Todd Snider applies his storytelling skills to the state of Bush’s America
Like most kids besotted with rock culture, Todd Snider didn’t relish the prospect of becoming an adult. At the age of 19, he was so obsessed with clinging to his youth that he openly dreaded his 20th birthday. Then he saw Jerry Jeff Walker perform at Gruene Hall, and everything changed.
The 39-year-old Snider, one of contemporary music’s most accomplished storytellers, grew up in Portland, Oregon, and was living in San Francisco when his brother urged him to join him in San Marcos. At the time, Snider listened to a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Grateful Dead. When he heard Walker, he not only fell under the spell of the great Texas singer-songwriters, he saw the possibility of aging with dignity.
|Peter Pan no more: Once afraid of growing up, Snider now hangs with John Prine and Kris Kristofferson.|
“I kept saying, ‘I don’t want to be 20,’” Snider recalls during a phone interview from his East Nashville home. “Then I saw Jerry Jeff and thought, ‘I don’t want to be 20, I want to be 40.’ He gave me an idea of a way to get older without joining the machine, which was something I didn’t want to do.”
The lesson stuck, and Snider has emerged as one of those songwriters who gets better after absorbing a few adult setbacks. With his 2004 cult favorite East Nashville Skyline and the forthcoming release The Devil You Know (due on August 8), Snider is on an enviable creative roll. Like a countrified Randy Newman, he generally eschews the distance of third-person narratives, fearlessly making himself the unsympathetic subject of songs about romantic losers and two-bit crooks.
For instance, “The Highland Street Incident,” is the true story of two robbers who pulled a gun on Snider in the parking lot of a Memphis bar several years ago. Rather than telling the story from his own perspective, Snider gives voice to the perpetrators and lets their rationalizations speak for themselves.
He employs a similar device, to even more devastating effect, on what will surely be the album’s most talked-about song: “You Got Away With It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers).” Without ever mentioning Yale, the National Guard, the oil business, or Iraq, Snider nails the charmed life that has fueled the lifelong recklessness of our 43rd president. Set to a honky-tonk waltz, and with Snider putting on his best good-ol’-boy twang, the song recounts the fratboy beatdown of a hapless hippie, drunken nights outrunning the police, and an unspoken atrocity that he promises to take to his grave: “I worry forever/never for you/you got away with it/you always do.”
Snider says: “I try not to be heavy-handed with those types of things because I’m one of those people that doesn’t think there are answers. I don’t even believe in the questions.”
Snider credits much of his musical education to San Marcos music institution Kent Finlay, who allowed Snider to devour his record collection and learn the ropes from masters such as John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, and Guy Clark. After discovering the work of underground singer-songwriter Keith Sykes, Snider moved to Memphis in the hope of meeting Sykes. He credits that association with helping him to find his own creative voice.
“When I got to Memphis, Keith taught me a lot about Booker T. and the MGs and Otis Redding and more guitar-oriented stuff,” Snider says. “I felt that the time I spent in Memphis gave my attempts to be a Texas singer-songwriter a twist.
“And I’m neither thing. I’m an Oregon boy, just trying to grift his way through. But I saw Jerry Jeff and I tried to reinvent myself as that. And I felt that the time I spent playing in Memphis helped me to start chipping away at the John Prine/Jerry Jeff clone I’d accidentally become. I thought, ‘I’ve got to try to be myself. I can’t just copy other people.’ And I’m still working on that.”
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While in Memphis, Snider signed with Geffen Records, and his 1994 debut Songs for a Daily Planet earned him airplay for a talking-blues novelty number called “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues.” A parody of the industry feeding frenzy surrounding the Pacific Northwest in the wake of Nirvana’s commercial breakthrough, the song demonstrated Snider’s gift for the clever observation, but it also pegged him for a time as a standup comic with a guitar.
When Snider’s two subsequent Geffen albums failed to move sufficient units, the label dropped him. He landed with Oh Boy Records, a small label founded by one of his heroes, John Prine, and while his shot at MTV stardom withered, his artistry blossomed as never before.
“I learned slowly,” Snider concedes. “I like to think our first album had some original qualities to it, and I like to think that my last record had even more original qualities to it, but I can’t prove either thing.” Snider moved from Memphis to Nashville “to get out of that party I’d started.” While acknowledging that his indulgence in the rock-star lifestyle couldn’t go on forever, he characteristically makes no apologies about his enjoyment of mood-altering substances.
“For 20 years now, I wake up, type for about two hours, smoke a little pot, and see if the guitar fits to any of the typing,” he says. “So every song I’ve written has been written in the same state of mind. Now the state of mind I went to bed with might have been different.
“I hate to say it, but if I hadn’t have been on mushrooms, I might not have got in that car, that took me to that party, where I saw that fight that I couldn’t believe, and then that girl said that thing, and then I went home and made that shit rhyme.”
Much to his own amazement, Snider is friendly with each of his four great songwriting mentors — John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, and Billy Joe Shaver — and they openly praise his talents. But he’s not ready to think of himself as one of their peers just yet.
“It’s strange to know those guys,” Snider says. “I see them a lot and I feel like I’ve never really learned to totally relax around them. I’ve never been able to drop my awe of them. But it’s still fun to be around them.
“Having those people to play a new song to was a dream of mine, and that became a reality. When I have a new lyric I’m working on, I can run it by John Prine if I want to, and it’s just incredibly invaluable to me.”