Todd Snider was still in high school when he had the epiphany that would deliver him from the varsity football lifestyle — and the straight and narrow existence that awaited him.
Nowadays, when the congenially scruffy singer-songwriter takes the stage, he puts his storytelling genius to use, playing up the dramatically diverging paths he found before him then: one, the route of the rule-obeying athlete aiming to win; the other, the burnout's road to ruin, all downhill.
Snider gets to the part of the story where he found his way — or lost it, depending on your vantage point — after eating a handful of psychedelic mushrooms that he got from a kid in the school cafeteria: "And I knew then in that moment, friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters, that I was never going to go back to football practice again for as long as I was going to be alive."
In the version of the story captured on his live 2011 album The Storyteller, the crowd is really into it by this point. He brings it home with a flourish: "And that, brothers and sisters, is the touching story of how psychedelic drugs turned me from the scoreboard-watching jock that my dad was hoping for into the peace-loving, pot-smoking, porn-watching, lazy-ass hippie that stands before you this afternoon at Bonnaroo."
Snider's testimony is definitely not the stuff of Wednesday night church services, but it's the perfect setup for "Conservative Christian Right-Wing Republican Straight White American Male," a country waltz that elevates equal-opportunity needling and name-calling to high art. The song is but one of many examples of Snider's refusal to pull punches when it comes to expressing his opinions, and it first appeared on East Nashville Skyline, a 2004 studio album laced with the gallows humor of a clear-eyed guy regaining his footing after an overdose.
Sounds like some tough listening, right? But "Conservative Christian" is also a jolly, self-deprecating barroom sing-along, and a pivotal track on Skyline, which solidified his critical acclaim and further endeared him to a growing audience.
It's heartening to root for underdogs like Snider. But how often, outside of movies that play to our craving for happy endings, do we really get to see things go the underdog's way?
A couple of decades in, Snider's music career is on as solid footing as ever. He's about to co-headline the Mother Church of Country Music, aka the Ryman, with Justin Townes Earle. The date marks Snider's biggest Nashville show with his name atop a bill. His latest album Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, released in March, has drawn high praise from heavyweight media outlets such as Rolling Stone and The New York Times for being pointed and relevant to the Occupy movement. And he's definitely in the running for Nashville's best-loved folksinger, a crowded category to be sure.
On paper, though, Snider doesn't really look like the kind of guy who'd have a long and celebrated career in any field, let alone the exceptionally challenging world of music. For starters, there's his outlook.
"I do meet a lot of people who have goals," he says. "I never thought it was in my best interest to have any goals."
Snider's athletic career, as well as his stint as a Catholic altar boy, began and ended in Beaverton, Ore., just a short drive from Portland — and like many boys of his generation, his conversion to the wild side was triggered in part by his discovery of Hunter S. Thompson.
"I think I saw Where the Buffalo Roam when I was in seventh grade late at night on television," Snider says, referring to the film in which Bill Murray plays the legendary acid-gobbling journalist. "And I realized, 'This looks more fun to me than dressing the same and doing jumping jacks in lines and yelling.' "
Snider was still in his teens when he left behind his family and began couch-surfing, eventually making his way down to Austin, Texas. (He says he's uncomfortable talking about his family, whom he describes as "dishonest" and "phony-Christian.") It was there that he caught a show by freewheeling outlaw songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker.
"I guess I felt like he was singing about the life I was living," Snider says. "And I thought, 'If I had a guitar, I could give some value to this life I'm living. I am the guy with no ride. I could sing about it, just like this.' ... Here was this guy singing about the joys of being unfocused."
A guitar and three quickly mastered chords later, Snider played an Austin open mic and met a local patron of struggling songwriters named Kent Finlay, who wound up giving him a place to crash — and a whole lot more.
"That night he played me the first two Kristofferson records, and explained them for me," says Snider. "And then he taught me about Shel Silverstein and John Prine and Billy Joe Shaver. I spent probably a year and a half at his house learning all those songs and trying to understand how they worked."
