Career Moves 

Two singer-songwriters continue to embrace music, even after frustrating stints with major labels

Two singer-songwriters continue to embrace music, even after frustrating stints with major labels

Todd Snider

Happy to Be Here (Oh Boy Records)

Performing April 20 at the Belcourt Theatre

Jon Randall

Willin’ (Eminent Records)

Performing April 21 at Exit/In

Todd Snider wasn’t being ironic when he titled his fourth album Happy to Be Here. But that doesn’t mean he’s a cheerful, well-adjusted fellow who loves every minute of every day. As his new songs suggest, Snider has had a rough go of it recently, at least some of the time. But being the kind of songwriter he is, he has emerged with new material that combines the poignant with the pointedly humorous.

”I am happy to be here!“ he says while sipping coffee and fighting a weary scowl on a recent afternoon in a Nashville coffeehouse. When it’s suggested that his new album sounds cynical, and that his humor is even more biting than on past efforts, he retorts that he thought his earlier work (including such wickedly satirical tunes as ”Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Blues“ and ”My Generation Part 2“) was pretty damn cynical too.

”I don’t know,“ he admits, letting a rare smile cross his face, ”my favorite line on the whole album is, ‘I’ll do my job here, whatever it pays.’ “

Since 1994, Snider’s job has been recording artist and modern-day troubadour. From the start, his persona has been sort of a combination of Dennis Miller and Woody Guthrie: On one hand, he’s a keen social commentator who uses his knack for wordplay to poke at the foibles and failures of everyone, including himself; on the other hand, he balances his smart-ass views with populist songs that speak compassionately about the dignity of workers, eccentrics, losers, and down-and-outers. He has also openly displayed his spiritual bent, writing of his love for Jesus in terms that focus on forgiveness, grace, and empathy rather than judgment or proselytizing.

At first, it seemed as though Snider’s job might end up paying well. ”Talkin’ Seattle,“ a hidden closing track on his debut Songs From the Daily Planet, gained massive airplay on rock stations across America. But Snider’s eclecticism and folk-rock leanings proved out of step in the era of Nirvana, Puff Daddy, Alanis Morissette, and Limp Bizkit. He made three albums for MCA Records, each of them increasingly rock-oriented, but he never scored another national hit.

However, he did build a strong grassroots following through his live shows. Onstage, his wit and his compassion shine through clearly, thanks in large part to his confident, commanding stage presence, which highlights both his intelligence and his generous, man-of-the-people personality. ”The calmest I ever feel is when I’m onstage,“ he says. ”I don’t know what it is. But I feel like a gypsy, even though I don’t have any of that in my blood. But traveling in a van and getting on a nightclub stage, that’s where I feel most comfortable.“

For his fourth album, Snider has moved from the conglomerate MCA to the independent Oh Boy Records, a label co-owned by singer-songwriter John Prine, one of Snider’s heroes and primary influences. Many artists, especially those with the kind of critical praise Snider has attracted, leave major record companies with bitterness on their lips. Snider swears he doesn’t feel that way.

”I get asked a lot, ‘Don’t you think you should have a larger audience? Don’t you think a company should try and do this or that for you?’ But I’ve always just thought, and maybe someone else has said this before, that playing music is the reward for playing music. I feel so grateful for what I got. I get to play all the time, and there are people there. I couldn’t imagine saying I was disappointed in that.“

Snider does acknowledge that his fans tend to separate into camps, each of which likes one aspect of what he does more than the other. There are those who prefer him as a wide-eyed, arm-waving rocker fronting a band, and there are those who prefer him solo with just his acoustic guitar. There are those who yell all night for his funny songs, and there are those who sit quietly waiting for his tender or spiritual numbers. ”I like having that life, of being able to go back and forth,“ he says.

This album is a departure, Snider explains. His third release, Viva Satellite, captured his rock band ”as if we were on a Friday night in Sioux Falls“—meaning that it presented what he liked about the band and his rockier songwriting. So he disbanded the group. ”It’s like when you’re a kid, and you finally build the perfect model airplane,“ he says, ”and then you put an M-80 in it and blow it up.“

For the new Happy to Be Here, which came out April 18, Snider wanted to combine his two musical loves—the acoustic music of Texas and the jaunty soul of Memphis. So the new album features Snider either stripped down to his acoustic guitar with minimal support or backed by the Memphis Horns, which add subtle soul accents to his songs. ”I had this idea of combining acoustic guitar with horns,“ he says. ”And I wanted to make the words be the star of the record, for better or worse.“

As usual, many of the songs draw on Snider’s personal life—the inspirations include his car wreck, his visit to Alcoholics Anonymous, and his recent marriage—while other tunes offer comments on everything from presidential politics to prenuptial agreements. One song, ”The Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern,“ includes a tap-dance solo by singer Kim Richey.

