Todd Snider Is the Devil You Know
“You know, Jack Ingram still owes me money? He’s owed me $7.50 for years. He was just at my house for like NINE hours, and I know he has the money. He gets some sort of perverse pleasure out of not paying me, and I know he has it. If he doesn’t have it now….”
(Aimless; US: 14 Oct 2008; UK: Available as import)
“He never will?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Snider says in the stony drawl that his fans have come to love. “Can you tell him I said that?”
Todd Snider has a vivid memory when it comes to stories that I am pretty sure have never happened. I am just as certain that some of the most outrageous moments on his records have been lived, re-lived, regretted, but in most cases enjoyed. He has traveled the world, been incarcerated in his hometown, seen friends become stars, seen friends die, married, and survived a major record label… twice. He has lived up to the infamous Gary Allen advice to “remain mobile and keep life open”, and all of it has become an indelible part of his wildly popular live show.
And right now he is telling me about how friend Jack Ingram has a diabolical plan to drive him insane by refusing to pay back a seven dollar debt. Moments after his treatise on his country star friend, he asks me if I know his road manager Dave Hixx.
“Dave? You know him? He is my arch enemy. He is trying to kill me, you know.”
Todd is shacked-up in his home in East Nashville, a place brought under a microscope by fans since the release of East Nashville Skyline in 2004. Snider says, “I like that people come looking in bars and such for me. It is good for the free alcohol.”
The subject of our discussion is supposed to be Peace Queer, the new record released by New Door on October 13th, but Snider seems content to talk about his mysterious phantom grudge with Ingram, Hixx, and Eric McConnell, who he insists was the inside man on the “kidnapping” that forced him to write and release Peace Queer.
“Clearly, anyone who looks at the photograph [on the cover of the new release] can tell that I had been abducted by an international league of peace queers and forced to write protest music. You know, for their cause,” he said. “But, write this down ‘cause it’s true and it’s important: I grew sympathetic to their cause. In fact, the more often we paused for the cause the more sympathetic I grew. Maybe I was Patty Hearst shifted, but I don’t care. I’m in. I believe in our mottos and can’t wait to hear our slogan.”
Another bizarre story in the Todd Snider repertoire.
A fair examination of Snider’s years in the music business would lead anyone to conclude that a certain amount of insanity is justified. Snider first broke through with his release Songs from the Daily Planet while fronting a full-on Nashville rock outfit called the Nervous Wrecks. At the time, a hidden track mocking the emergence of grunge garnered him radio attention. “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” was seen for what it was, a novelty hit. Next came Alright Guy, another song that made its way to radio. There was a video made, and it appeared that Snider and his Nervous Wrecks were on their way. The sophomore release was Step Right Up, and while the live show was becoming more and more legendary, the record sales reached a plateau. Snider’s third release on MCA was Viva Satellite. Seemingly a capitulation to label demands, it sounded like a Tom Petty record. During this time, legend has it that Snider became a difficult artist to handle on the label end. The Nervous Wrecks disbanded after a show, and Snider was dropped from MCA.
Snider made a soft landing when he signed with Oh Boy Records, owned by John Prine. Working with one of his heroes, Snider embraced the singer-songwriter station, releasing the 38-minute Happy to Be Here. His run at Oh Boy lasted three studio records and one live album, and he still speaks fondly of his time there. That time was, however, complicated. After the death of a dear friend, and the progression of severe back pain, Snider ended up in a rehabilitation center for pain killer addiction. He came out of the program a different writer, and he released East Nashville Skyline. The album contained a song written for his friend Skip Litz, a contemplation of suicide, and a genuinely healthier sounding Snider.
After two records that focused on the quieter side of his profession, Snider returned to the rollicking rockabilly that made the Nervous Wrecks legendary. He even reassembled some of the original members to do a few shows (many of them in Reno—Jack Ingram once told me that Todd plays Reno so much, they call him the “Reno Rocket”). He also took his first real swipe at politics in the United States. While his previous work invoked iconic American themes (war, abuse, etc.), he saved his overt attacks for the latest administration. The Devil You Know landed the wiser Snider on a series of Best Of lists. A more political Snider was welcome. And that theme seems to have carried over to Peace Queer.