Will Kimbrough, a veteran songwriter and sideman who's also forged a solo career, has produced albums and played lead guitar for Snider. "The biggest thing that ever happened to him was being in Austin," says Kimbrough. "That's an interesting world. It's like, 'We're country, but we're hippies, too.' "
Snider drifted to Memphis next. Through a very random series of events, his father had happened upon the sister-in-law of songwriter and Jimmy Buffett guitarist Keith Sykes, whose albums he remembered his son liking. "He called me and said, 'I know where this guy lives,' " Snider recalls. "I'll always appreciate that my dad did that for me. I drove to that guy's house and knocked on the door and said, 'I want to play you my songs.' And he let me in and helped me after that. A lot! Got me this job."
Knocking on a stranger's door is behavior that might qualify as actively pursuing a career in music — but it wasn't that Snider was driven to get his foot in the door at all costs.
"It never got me like a dream, you know?" he quips. "I liked it, but it was either that or bussing tables. It was two choices. In my life, those were the paths, and I just thought this one was a lot funner. And I always lost my table-bussing jobs because I'd sit around and play guitar."
Instead of working for an hourly wage plus tips, Snider, now 45, has held down the job of folksinger/recording artist since the early '90s. First came a record deal that didn't pan out, then a trio of albums on Buffett's Margaritaville label (an imprint of MCA, which became part of Universal). He did the next four on John Prine's Oh Boy Records, then one each on New Door (returning him to a subsidiary of Universal), Megaforce and Yep Roc. He released his last three records on his own label, Aimless Records: The Storyteller, Agnostic Hymns and most recently, the Jerry Jeff Walker tribute Time as We Know It, produced by Don Was and featuring guests like Kix Brooks and Elizabeth Cook, and as a backing band, Great American Taxi.
Considering his rebellious streak, anti-establishment stance and revolving-door experience with record labels, you'd assume Todd Snider would be a fervent critic of the music industry, or at the very least, a tad jaded.
But you'd be wrong.
You won't hear him complain of being mistreated or shoehorned into an ill-fitting musical mold so the suits could turn a profit. By all accounts, he's not bitter at all. He's just a proud East Nashville bohemian who has no trouble coexisting with the players in Nashville's more mainstream music game — and he gives plenty of credit to those who've worked on his behalf.
Back in Austin and Memphis, people had warned him to beware of sharks in the music business. He eventually responded with a little boogie named for the city where he's found a home. The lyrics make it clear he's got no beef with the industry: "There isn't nothing wrong with Nashville."
"Everybody worked hard for me," Snider says. "I can't think of one person that I've been involved with in music that didn't do what they said they were gonna do and give me whatever they had. Especially business people."
Melita Snider has been married to Todd for over a decade. "His relationships with all of the different people that he's worked with, whatever label or manager — he genuinely has these amazing experiences with people," she says. "I think he feels very warm toward everyone who's been in his life, and very supported. I would say it's very much because of who Todd is, and then maybe just some luck of who he's run into along the way."
It was probably a case of both with legendary musical mind Tony Brown, who produced Snider's first two albums for MCA. "Oh my God!" exclaims Snider. "I love him! I would do anything for him. He really helped me. When I started, he used to joke with me about how I didn't want to be on the radio. And I didn't. And he knew what he got into when he signed me."
It would seem like a business liability to have an artist who doesn't care about getting on the radio and prefers to just go with the flow. Snider also makes no secret of the fact that drug use has, on at least one occasion, sent him to the hospital and caused him to have to cancel a few shows. But he wouldn't go as far as to say it's interfered with his career. Says Snider, "I feel like it's like, 'What? No, no. You're supposed to tell us that you can't [imagine] what songs you might've written if you hadn't have done it, or who knows where your career would be.' And I just never wondered [where my career would be]. I just don't have a scoreboard in my house. I like to sing. I'll do it wherever. I've been really lucky. I'm lucky I get to play the places I do. This is my 'what could've been.' "
The overall impression Kimbrough got from working with Snider wasn't one of instability, but self-determination. Says Kimbrough, "I spent a lot of time in real close quarters with Todd, and the thing I remember most is that he was trying to go beyond reliability. If something didn't feel right, he would just call it on out. In show business, for people who don't like to be inconvenienced, that's called 'difficult to work with.' But the fact is that you can't fault someone for calling bullshit when he thinks it's bullshit."
