can learn by asking.

“I think my songwriting has gotten simpler over the years, easier to understand,’’ he said. “I’ve learned to rely more on directness of expression, as opposed to circumlocution. I used to be more impressionistic, almost a pointillist approach, putting a dot here and a dot there, and the whole thing was supposed to suggest a big idea. Now I just come out and say, this is the big idea. But I make it rhyme.’’

Asked if he had any advice for his friend Curtis, as she forays into elder-hood, Smither said: “The whole thing about commercial pop is to emphasize what’s new and different. There’s really no effort to do that in folk music. So these generational shifts in folk are more of the tectonic-plate variety. I guess I’d just say, be sure you’re still having fun, because then it’s basically guaranteed that you’ll keep doing the right thing.’’

CHRIS SMITHER Performs tonight, at 8, Regent Theatre, Arlington, with Caroline Herring, $27.

CATIE CURTIS Performs tomorrow night, at 8, Regent Theatre, with Lindsay Mac, Rose Polenzani, and others, $29. 781-646-4849, www.regenttheatre.com.

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