His twisty journey includes a number of detours.
Todd Snider hits the stage to the theme from “Sanford and Son,” doffs his trademark fedora to the crowd and begins to entertain fans with songs and stories that make them laugh and think at the same time.
He makes it look so simple, effortless even, yet it can’t be that easy, right? It’s been four years since his last album, “Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables,” but now he’s back with a very different project, “Eastside Bulldog,” 10 raucous rockers with loud electric guitars, horns and female backup singers that stars his alter ego, Elmo Buzz.
“I work on songs all day,” says Snider. “They’re often time story songs and they take a long time to make up. So when work would be over, I would stop, get kinda drunk, play electric guitar and then just yell, ‘Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby.’
“That evolved into a bit of a band where we played ‘Louie, Louie’ and stuff like that. So we had our own songs, but we never wrote ’em down, we just made ’em up. Then we went into the studio one night and got blind drunk, a bunch of people were there, I mean it was a zoo. So the whole album is like 26 minutes long and it took about an hour to make.”
An hour is only a little longer than it took Snider to describe the origins of Elmo Buzz and the Eastside Bulldogs. During a hilarious, rambling monologue that includes more tangents than a semester of geometry, he references Hank Williams, Jr., his manager, the Blues Brothers, “Hanky Panky,” Farfisa keyboards, John Prine, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell, the East Nashville High School marching band horn section, his 2008 “Peace Queer” album, and Bulldogs Elizabeth Cook, Rorey Carroll and Aaron Lee Tasjan.
Can the tales be true? Does it matter? After all, the man is a storyteller by trade. What is a fact, however, is his keen appreciation for the craft. Snider reveres his elders – Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell, Keith Sykes – and understands that it’s as important to support the next generation just as those singer-songwriters encouraged him.
“I’m really grateful I get to have a loosely organized, suspended adolescence lifestyle. And I appreciate it more the older I get,” laughs the recently turned 50-year-old. “I think of when I was a kid, I had posters on my wall of people who were about 15, 20 years older than me. And now, I’m sittin’ in a house with this big poster of people who are about 15, 20 years younger than me.
“This is ‘The Pilgrim,’ (Kristofferson’s) song ‘The Pilgrim.’ I was talking to (singer-songwriter) Hayes (Carll), and he said the first time he heard that song, he didn’t necessarily cry, but he knew something wasn’t ever going to be the same. I know a lot of people, there’s this group that we know who we are by the way we reacted to that song. You know you’re doing it (making music) for better or worse and it’s helped us.”
That’s a true story.
Todd Snider performing “Ways and Means”.
Turns out the Nashville singer-songwriter who wears his hippie stoner persona proudly is actually a workaholic who released two albums in the first four months of the year. “Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables” is a scathing indictment of the current state of the union, while “Time as We Know It,” is a loving tribute to Jerry Jeff Walker, the man who changed the course of Snider’s life.
“Yeah, man, I think I work harder than most of my friends realize,” laughs Snider. “The thing is, most of it is fun stuff that you’re getting paid for that you would be doing anyway. So if you like to travel and drive your car and all that, it doesn’t seem like work.
“I read someplace that if you love what you do for a living, you won’t work a day in your life. Sometimes it feels like it’s just a long party … But songs get written and recorded and stuff like that.”
“Stuff like that” is another area where the appearance belies the reality. Snider’s ditties can sound simple on first listen, like he’s just tossing words off the top of his head. However, his clear-eyed reporting on “Stoner” songs such as “In the Beginning,” “New York Banker,” “In Between Jobs” and “Big Finish” should be leading the evening news or displayed on the front page of the nation’s newspapers.
But Snider isn’t an ideologue, he’s a songwriter who loves to entertain people. That’s why his set list might feature “Mission Accomplished” back to back with “Beer Run.” And that’s why his latest set of original tunes is as musically energetic as it is lyrically pointed. Drummer Paul Griffith and bass player Eric McConnell – the Burnouts – are touring with Snider, while violinist Amanda Shires and organist Chad Staehly add unusual depth to the record.
“Amanda is very creative. That’s my arrangement style, to have everyone come up with their own stuff,” he deadpans. “She just came up with a lot of hooks, nobody told her what to do, she could just do whatever she wanted.”
Shires’ other contribution was bringing boyfriend Jason Isbell to Nashville during the recording sessions.
