"I was at all those shows, you know, but I don't know if I would have been a positive contributor to the afterparty," Todd Snider says of his new live full-length The Storyteller. Of course, this makes it sound easy for him, even if it wasn't. At nearly two hours, The Storyteller gives the Nashville singer a chance to stretch out and display his comic timing along with his meticulous craft.
The Storyteller may be the record that gives the clearest picture of Snider's art and craft, even if Snider downplays his involvement with the project. "Every once in a while my manager calls and says, 'You gotta do something,' " Snider says. "And I'm a guy, I make up songs, and somebody has to come get me — I'm just so old, I'm like Fred Sanford these days. So he was like, 'Any new songs?' I said I thought I got nine, and they might even be all about the same fuckin' thing, I haven't really looked at 'em closely yet."
Backed by his band, Great American Taxi, Snider's performances on The Storyteller could serve as a well-rounded introduction to a songwriter whose love for old-time rock 'n' roll doesn't cancel out his admiration for classic singer-songwriters such as Jerry Jeff Walker and Willis Alan Ramsey. Not exactly folk music, Snider's compositions sound easy, but Snider takes pains to be writerly about the sort of situations most tunesmiths would either sentimentalize or overdramatize.
Snider, who was born in Portland, Ore., in 1966, has come off a busy year. Apart from The Storyteller and the regular gigs which he says will always be a part of his life, Snider produced the weird, wonderful rock 'n' roll record Killer Instincts for semilegendary Arkansas pianist and singer Jason D. Williams. If Snider is a hybrid of Guy Clark and Paul Westerberg, Williams is a greasy, unregenerate rocker.
"I've been a fan of his," Snider says of Williams. "He called me up in the middle of the day one day. We'd never hung out or anything. I thought he was gonna ask me if I'd make up some songs with him, but he asked me, 'Would you produce me?' I was like, 'Are you kidding?' I sent him all kinds of songs and he made a list of about 15 of 'em."
Snider recorded Williams at Nashville's Blackbird Studios, and the resulting performances took Williams out of his usual Sun Records groove and into territory that could make even Jerry Lee Lewis blanch. The insane "If You Ever Saw a Baby With Its Pud" mentions "a druggie pushing a baby buggy" and brings in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Meanwhile, Williams updates Stick McGhee's primal 1947 rock 'n' roll song "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," complete with a reference to Jimmy Swaggart.
"We'd get up in the morning, head down there and have this killer rock band playing while he made up songs," Snider remembers. "Sometimes he'd be singin' something really sensitive and then he'd say, 'I wish I could douche my vagina!' I think we did good, and I'm interested to see what would happen now that we know there's a poet in there, and a really sensitive person in there, if you ask me."
Talking to Snider, you get the sense that he's constantly shaping experience — he's a natural, funny storyteller. He says traveling with Williams was always interesting. "We went down to Memphis, and we went in a bar, and they called the police when we came in," he laughs. "I've been thrown out of that bar three times myself. And I thought, Jesus Christ, that's a little bit of an overreaction."
Although classic Snider songs from such records as East Nashville Skyline and The Devil You Know fill up much of The Storyteller, it could be the comedy routines that define it. One tale concerns Snider's after-show meeting with NASCAR driver Bill Elliott. The bit ends with a parody of Barry Manilow's 1974 hit, "Mandy," that includes the immortal couplet "Moe Bandy, when you came and sang with Joe Stampley / You blew us away."
Such are the vagaries of Snider's creative process, which draws upon all the sleazy bars and grimy motel rooms he's seen in his career. "KK Rider Story" may be the record's funniest moment. As with all of Snider's stories, setup and finish are perfectly integrated. "KK Rider" concerns a Memphis country cover band in a Memphis bar, a velvet rope that swings in the bar, and a protagonist wearing a sleeveless .38 Special tour T-shirt. It's hilarious, and probably too good to boil down to a song.
So Snider is a humorist — a poet of the suicidal and the underemployed. He's also a great songwriter who labors for the mot juste as assiduously as Flaubert, and with equally trenchant results.
"I work on 'em so long, forever and ever and ever," he says of his songs. "I take a long time workin' on 'em. And I guess I sometimes have a hunch there will be a rocky line here or a punch line there. But I never gravitated to the craft phase of it, because it always seemed like it was art — if art is the idea of being openhearted and vulnerable."
He takes a dim view of what he calls the "artsy-fartsy" wing of Americana, and says he thinks mainstream country stars are often motivated by the same kind of artistic impulses usually ascribed to celebrated Texas singer-songwriters.
"In fact, I went and worked on a song with Kix Brooks in the past few months," he says. "I felt like he was trying to get something off his chest, just like me. And I learned some chord changes I never would've learned. I'm really thankful to get to take that back into my thing."
The guitar is a custom made Gretsch he used on the Raconteurs tours...sweet. I couldn't…
I knew him before the beard.
Sometimes I think snowman69 makes good points. But I think he's way off the mark…
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