Snider released Peace Queer, an EP with an attitude, on October 14th. As a celebration of his impending birthday, he is offering digital downloads of the EP free through October 31st. If “Mission Accomplished” is any indication, Snider plans on taking one last dig at the exiting administration. In traditional Snider form, the attacks kill with kindness, come from all angles, and spare very few. And for the first time, on an EP.
“I wanted to be brief. I appreciate brevity. In the bar or when someone comes to my porch to talk about religion, I appreciate them being brief. So that’s what I was doing here,” Snider says when asked about the choice to put out an EP. “I have two…no, three records done. Well, I don’t know if it is three. One might just be me messing around. I gotta look into that. But this was its own thing.”
Asked what exactly a peace queer is, Snider slides back into the story of his kidnapping.
“I was kidnapped. Well, I guess it is someone who is queer for peace. I have always supported the queer movement too. “
Snider also takes a turn at poetry for the second time is his career with “Is This Thing On”, presented first as spoken word and second as song. Also among the tracks on the solid EP is a cover of John Fogherty’s “Fortunate Son”. As difficult as it is to do so, Snider succeeds in taking a song burned into the psyche of Americans and make us listen to it for what feels like the first time,
Snider, a musician whose career has seen him go from front man of blazing rockabilly outfit the Nervous Wrecks to shoeless folk rocker, seems to have found a little bit of peace in the past few years. He has become a “surprised” homeowner, a married man, and seems to be preparing to make his own Woody Creek-like run for mayor of East Nashville. Well, that last part may be made up, but given his easy likability and love of the neighborhood, it doesn’t seem out of reach. Asked about the amount of time he has spent in EN, he says, “I tend to write about what I see, so I guess it means I write about my neighborhood a lot. The great thing about livin’ here is that most of the people are like me. When they’re home, they got nothing to do but to sit around and pick and sing.”
Talk about recordings and Snider quickly remembers, “The label told me to mention that I have another record coming out. It is eleven tracks. It was produced by Don Was. Jim Keltner plays drums on it.”
And as quickly as the business angle makes its way into the conversation, it makes its exit, Snider wandering off again.
“I don’t know what I did to make that [new full length] happen. I don’t have any bread, so I didn’t pay for it. I may have to leave town when this thing comes out.” Truth told, he seems happy with the control that being on New Door has given him. When asked about the b-sides and rarities album that was released by Oh Boy Records after his departure, and with limited collaboration, he laughs, “I was holding my breath when they told me they were gonna do that, but I’m OK with it now. I’ll take it to the bar with me anytime.”
Straight answers are not the modus operendi of Todd Snider. It can be a challenge to sort through all he throws your way. But his charm is overwhelming. Whether it’s a sly smile as he takes the stage, or cracking himself up on the phone after telling a joke that only he would get, he has that ability to make you wish you could toss over the nine-to-five job and hit the road. Regardless of dark times, he has had the remarkable ability to make those around him (and himself) smile. It’s no surprise to see people like Dave Hixx or Will Kimbrough, friends from 20-plus years back, still a vital part of his life and career. Todd Snider is a guy that everyone wants to spent time with. The phenomena carries over to his live show, where, regardless of where you sit, you’re bound to hear stories of times spent with Todd. It’s as if the whole place is packed with family. That can’t be coincidence.
Todd Snider is firmly into his second decade in the music industry, and by all accounts he’s found a way to navigate it. He makes the records he wants to make. He plays to great crowds from Alaska to Tampa. He gets to share his art with a wife who is also a true artist. He has dogs (if not, some wild ones may have taken over the Snider residence during our interview) and he has perspective. He’s also had the benefit of mentors like John Prine and Kris Kristofferson, but it is his individuality that has made him remarkable. His humor and satire have never overcome the quality of the material, and that seems to have been the unspoken goal. That and to collect his 7.50 from Jack Ingram.