[27 August 2014]
Todd Snider gets a lot done considering he’s a self-proclaimed pot smokin’, lazy ass hippie. He has said to Rolling Stone magazine that he smokes more dope before nine in the morning than most people do in a whole day, so you could reasonably assume that Snider could struggle to finish his sentences, let alone finish any more projects. However in the last six years he’s released five studio albums (Peace Queer, The Excitement Plan, Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables, Time As We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker and this release, Cheatham Street Warehouse), as well as a live album (Todd Snider Live, The Storyteller), a very entertaining book (I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like), contributed to super-group Hard Working Americans’ self-titled debut and the Turbo Fruits’ Why Can’t We Be Friends, and is featured in a DVD, East Nashville Tonight. He also seems to tour almost constantly, and releases many of his shows via download. It all sounds highly energetic.
Snider started out in the early ‘90s as an electric artist on MCA, but engineered a reverse-Dylan by going acoustic, or certainly into a more folk-rock direction. However he started out with his first paying gig as a true folkie at Cheatham Street Warehouse, the venue in San Marcos, Texas. Snider was part of the “class of ‘87” along with James McMurtry, Terri Hendrix, Bruce Robison, Hal Ketchum, John Arthur Martinez and Tish Hinojosa, all at that time unknown singer-songwriters who’d sign-up on the Wednesday night list for the weekly Songwriters Circle. Others who developed their skill there include Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Strait, Randy Rogers and Slaid Cleaves, so Snider is certainly in good company.
Veteran songwriter and proprietor of Cheatham Street Warehouse, Kent Finlay, has recently been diagnosed with a relapse of multiple myeloma, the same cancer he beat more than a decade ago. In response, Snider has released Cheatham Street Warehouse, a digital only album of songs performed by Snider but written by Finlay (save the title track, written by Snider), with all proceeds going to the Kent Finlay Medical Fund. Snider’s book, I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like, recounts his first night playing at Cheatham Street’s open mike night, how Finlay encouraged him afterwards, as well as providing him with an education in music, a PA system, more gigs and helping him make a demo tape. A songwriter’s friend indeed, and you can understand why Snider is digging deep to help.
Co-produced by Thomm Jutz and Peter Cooper, Cheatham Street Warehouse is a laid-back country-ish exercise, well accentuated by Snider’s warm, raspy vocals, and shows off Finlay as an adept songwriter. His songs require an ease in storytelling, and they are well suited to Snider’s style. “Hill Country”, for example, is a local’s winding lament at the countryside getting levelled and paved in the name of progress. The imagery is impressive; one verse recounts how “Uncivilised pagans drank untreated water/ Right out of our rivers back in their day/ Now those same streams bubble with clean treated sewage/ While they sit in their hot tubs and sip Perrier.”
Overall, the songs reflect a songwriter’s community. “How Much Abuse” expertly recounts the physical downside of a musician’s life on the road, “Whiskey to stay loose/ Pills to stay awake”; “TJ Was The Drummer” tells the story of a prison band forced to break up when the drummer gets a pardon. As a free man TJ gives up music, and his future looks brighter than before, but because of the band he looks back at his period behind bars as the best time of his life. “The Songwriter” beautifully sets out the motivation for writing, so that “If he were doing it for money / He’d be doing something else / All he wants from life / Is a chance to give himself / To some future generation / Who’ll be touched by what they’ve heard.” It goes a long way to explaining why some persist despite the difficulties of choosing a creative career, and a certain type of unbridled optimism – “You could never make him stop believing in tomorrow / Tomorrow is all today is all about.” “Reaching for the Stars” emphasizes the extreme nature of living as a traveling musician, “In search of immortality / Reaching for the stars / Working for the door.”
Cheatham Street Warehouse has a distinct road morality, coming across most expressly on “Be Nice to Them” which advises the upwardly mobile to be good to those they meet on the way up. “I’ve Lived Some Songs” turns the idea of art reflecting life on its head; Snider’s world-weary performance is quite captivating, as is the beautiful steel guitar by Terry Crisp. “Plastic Girl” is a comic vignette about falling in love with a blow-up doll, with all the advantages of smooth skin and no bad breath. There is, of course, a twist at the end, which will not be revealed here.
Snider’s own “Cheatham Street Warehouse” is a great recollection of his early days performing at the venue, and a worthy tribute to Finlay – “The telephone rang and it was you / Asking if I was working on anything new.” Snider tells us that the way he keeps his friends from getting away from him is to put them in his songs, perhaps an extension of the oral tradition.
The album finishes with “Tree”, a short burst of eco-warriorism, but it’s done with humour to make the point. In fact, the whole of Cheatham Street Warehouse could be characterised by good humour in the face of adversity, a shot of light to help a friend, and stands up on its own as a worthy addition to the Snider catalogue. Let’s hope it does some good for Finlay because these are spirited songs, and he’s done a lot himself to help others. The digital album can be obtained with a $25 donation to the fund.