For fans of singer-songwriter Todd Snider, anytime he churns out a new album is a cause for extreme jubilation. Since his 1994 debut album Songs for the Daily Planet, and before, Snider has been slowly and methodically collecting a devoted fanbase that hangs on his every word, both live and on record. His intimate, storytelling-heavy performances leap between slam poetry, standup comedy and refreshingly raw renditions of his deep well of many hundreds of original tunes that conjure the spirit of Woody Guthrie and pay homage to his famous mentors like John Prine, Jimmy Buffett and Jerry Jeff Walker.
In 2004 Snider made a huge breakthrough with East Nashville Skyline, which celebrated, among many things, the numerous colorful and strange characters that inhabit the album’s namesake city; or rather, the specific, semi-seedy area of the city. But, it also showed Snider as a songwriter fully in control of his voice. Talking blues songs like “The Ballad of the Kingsmen” displayed a sharply honed wit and a method of subversive observation, while “Play a Train Song” paid respects to a fast-living local who “made ‘em leave his boots on on the day they laid him down.” But the album’s eighth track, “Conservative Christian Right-Wing Republican Straight White American Males” made Snider infamous, especially during the heightened tensions of the early days of George W. Bush’s second term.
Snider has repeatedly carved out his niche in American music, routinely singing about the downtrodden, getting arrested, getting drunk, and smoking dope, all the while freely spouting opinions about politics and culture along the way. Since East Nashville, his output has been prolific with 2011’s critically praised double live set The Storyteller and studio albums The Devil You Know, Peace Queer and The Excitement Plan. The latter included a recounting (“America’s Favorite Pastime”) of the true story of former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis who threw a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD in 1970.
Snider’s newest offering, due out on March 6, is titled Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables. His newest batch of 10 songs contains Snider’s endearing loose studio production, characteristic underworld humor and brilliant wordplay, but also capture a darker vibe. Songs like the album’s two opening tracks, “In the Beginning” and “New York Banker,” which, respectively, criticizes religious dogmatism in Snider’s plain language and populist tone, and unmitigated greed that often ends up with the average person being thrown under the bus. Overtones of the Occupy movement pop up all over Agnostic Hymns & and Stoner Fables. There are lighter moments too, including the bittersweet love song about opposites, “Brenda,” as well as a great cover of Jimmy Buffett’s “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown.”
The following is a small excerpt of a recent phone conversation I had with the songwriter.
Don’t miss Todd Snider at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen, Fri, Feb. 3. There will be an opening set by Flagstaff songwriters Aly Jay and Chuck Cheesman, who will trade tunes and instrumentally back each other up. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22 in advance and $26 at the door. For more info, call 556-1580 or see www.toddsnider.net, www.alyjay.com or www.chuckcheesman.net.
Todd Snider: I hope so. I always thought it was pretentious and I was always turned off by it. Just the other day my wife and I saw Stills and Nash on “Ellen DeGeneres” singing this song that was—I was embarrassed for them. I know there’s people that listen to my music and they’re embarrassed for me and that’s fine. But I feel like the two people that people always use on this too are Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. They think that those two people thought that they were going to change the world with music, and I don’t think either of them thought that. I think both of them thought they were going to get over, maybe get themselves some cigarettes or a beer … My style is I like to go to the bar and sit there by myself and just wait until I hear a conversation or people start saying things. So I’m not really even saying my opinion. I’m sort of just a barfly that just regurgitates stuff that I hear. And the reason I do it is to be clapped for. And I like that. I feel like sometimes that folk singers are embarrassed to admit that they enjoy being clapped for and so they want to try to make it sound like it’s more. It’s like, “Not only are you enjoying the sounds of my songs but we’re going to change the world.” And that’s a load of s*** if you ask me. Like, if music was going to change the world it would’ve by now … Any time I hear people telling me from the stage what to do, I just want to say, “It’s OK, we’re going to cheer for you.” It doesn’t have to be a bigger reason than knowing a few chords and rhyming some of your thoughts. That’s all you did. You rhymed a few thoughts, you played some chords, we’re going to clap—for less than a minute! We’re going to clap and that’s it. That’s the trade, that’s the deal. A friend of mine did an interview, and I read it just this morning, where he said, “We’re kind of like prophets.” And I called him, I said “Boy, oh, boy. Are you sure? Are you sure?” I think we’re kind of like beggars.
