One night we were sitting there listening and Trogg put on this CD of this guy I’d never heard before. Jerry Jeff Walker. Who some of you might have heard of… If you haven’t ever heard of him the main thing that people know him for is the song “Mr Bojangles” but he’s got a ton of great songs. And, I had never heard that kind of music before. I got so excited and I told my friend I said “this is it, for me, you know?” He said “well, he’s playing at this place called Gruene Hall.” So, that Friday night me and Trogg got in his truck and we drove down to Gruene Hall to see Jerry Jeff and he come out kinda like tonight, like I am, with just a guitar, and sang some songs. I thought “Well, shit – I could do that!” So, I went and got myself a guitar, you know?
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As origin stories go, that’s about as unpretentious as it gets. But, that’s Todd Snider all over. Few artists in this or any age can both claim and appear to be taking it less seriously than Snider while managing to entrance, engage, and delight audiences with his performances, with his often astonishing songs. Since that fateful show in 1985, Snider has been a classic troubadour, travelling across the United States, back and forth and back again, usually just on his own with his beat up guitar and his even more beat up voice. Just singing some songs.
As he explained in a recent New York Times article, “What [Jerry Jeff Walker] was singing about that night made me feel less like a freeloader and more like a free spirit.” In both cases, I think we should underline, the root word is “free”. Freedom, whether physical or mental, is a constant theme in his work, in his worldview. But, though it is an unavoidably left-liberal political articulation of this freedom – a kind of “don’t tread on me” libertarianism mingled with a hippie “smile on your brother” humanism – he is never strident, never preachy, always open to the reality that people will disagree with him, but that shouldn’t mean they can’t listen to the song too. Self-deprecating and almost aggressively unpretentious, Snider prefaces all his political material by reminding us he’s saying this stuff “not to change your mind” but because “it rhymes”. He’ll ask his audience’s permission before careening off into a lengthy story about something or other which may lead into a song, but just as easily may wind up with the crowd roaring with laughter at a punchline. The next number might turn out to be a plaintive ballad. Or a cover. You never can tell.
For all of this, Todd Snider is among the best performers in music today. If you can’t get out to see him live, there is ample YouTube evidence to attest to this fact. Or, there’s the glorious experience of settling in for a long road trip with his 2003 Near Truths and Hotel Rooms in the CD player, easily among the most complete, most entertaining, and most evocative (really the word I want to use is best) live records in my collection. (It is also the disc which contains the origin story quoted from above.)
On Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables, 2012’s pitch-perfect evisceration of contemporary class politics in the US (and the closest thing to a soundtrack for the Occupy movement as I have yet encountered), Snider came the nearest he has come in 20-plus years of recording to getting up in our faces. This is as angry as he has ever been, and the songwriting is all the more powerful for it. Yet, it may be that this push away from half-measures and ironic political jokes into outright class antagonism (at one point he seems to endorse Napoleon’s famous dictum that “Religion is what keeps the poor from killing the rich”, for instance) has caused him to feel the need for a bit of a retreat. And so we get the curious spectacle here of a roots musician returning to his roots. (Turns out, it ain’t that far a walk.)
Time As We Know It is Snider’s love letter to Jerry Jeff Walker, a cover record that does almost nothing to the original songs besides play them, remind us of their brilliance, celebrate their transcendent simplicity. Standout tracks abound, and stumbles are few (and possibly deliberate, or accidental, but almost certainly waved at with an idle hand: “so what, the rest sounds pretty good”).
Produced by Don Was, the record was culled from a series of sessions in which Snider and a few pals and bandmates (including the great Elizabeth Cook, Kix Brooks, and Amy LaVere) played songs “at random”, not picking favourites “because I don’t have favourites”. As a result, there are some obvious “big” numbers (“Bojangles”, “Pissin’ in the Wind”, “Sangria Wine”) and lots of lesser-known tracks. This is a record for fans of Jerry Jeff, certainly, who will appreciate these reverent covers from an obvious and devoted acolyte. But, for Snider’s fans the album will be even more powerful; as a celebration of his deepest influence, as the once and future answer to that boring old first question in your standard lazy interview, Time As We Know It is a kind of perfect release. It’s a shambling, half-tossed study of an artist who epitomised the shambling, half-tossed record, executed by a musician who has made his career out of shambling, half-tossed performances. It’s Dylan doing Guthrie, or Amos doing Mitchell; it is the student reminding us that there once was a teacher.