Snider jokes about his lack of commercial aspirations, but he doesn't begrudge anyone their lucrative music career. "I'm friends with a lot of guys who write hit songs for country singers," he says. "And I really respect what they do. But none of 'em ever say to me, 'How come you don't fucking try to do this?' They know."
Furthermore, he's got nothing bad to say about traditional Music Row songcraft. "I definitely don't think it's not noble," he says. "I like a lot of those songs. My songs, unfortunately — well, not unfortunately — they're all fucking 15 minutes long with dope references and swear words. But some of them are love songs, and every once in a while someone sings one. And I really like it when they do."
Snider is playfully flippant when discussing his writing process — more often than not, he calls it "making up songs." But it would be wrong to assume he doesn't take the craft of songwriting seriously. Vividly detailed, thoroughly memorable compositions like his don't just tumble out fully formed in five minutes flat.
Eric McConnell has played in Snider's band, and has a home studio where Snider likes to record. "He'll tweak lines and words until the last minute," McConnell says, "and sometimes he'll go back in and change a line or something. He's a hard-working guy."
It caught Snider off guard when the biggest superstar that country music has ever seen rang him up to express interest in his song "Alright Guy." "When Garth Brooks called me," Snider says, "it took him a good half-hour to convince me it was Garth Brooks. At least a half-hour. And I was vulgar about my accusations of him not being [who he said he was]. I was convinced it was my friend Mark." (Brooks recorded the song for the album he made as his raven-haired, alt-rock alter ego Chris Gaines, but it didn't make the final track list.)
Todd Snider has a lot of friends.
As he talks to a reporter one April afternoon at his favorite East Side watering hole, Drifters, the discussion is interrupted every five minutes or so as he greets various buddies.
But it's not a matter of quantity over quantity. Those who populate his circle tend not to be fair-weather types. And being the informal guy that he is — he often goes on stage barefoot, after all — he happens upon kindred spirits at profoundly unguarded moments.
For instance, he met Kimbrough in a coatroom at an industry showcase. Kimbrough was in roots-rock outfit The Bis-quits at the time.
"They had a big area where somebody'd carved some shit into some ice and there was shrimp and ... you know," Snider says. "Everyone was standing around. That was more than I'd bargained for. It made me a little nervous, I guess. So I went in to hide, catch my breath. I was standing there for a few minutes, and he came in to do the same thing."
Snider's relationship with his longtime road manager and close friend Dave "Elvis" Hixx had a similarly inauspicious beginning. Hixx had finagled his way into the title of Detroit street rep for Maverick Records through a buddy who was Madonna's brother. On this particular day, he'd used that business card to get backstage at a Pontiac, Mich., music festival.
"I had snuck into this concert and the security guards were throwing me out," Hixx explains, laughing. "I had just seen Todd perform. And the security guard asked me, 'Who are you with?' And I pointed at Todd and said, 'I'm with him.' And they looked at him, and I swear to God, he nodded and said, 'Yeah, he's with us.' And I have been eating off free buffets ever since."
Snider confirms the story. "He pointed right at me. I was moved by the artistic gesture. I kind of got what happened right away. ... He looked around and thought, 'Maybe this fucking guy will think this is funny.' "
Then there's the tale of how Snider met one of his dearest comrades, the late Skip Litz, a longhaired Marine Corps vet and biker who ran sound at former East Nashville club The Radio Cafe, sold pot out of his car, and even tour-managed Snider for a brief stretch.
Litz first got Snider's attention while Snider was walking around the block one day to clear his head. "When I came around again," Snider says, "[my] album — which was coming out like in a month or something — is blasting out of this guy's house. And I don't know how he got it.
"And I say, 'Where did you get that?' And he said, 'I'm not gonna say.' He was fucking with me, for sure. So I went in and started talking to him, started a conversation that we never really finished."