Yeah, I was playing in Boulder in 2000 and afterwards … [To his wife in the background] You were there that night we met Jeff, babe. We were at the bar and he just came up to me, and he had been at the show. And he came up and said, “I’m Jeff Austin and I play in a band called Yonder Mountain String Band.” We sat there and just drank a bunch of beer. I think we might have even gone somewhere to pick later. And then a couple days later I was in another town and I looked up and saw a poster for this band I was like, “They’re playing the what? Like, that guy from yesterday? That’s his band. Look, they’re playing the big, huge theater downtown.” So, me and Elvis, my tour manager, just stayed in touch with him … And a year after I’d known those guys—or maybe it’s been three of four years after I knew them—I was at a festival and Vince was playing. After his show we met and we started pickin’ and talking. And it just sort of dawned on me: I’m remembering now that this is the guy who those guys idolize … From there that evolved into me playing with Vince’s other band besides the Salmon. And now every time I go to Boulder I feel like I know that whole scene …
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last two years playing with and just riding around with Vince Herman and he took me to this place last winter that he said was the electrical center of the universe. We just sat off a cliff—I was stunned. One of the things that touched me was that we’re there and he got out on a cliff! And I thought, “Well, I’m not gonna do that.” But, he plays his music like that. There’s a legend that he took LSD and lost his ego one time in Seattle and never could find it again. And I swear there’s got to be something to that. Vince Herman doesn’t have an enemy and doesn’t have an agenda and doesn’t do things that aren’t real, or pure. And that’s not to say he’s above being paid. The last few years, I feel like he’s a really—I’ve had my friends tell me that I was sort of free spirited, and I was always, “You ought to meet this other guy, ‘cause I can’t keep up.”
Yeah, he is. He lives his life the way he plays his music and that’s what I think is interesting. You go down to Nederland and you see him leading a parade at 2:30 in the morning of all these people that don’t have their shirts on and it’s snowing and you’re like, “That’s what his solos sound like!”
Oh yeah. That’s one thing I’ve heard people say is that I think if you listened close you could tell I was a liberal before, but maybe with that record, that one particular song, maybe that made some people feel like—I don’t know, that might have had something to do with it. But I do know that the same line in my life where you could look at it and my accountant could say, “Look, this was the very year things started going well,” I could also say, this is the very year I also started getting lots of hate mail, this was the same year somebody broke into my house, somebody tried to stab me behind a show—they didn’t even get close but I was like, “What the [expletive]?” And again, I don’t know why that happened. It didn’t happen the year before. One time a guy waited in line for 30 minutes to punch me in the nose. And I had only made one record. I still to this day don’t understand what I could have …
Oh [expletive], he got me good. He waited in line. And I had just said thank you. It was like: compliment, compliment, compliment, compliment, sock in the face.
Nothing. He turned around and walked away. And I’m like, “I wonder what it is I did.” It could have been part of the show he saw, it could have been an album. It could have been a girl—I had never been to that town. And I’m not really a girl-chaser type. Even when I was single I mostly was in the dressing room tuning my s*** and smoking weed.
Let’s see. There’s a few. Let me think. Weirdest gig …
Yeah, right. Can you even believe that’s not even the weirdest? There’s so many of them that are for different reasons. Like, I remember one time we were playing in Arkansas and a fight broke out in the front row and it just absolutely turned into a riot that you couldn’t get back. I’ve never seen anything like it. The show was over. I got punched like two or three times. My buddy hit the guy in the crowd with his guitar and we just took off running. We don’t know what happened or how it even involved us. It didn’t involve us. It was like the show—the fight fell sort of on to the stage. It was like everybody was angry like an old western.
There’s also been stuff like I remember when I was like 24, I had a gig where I was playing a tent at a little festival in Memphis and I was also getting ready to make my first record and Jimmy Buffett was paying for it. He wanted to know if I wanted to open for him, and I said, “Anytime.” And he was like, “Come out tomorrow to Seattle and open for me at the Superdome.” So I went to the Superdome and I played for 60,000 people and went right from there to an airplane, got on the plane, fell asleep, got out of the plane, got in a car and went to a tent and played for about four people. And I thought, “Well, that was a weird gig, or a weird couple of gigs.”
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