“I’ve only known Jason for a while; I’ve been a fan longer than we’ve been friends,” Snider says of the former Drive-By Trucker who leads the 400 Unit and played guitar on one of the tracks. “We would be cutting all day, and then around happy hour he would come by and hang out. He even edited a few guitar parts where I’d get too close to them. I’d play them three times and then ask him to pick out the best one.
“I’ve always loved his records and Amanda’s. They have a whole new wave of singer-songwriters who are about 10 years younger than me; those two, Hayes (Carll), Justin (Townes Earle) and Elizabeth Cook, too. I like them all. Actually, I resent them all because of their talent, but that’s a compliment,” he laughs.
Although it might seem odd to Snider that he would be a role model for younger artists, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. That’s what Walker has been to Snider since he was a teenager, and “Time as We Know It” is a gift to the mentor.
“He liked it,” Snider says of Walker’s response. “He hugged me and gave me a guitar. I know he loves me, but he likes to give me (crap) sometimes, he was trippin’ on me for (playing) the wrong chords. I think I know all his songs just as well as he does, but he likes to point out when I miss a little (chord) change here or there.”
Talking about Walker seems to make Snider wistful. And how will he feel when someone he hasn’t met yet releases the Todd Snider tribute album?
“Yeah, he’s in high school or something,” Snider laughs. “That would make me happy, I think that would definitely be exciting. It would be great to think that I could have the impact on a life like he had on mine.”
Walker’s impact in Snider’s own words
It didn’t take much prompting for Snider to tell the story of how Jerry Jeff Walker changed his life. His voice was filled with excitement as he recounted the events of more than 25 years ago.
“I had just moved to Texas. I’m an Oregonian and had gone to California and Texas, and in my mind, I was about 18 or 19 and I fancied myself someone who could make up lyrics, and I was hoping I could be in a band. So I went to Austin, and started staying with these guys that played Jerry Jeff Walker, which was, outside of Neil Young, only the second time I had heard what I would call acoustic music and I really liked it.
“I started really listening to that a lot, but it all had a band on it. Then he was going to play Gruene Hall (in New Braunfels), we got tickets to go and we all sat right in front, and he came out by himself and started singing his songs. And I remember they were all about being a free spirit. And at the time I really was, I was what everyone called a freeloader. I was a hitchhiker: ‘Can I stay on your couch tonight, can I borrow five dollars, can I come with you guys?’ I was that to my friends.
“And he was singing about it like it was a badge of honor, and I thought this is what I could do. I could do this and I don’t need to be a singer in a band, and he’s singing about the way I live.
“At the time I was trying to make up what I thought were deep poems because they didn’t make sense, which when you’re young, supposedly it’s deeper if you can’t understand it. But he was just up there, singing songs about being a hitchhiker, a couch sleeper, he was moving all the time, and I just thought, ‘Well that’s probably the most natural thing for me to do.’
“And so I went out and got a guitar, and the next day – I don’t remember what I pawned or whatever – but something so I could get this old acoustic guitar, and I started making up my own songs about my life. And I’d say six months later I was already starting to get jobs.
“I learned, like three chords. I remember watching him and thinking, ‘You know, I had grown up with Van Halen back in high school, so the idea of the guitar seemed really impossible.’ When I saw Jerry Jeff do it up close, it didn’t look like a whole lot, he wasn’t doing much. It looked like something you could do.
“There’s so many singer-songwriters that I could rattle off that owe a big (debt) to him because he didn’t write his own songs all the time. I loved this about him; he would go out after his shows looking for songs. That’s how Guy Clark came into the world as a songwriter, and that’s how so many different songwriters that, had he not been willing to try to find that after-show guitar pull, that songwriter might never had gotten his song – “Jaded Lover” by Chuck Pyle – there were just so many songs that Jerry Jeff found by actually going and finding the guy that didn’t want to come to Nashville, but finding his song and bringing it to the world. He helped with Keith Sykes, Guy Clark, so many different people that the record companies – Joe Ely – he was a big part of that scene.
“The thing that I think – I don’t think this would make him mad, I know him pretty well – but his tolerance for (crap) is soooo low … he scares the (crap) out of people. And I think people are scared; I mean he parties … he can get wild. And he can turn a bar into a really good time of storytelling and good times, but when he gets cornered and someone starts trying to give him (crap) or pushes him too far, he’ll say so. I’ve always admired him for that.