Litz is the subject of Snider's "Play a Train Song" — a phrase Litz was famous for shouting at just about every show he attended — and participated in a slow-speed motorcycle chase that became legend in East Nashville. As the story goes, Litz led more than a dozen cops from downtown Nashville to his driveway, going all of 5 mph the whole way, and honking and waving at friends he passed as though he was in a parade. (There are also legendary stories of Litz and Snider having such a good time on the road that Snider would completely miss a show.)
It was Litz who introduced Snider to Eric McConnell. Snider immediately took to McConnell's low-key East Side studio — the same bare-bones facility where Jack White and Loretta Lynn recorded Lynn's Van Lear Rose.
McConnell says his recording style is less about the "technical stuff" and "more about the hang," so he and Snider immediately clicked. "The weirder, the better for me," McConnell says. "If the music's not pretty interesting to me, I can't do it. We've always gone as far as we felt we needed to. There's a lot of tame music in this town, and I don't want to have anything to do with it."
And Snider's wife, Melita? Well, the two met in a place that was anything but conventionally romantic — a drug and alcohol rehab facility.
"I don't know what it was," Melita says. "I just felt warm towards him. I just felt a connection. But I really did feel like, 'You're here to do this work, and this is frowned upon here. Shit, I'm in trouble!'
"I was in a place in my life," she continues, "where I was fighting with myself about what I was gonna do with my artistic wants. I had really been putting a lot of that aside, just 'cause I grew up with the mentality of, 'Make sure you have stability — then if you want to do your art, do your art.' It was really nice to meet somebody who was ... just living exactly how they wanted to be."
For all this talk of Snider as a free spirit dwelling outside the mainstream, it's worth noting that he works in a musical tradition that's had its share of self-serious idealists. And a folksinger with a social or political ax to grind can easily find himself with a shrunken audience.
But that hasn't been the case with Snider at all. Major critics from The New York Times' Jon Caramanica to Rolling Stone's Jody Rosen have praised Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables for delivering sharp and timely commentary. When you hear the songs, it's no wonder; Snider really puts his heart on the line for people who've been bullied by present-day life's circumstances. The premise of "In Between Jobs" is chilling: Blow off a down-and-out panhandler and he may resort to killing you and taking your stuff. "New York Banker" is a vignette about a schoolteacher whose retirement money is wiped out by greedy Wall Streeters who get off scot-free. The song was partly inspired by a post-show conversation with former White House chief of staff, current Chicago mayor — and big Todd Snider fan — Rahm Emanuel.
The alt-rock talking blues "In the Beginning" got its start closer to home, while Snider held court with the regulars at his neighborhood bar. "Somewhere I read that Napoleon said that religion was invented to keep the poor from killing the rich," he says "Then I remember one day sort of taking off on that down at Drifters with, I think it was, J.J. [Johnson] and Jill [Ferree], and I was telling them some sort of almost Bill Hicks-ish kind of rant about how that might've happened."
The storyline would no doubt offend the sort of person who goes to a megachurch and buys into the prosperity gospel, which is probably what Snider was going for.
"It's funny," says Johnson, who works in marketing. "When I was playing [the album] on my laptop the other night for my wife, when 'In the Beginning' came on, the laptop crashed. It, like, overheated. So I just rebooted it and played it again. Came to the same point and it crashed. I don't know if that's an omen or not."
Provocative lyrics aside, opinions are always only part of the story with Snider. The rest is in the delivery. As Melita puts it, borrowing from Mary Poppins, "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." Her husband's sweetening agents come in the form of deliciously skewed punch lines, red-blooded melodic hooks, shambling grooves and a slacker-next-door delivery that makes clear this guy doesn't have a self-righteous bone in his body.
"I definitely think the humor sets this album apart," says Stephen Deusner, a Salon and Pitchfork contributor who interviewed Snider (and deserves credit for pointing out that the singer-songwriter experienced a reverse conversion). "I tend to think that when an artist tries to do protest music or topical music, they tend to be very solemn and very serious. Like that [new] Bruce Springsteen album. It's pretty good, but he's just so humorless about all this."
