Snider gives us a peek into his workshop, and shows us that he puts his songs together with care -- but that he also has a little fun in the process.
A friend emailed me today, raving about bulk pickup day for the garbage in her town, and that she and her boyfriend had gone to the rich neighborhoods to see what the other side was tossing out. "Man, you should have seen the stuff", she wrote. "We got a hammock, a mower, a large shop vac ... There was a new-looking regulation-size ping pong table, but we couldn't get it home. We also passed on bikes, a microwave, a weed eater and tons of other stuff, like stereos and furniture. Rich people are dope. But we enjoy their dopeness."
She and her boyfriend, both of them artsy bohemian types, live in East Nashville, which is separated from Nashville proper by an easily crossed river, but which feels pretty much like an independent village. It's a place where you can see a limo unload a troupe of costumed midgets into a mansion for a lavish Christmas party one night, and get mugged while you're unloading your groceries from the car the next. Extreme poverty butts up against million dollar homes, and the residents are a mix of newcomers reviving old houses, and people who lived in the area through the scary decades that made East Nashville seem like an Old West gun town. But the area's residents possess a fierce, overwhelming pride, and even joke about the area's duality. Bumpers stickers proclaim things like "37206 -- We'll Steal Your Hearts AND Your Lawnmower" and "37206 -- Over the River and Through The Hood".
It's also a place populated by, as Todd Snider puts it in "From a Rooftop", "that guy from your town that would rather pick than eat / And we all met here, to do almost exactly that / We usually got about a half tank of gas / And we don't feel like crossing the river / But we will, we will if it's for a song we like." Or more succinctly, "East Nashville? Shit, man, we're living in a dream world over here."
Granted, Peace, Love and Anarchy isn't all about Nashville -- it's an odds 'n' sods collection covering Snider's five years at John Prine's Oh Boy label, so the material's all over the map. But its strongest tracks seem to carry forth the attitude of Snider's most recent albums, 2004's East Nashville Skyline and 2006's equally Nashville-informed The Devil You Know. "East Nashville Skyline", which never made it to the album of the same name, is a gently loping number (featuring pedal steel legend Lloyd Green) that pays tribute to Snider's current home, while "From a Rooftop" does the same via Snider's trademark acoustic guitar/harmonica/spoken word approach. There's even a ragged demo version of "Nashville", which adds a humorous series of Nashville-style song endings, but isn't that much different from the finished version.
Even the songs that branch out beyond East Nashville, though, show Snider to be a songwriter who exhibits that same wry self-awareness in his songwriting as many of his neighbors do in their day-to-day lives. "Combover Blues" flashes forward to a singer's descent into middle age: "After all these years and traveling bands / Backstage beers and rental vans / Have left me here with all I've got to lose / This aching back, this smoker's cough / This broken heart and to top it all off / These combover blues". In a similar vein, "Cheatham Street Warehouse" explores the complicated nature of missing a loved one on the road: "I know how to keep you here / Where you know you belong / In a song". The album's "simplest" track, the four-line spoken word "Dinner Plans", confesses, "I knelt / Losing red wine / Knees to linoleum / She called her parents and canceled dinner plans".
Overall, Peace, Love and Anarchy is a low-key, relaxed album, befitting the fact that many of its songs are presented here in their most basic stages. "I Will Not Go Hungry" features a gentle and contented call to Jesus, while "Missing You" concludes, "I'm gonna pull down these shades / And play some old songs". Even the album's one cover, Jerry Jeff Walker's "Stoney", is a fond ode to a "bullshitter" that eases into a meditation on the ways that liars are perceived as they age.
Albums like this help counter the perception of Snider as a novelty singer. Since making a splash with "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues" back in 1994, he’s best known to the general public for morning show-friendly fare like "Beer Run", "Vinyl Records", or (on a liberal station) "You Got Away With It". Good songs, but taken by themselves, they tend to reinforce the idea that Snider's just bumbling through with an "aw shucks" grin and a knack for telling stories, when the reality is that Snider works hard at his craft. Just like East Nashville, I guess: some folks might try to dismiss it, but there's actually an awful lot going on, and a lot to be proud of.