”We tried different things, and we had fun,“ Snider says. ”As a way of getting by, it’s hard to argue with.“

—Michael McCall

No more tears

When Jon Randall takes the Exit/In stage on Friday, he’ll be singing the saddest songs in his life, but he’s never been happier. A Texas-born guitar player with Holllywood looks and a bluegrass heart, he’s weathered his share of trials in the music business. But things are looking up since the release of Willin’, which came out last October on independent label Eminent Records. He may not have a specific direction for his career, but he’s got creative freedom—and at this point, nothing could be more important.

”This album is really dark lyric-wise, and it wasn’t really on purpose,“ Randall says. ”I wrote these songs over a five-year period of time. We just were cutting stuff that we liked, and...we didn’t have anyone from a label saying, ‘You need something up-tempo and positive.’ I tend to write really dark tunes. I think it goes back to growing up listening to those Appalachian bluegrass songs, where everybody is murdering their lovers and throwing them in the river.“

Willin’ is Randall’s first release since his 1995 debut on RCA, What You Don’t Know. Actually, it’s the fourth album he’s recorded, but his second and third LPs—one for RCA and one for Asylum—were never released.

The last half of the ’90s was extremely frustrating for Randall, a former guitarist in Emmylou Harris’ band. He’d sacrificed virtually everything in his music to bow to the demands of country radio, and he left with nothing to show for it. ”Mentally and musically, it was good to get away from the major-label thing, because I was really jaded,“ he says. ”I couldn’t make anybody happy, and all I was trying to do was play music.

”With my second record with RCA, I used the producer they wanted me to use, and they agreed on every song. I didn’t get to cut things I wanted to cut, and I cut things I didn’t want to cut. I did everything the label asked me to do, and Lorrie [Morgan] and I were in the Top 14 with a bullet with our duet, when they said, ‘We’re dropping you because we don’t like this record.’ “

After his music met a similar fate at Asylum, Randall threw up his hands. ”I really had forgotten why I liked playing music,“ he says. ”When I moved to town straight out of Texas, I had no idea that having a major deal would be 85 percent schmooze and politics and dinner and strip joints and whatever else they want you to do for these radio people. And I wasn’t playing. My chops were going to hell in a handbasket.“

As an antidote to the exasperation of dealing with the music business, Randall spent time breaking in his friend Brent Truitt’s new studio. He recorded a few songs and played them for friends, who told him the new stuff was too good not to be released. Although several labels ended up showing interest in the material, he went with Eminent Records, which is run by Monty Hitchcock, an associate of Emmylou Harris’ for years.

”It’s what I keep calling the accidental album, because there are a couple of tracks we cut five years ago,“ Randall says. ”We came back in and cut four tracks in 1999 to complete the album. About six of the tracks were done over a period of five years, so I was at different points in my life. It was an accident because we weren’t trying to make a record.“

The album includes appearances by Emmylou Harris, Kim Richey, and Lorrie Morgan, as well as backing from top studio musicians Sam Bush, Harry Stinson, Kenny Vaughan, Dave Pomeroy, Jerry Douglas, John Cowan, and the late Roy Huskey Jr. The music pays homage to Randall’s bluegrass roots with the use of mandolin, Dobro, and upright bass.

Randall wrote or cowrote all of the songs except the title track, a remake of a Little Feat tune. The collection is indeed sad, reflecting tough times the singer endured last year, when he grappled with the unraveling of yet another record deal and went through a very public divorce with Lorrie Morgan. ”It was a bad year,“ he says.

”I still am kind of picking up and repairing some things. I’m getting back to myself. I’m feeling a little cocky. Nobody is through beating me up now, but I feel like I can take it. I’m just doing what everybody else is doing: I’m getting up every day and hoping I make it through the day.“

But don’t expect a solumn occasion when Randall plays his first Nashville gig in a while this weekend. Instead, he’ll offer masterful playing driven by passion and enthusiasm, and he might even throw in a Crowded House tune as well. ”What’s been great about this record is I don’t want to plan anything because we didn’t plan this record,“ he says. ”We were just in there doing what we wanted to do musically and having a lot of fun. I’m just going to go out and play and see if anybody wants it.“

—Beverly Keel

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