It's the opposite with Snider. "I don't think he's expecting anybody to have their minds blown or their worlds changed by it," says Deusner. "And that kind of makes it all the more charming, or all the more effective."
Snider doesn't cop to having motivations any loftier than a desire to entertain. To put it another way, he's a folksinger who's also a delightfully laid-back hang. "Shit, I couldn't imagine how great it would be to sing a song that got somebody who was in prison out of prison, who didn't deserve to be in prison," he says. "Shit, it's hard enough to make up a song that's gonna help a birthday party be better."
For someone who broadcasts his convictions to the world through his songs, Snider worries surprisingly little about how they'll be interpreted.
"I always thought the job of the folksinger was to share their opinion, then handle what people said about it. You go out, you say what you think, and people can throw shit or cheer. Sometimes I have shows where everyone's cheering and everyone's saying, 'I agree, I agree.' Then I try to get back out to the car after the gig, and there's that guy or that other guy that don't. And I try not to be a dick to them. That seems like my job. I try to say, 'OK, OK. I hear you. Don't hit me.' "
And at times, he likes to play fast and loose with verisimilitude, as in "The Devil You Know," a rock 'n' roll story song about an East Nashville police chase.
"It makes me happy that people think that song's true," Snider says, "but sometimes I just make shit up. I think I was at home and the helicopters were low, and the police cars were going up and down the street, and I started writing it. ... In the moment, I was like, 'This kid could come over the fence at any second. He's in somebody's yard on this street.' So my imagination went to, 'What will I do if this kid comes over my fence?' And I started thinking, 'I'll give him the car.' "
Even if that reaction was only theoretical, the idea that Snider would be prepared to hand over his car keys to a fugitive from the law who's had a rough life is the sort of thing that makes him so unique and likable — as long as you're not one of the cops in pursuit. He'll actually put his money where his empathy is.
Hixx recalls one real-life occasion when Snider showed generosity to a homeless panhandler who confessed that he needed a fix. The tour manager was struck by the fact that his artist boss treated a person on the fringes of society with the same level of regard he'd show Rahm Emanuel. To put it another way, with Snider, there's no hierarchy of human importance.
On the other hand, you'd think a song like "Conservative Christian Right Wing Republican Straight White American Male" would be enough to make a right-winger keep his distance from the Todd Snider repertoire, but that's not necessarily the case.
"In the same breath that I say I've gotten a lot of hate mail," Snider says, "I've also gotten mail from really seriously Republican guys that hear that one song and say, 'You handled that really well.' "
He's drawn pro golfers, ranch owners and other rich and powerful devotees who come down on the opposite side of him on myriad issues. Melita has a theory about that: "His music, while a lot of people can say that it's political or however they want to attach meaning to it, at the end of the day, I feel like Todd really is somebody who talks about relationships and how people treat each other. And I think he's just a really huge supporter of people, and people treating each other well."
To her mind, that doesn't just apply to his fellow authority-bucking free spirits. "He's such a huge supporter of that person," she says. "But I have to say that I think the reason why he's so liked is because he really is also a supporter of the other person ... that mainstream person, whoever. I mean, the Republican. I think he just genuinely is like, 'If you're not letting people be who they are and being caring and open to who they want to be, I don't like that. But otherwise, be yourself.' "
Ferree, a visual artist, concurs, based on her experiences hanging out with him down at the bar. "I think he's kind to everybody, and unpretentious," she offers. "It's rare. And I think you hear that in his music."
Much of Snider's charm is in his lack of pretension and self-deprecating sense of humor. For example, he invented an alter ego by the name of Elmo Buzz — a character who "thinks he's the king of country music, and hates Todd Snider." Buzz leads the Eastside Bulldogs, a bar band featuring Elizabeth Cook, Tim Carroll, Eric McConnell, Paul Griffith, Jen Gunderman and other talented East Nashvillians, all under aliases. It only performs for free and only plays "kick-ass, party-hardy rock 'n' roll — no slow shit." Snider laughs as he explains Buzz, who he says is obsessed with Bocephus — "and hates folk music."
Come to think of it, he probably isn't too fond of varsity football deserters either.
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