First released in 2004 on John Prine’s Oh Boy imprint, alt-country troubadour Todd Snider‘s East Nashville Skyline just recently made its vinyl debut. Since its initial release, the record has remained one of the most beloved in the Oregon native’s discography.
The album opens with the spare, autobiographical “Age Like Wine”, moves on to social commentary via “The Ballad of the Kingsmen”, which ties together the scapegoating of “Louie Louie” and Marilyn Mason with the authoritative, oracular voice present even from Snider’s earliest recordings down to his most recent. It, like “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males”, proves almost painful in how accurately it records and predicts the nation’s swing to the right.
Though it’s tempting for some to pigeonhole Snider as a folk singer because he wears an acoustic guitar, plays harmonica, and often wears a hat, he’s always been a rocker and rockers are in no short supply here, including “Nashville”, “Incarcerated”, and Fred Eaglesmith’s stark “Alcohol and Pills”. The latter is one of three covers that blend seamlessly into the framework established by Snider and sit nicely beside his classics, “Play a Train Song” and “Tillamook County Jail”.
Though the singer is no stranger to critical acclaim, listening to East Nashville Skyline in the cold, hard light of 2019, one thing is striking: It seems possible that despite these accolades and appreciations, it’s still possible to underestimate Snider. His stoner, slacker, everyman persona makes it easy to overlook several truths about him, least of which is that he may more accurately speak to the anxieties of a generation than did his contemporaries whom he sang of in “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues”.
Generation X may have been the first to see the futility of the American Dream fully, but few have raged so brilliantly and beautifully against it than has Snider. That he has done so for all these years while also making us laugh is an even more remarkable feat.
Speaking to PopMatters from his Nashville home on the eve of a European tour, the Music City veteran is a relaxed and affable conversationalist. Though he released an album of new songs, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol.3, earlier in 2019 and is eager to see East Nashville Skyline in the hands of vinyl lovers, he remains restless in his creativity, having already worked up at least five new songs for a future LP.
One of them, he says, is about his late friend and former Yonder Mountain String Band member Jeff Austin. Mention of Austin’s death, like that of Snider’s Hard Working Americans bandmate Neal Casal, brings more than a tinge of sadness to the singer’s voice.
“I talked to Jeff the night before he died,” he recalls. “I talked to him a lot that week. He was such a cometlike person, full of surprises. We had many great Saturday nights. His passing and Neal’s rocked our community.”
But Snider, as ever, is looking forward to the future. “I’m gonna keep on traveling as long as I can,” he says.
Tell me about writing the material for East Nashville Skyline.
“Incarcerated” and “The Ballad of the Kingsmen” were ones that I worked on for a couple of years. I wrote a few closer to the recording, and a few I finished when I got into the studio. I only wrote about eight.
Was Nashville still a new place for you at the time?
I had been on the East side of town for about four years. It had just recovered from a tornado. I guess East Nashville was always a place you’d go if you just came to town and were a musician. As Americana became more popular, our neighborhood became the place for that scene. There was a lot of organic guitar pulling going on. I’m sure it’s still going on. I just don’t know where anymore. At the time, I felt part of a scene and wanted to sing about it. It made me think of Austin in the 1970s.
When you were making the album did you feel that you were on to something good?
I was surprised. Peter Cooper was the first person to tell me that I had done something special. It did well. In hindsight, I realize that if you work hard on your songs in your 30s, your life will turn into something that’s worth something. I’ve been working on songs for a long time, and when my life got dramatic, I was sort of ready. That’s what it feels like now. To this day, I just feel like I’m busking, trying to hustle a joint, or a ride.
Do you remember deciding to open with “Age Like Wine”?
I think Will Kimbrough’s wife was the one who thought we should start the record with that. He was at home trying to sequence it, and he called me up and said, “My wife had a crazy idea. Start with that.” I just trusted her intuition. I feel like she nailed it.
There’s an intimate feeling to the record. Almost like we’re in the studio with you across an afternoon while you’re cutting the songs.
Loretta Lynn had just made a big record at Eric McConnell’s studio. He was on the map. If I was recording there, it meant that the people at the label wouldn’t think I was just over at my weed head buddy’s having fun. That’s what it was, though. I had gone to Memphis to make the record, and I stopped because I didn’t like it. One afternoon I played Eric “Play a Train Song” and was explaining what I didn’t like about the Memphis version. We started working on it. The next thing I knew, we had something.
The record didn’t have a plan. I was over at Eric’s to drink beer and smoke pot. Then we started recording. We called people we liked to come and play, and we were lucky that they were home. No one had heard the songs.
That seems like a recipe for success.
I like to sneak up on the records if I can. Not necessarily let everybody know what’s happening.
The topical songs still seem relevant. But you can never have any idea. Sometimes you hope things will get better.
[Laughs.] Yeah. I suppose it’s circular. I think there’s a perpetual notion that things are all coming to a head. I might sound like I know how life works, but I don’t. I know less about it all the time.
How did you go about selecting the cover material?
I had just kicked alcohol and pills and was trying to write about it. I realized, “I’m rewriting Fred Eaglesmith’s ‘Alcohol and Pills’. Why don’t I just sing that?” With the Billy Joe Shaver song, “Good News Blues”, I had been singing a song that we had written together. But on that take, for some reason, I took the words of a different one of his songs, and it worked.
I was really living a reckless life, and my manager at the time, Al Bunetta, who was John Prine’s manager too, would sing “Enjoy Yourself” as a warning. He was trying to get a message through to me. I kind of got it around the end of the record. As a way of letting him know that I was finally learning the lesson he’d been trying to teach me for a few years, I recorded that song. I sang it for him. He died a few years ago. He and John were really good to me. Often that was by telling me a truth that I didn’t want to hear.
In a lot of your songs you’re a character in the song or you’re at least singing in the first person.
In “Just Like Old Times”, I say the guy’s a pool hustler, but it’s just me. I was just sick of singing songs about guys with guitars, so I gave him a pool cue.
It must be a good feeling to look back on your records and say, “I got to make more than one.”
When I was really young, I thought it would be so cool to make an album. I still really, really like it.