How Todd Snider, a freewheeling barefoot hippie, became one of Nashville’s most respected musical exports 

In Todd We Trust

In Todd We Trust
click to enlarge Todd Snider

Eric England

Todd Snider

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.)

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