“When I’m traveling and people come up to me and know me as a singer, I’m pretty much going to smile and be nice until it’s over. And I’ve never ended up in an argument. But I’ve told him that he should stay on the bus because you end up in an argument every time you go out there. And Jerry Jeff, he just doesn’t give a (crap), which I love about him, and that’s the thing that gives you ‘Bojangles.’ ”
And that’s the thing about the person who gave us Todd Snider.
Many have tried to describe Todd Snider.
The singer-songwriter has been compared to John Prine, probably because they both write songs that are funny and poignant.
He’s been likened to songwriters Jerry Jeff Walker and Shel Silverstein and comedians Mitch Hedberg and Bill Hicks, probably because he writes songs and he’s funny. Well, OK.
Let’s just say this: There is no one like Todd Snider.
Fans who unfortunately sing the words to each song and people who have never heard of him have the chance to see what the fuss is about. Snider welcomes all comers because this what he does and has been doing for 20 years.
“I’m doing what I do and they’re (the audience) doing what they do and everything’s cool,” says Snider, trying to describe a night on stage. “For instance, if I’m playing ‘D.B. Cooper,’ I might be thinking about my dad and the arguments we had about that over the years.
“Or when I wrote a love song about a real relationship, and I’m thinking about that girl. I kind of go inside myself when I’m singing.”
Don’t fear, however. Snider knows there are real folks in the house.
“People ask if I’m phoning it in, and I say no, it’s just the opposite of that.”
Makes sense in a Zen kind of way, which is what becomes apparent in conversation. Sentences rarely start at A and proceed to B without an aside, an anecdote, a memory or a new idea.
That somewhat goofy persona might be why Snider has been pigeonholed by some as a novelty. But as he prepares to turn 45, his work has moved from the likes of the frat boy anthem “Beer Run” to explorations of the human condition such as “Is This Thing Working?”
It might be as simple as getting older. Snider was buoyant recently when he received a clean bill of health after some worry.
“I just got back from a CAT scan, I’m good, it’s not a tumor, but what a bitch of a day to sit there and wait for them (to tell you),” he says. “There was a scary few weeks, but I’m officially good as of 25 minutes ago.
“But I am getting older. I don’t walk like a 44-year-old, I walk like a 55-year-old. I’ve been on the road since I was 25 years old, lovin’ it too, doin’ it the whole way. Robert Hunter (the Grateful Dead lyricist) wrote a great thing about being an artist when he said, ‘No point in savin’ for nothin’.’ ”
Aside from creakiness and CAT scans, however, age can bring benefits. Singer Elizabeth Cook grew animated when she described her affection for her East Nashville neighbor. “Todd and Hayes Carll are like my big brothers and they let me tag along with them.”
Snider chuckled at the thought of becoming the mentor. “It’s funny that you mention Elizabeth and Hayes together because they’re like the only two young Americana kind of songwriters to ever treat me like I was an influence or ask me about songwriting.
“And I didn’t have any, of course, but man, I was touched that they asked.”
Here’s a prediction: The number of seekers will grow.
Todd Snider calls his new album “Peace Queer.” The troubadour considers the name a compliment.
Snider, the wisecracking master of the talking folk song, is better known for his humorous lyrics and rambling live shows than his politics, but the record has struck a chord with like-minded listeners who are tired of war and excited about the possibility of a new direction for the country after this month’s presidential election.
“I’m not like Neil Young or Steve Earle, who in my humble opinion, can tell you their politics,” Snider says of the outspoken rock stars. “I’m not going to thump you on the head, but it’s pretty obvious what my politics are.”
Snider reached into the 1960s for the title, which comes from the Fugs (called the Village Fuggs by Snider on the CD). The Vietnam War-era group wrote “I nearly had to kill me a couple of them peace queers out behind the church this morning” for one of its performance pieces.
That gives you an idea of Snider’s politics, as does the first track: “Mission Accomplished,” the phrase trumpeted by President George W. Bush about the Iraq War in 2003. Snider adds a haunting version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” which also brings Bush to mind.
“I had this little pile of songs that seemed to have a theme on it,” Snider says.
That theme is crystalized in one line from “Mission Accomplished,” when Snider sings “Fighting for peace is like screaming for quiet.”
Lest folks think Snider sits around brooding about the state of the world, he claims to be optimistic these days.
“I got goose bumps watching all of those people going into Grant Park to see (Barack) Obama,” says Snider, who was tuned into election night Nov. 4.
“Maybe we won’t have to keep sending our guys to fight wars, although somebody will probably want to fight. Seems like we’ve been doing it for a long time.”
About as long as people have been screaming for quiet.”