Provocation to Punch Line: The Music of Todd Snider

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A barefoot Todd Snider gets audience members out of their seats at the Ryman Auditorium. Photo by "Nashville Dave."

A barefoot Todd Snider gets audience members out of their seats at the Ryman Auditorium. Photo by “Nashville Dave.”

Just a month ago veteran Nashville songwriter Todd Snider got his first taste of what it’s like to co-headline a sold-out Ryman Auditorium. What’s more, the album he released this Spring was praised by the likes of The New York Times and Rolling Stone as a timely political statement. But he didn’t necessarily aim for any of that—he’s a folksinger who doesn’t sweat his stature.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

 

From the impressive reviews it’s gotten, you’d think Todd Snider’s album Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables was the product of much hand-wringing over how to package and present it. But that’s not the case at all.

Snider’s manager had to track him down at his neighborhood bar the day the project was due at the CD manufacturer. The songwriter grabbed a napkin and doodled the cover art on the spot. The result was a cartoonish self-portrait of a characteristically barefoot Snider and his dog.

The spur-of-the-moment, hand-drawn cover art for Agnostic Hymns & Stone

The spur-of-the-moment, hand-drawn cover art for Agnostic Hymns & Stone

As first impressions go, the image gave a scruffy one, which matched the unkemptness of the music itself. While he usually leans on the incisive guitar-playing of his multitalented buddy Will Kimbrough, he opted to tackle rawer licks himself this time around.

“That doesn’t feel like a Serious Political Album to me,” Snider says of the overall aesthetic. “It sounds pleasant and delightful to me. But it does sound messy. And there’s a lot of agnostic-y thoughts in there. And some rich people take some shots. But the Stones don’t.”

He means The Rolling Stones. Besides being a fan of Mick and Keith, Snider’s shared a producer with them. Don Was worked on his 2009 album The Excitement Plan, along with a good chunk of the latter-day Stones catalog.

As unlikely as it might seem now that he’s self-releasing his music, Snider has put out several major label albums. Early on, he was produced by legendary Nashville record man Tony Brown, and he opened for Hootie & the Blowfish at the height of Hootie mania.

DRAWING LINES IN THE SAND

 

But these are really Snider’s halcyon days. Here’s a paradox worth considering: he’s gotten more opinionated on his independent albums over the past decade—and he’s simultaneously grown more popular. The shift began around 2004, when he penned an extreme political caricature that did a lot for his career.

At one point in the 3/4 time stone-country tune, he wryly forecasts a clash between those on rival ends of the spectrum: “We who have nothing and most likely will ‘til we all end up locked up in jail by conservative Christian, right-wing republican, straight, white, American males.”

Snider recalls, “Everyone said, ‘Oh, don’t say that. You’ll piss off half the country. But you’ll make the other half want to bring you weed.’”

Recording a Jerry Jeff Walker tribute album. Photo by Stacie Huckeba.

Recording a Jerry Jeff Walker tribute album. Photo by Stacie Huckeba.

But the increasingly unfiltered Todd Snider—himself a straight, white, American male—still proved plenty likeable. When he jabbed at George W. Bush on his 2008 EP Peace Queer—which was named for a song by folk-punk agitators The Fugs—he felt the need to include the good-natured disclaimer track “Ponce of the Flaming Peace Queer”. It concludes with this spoken bit: “Lately my friends have been telling me that my songs have gotten more and more opinionated. So I wanted to let you know, before we finish this music, that while over the course of this music I may share some of my opinions with you, I don’t share them with you because I think they’re smart or because I think you need to know them—I share them with you because they rhyme. I did not do this to change your mind about anything—I did this to ease my own mind about everything.”

NOT PULLING PUNCHES—OR TAKING THEM

 

With Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, Snider has delivered his most provocative collection of songs to date. There’s one on there about impoverished kids resorting to guns. (The fact that he gave it the saccharine title “Precious Little Miracles” indicates just how tongue-in-cheek it is.) In another, “In Between Jobs”, a begging turns into a mugging. And the album opens with a song suggesting religion was invented to keep the poor from lynching the rich.

Jabbing with a smile. Photo by "Nashville Dave."

Jabbing with a smile. Photo by “Nashville Dave.”

Snider chuckles, “I have been accused of advocating violence on this record, which I don’t know if I think that’s fair. I am a hippie, a delightful old hippie. And I couldn’t defend myself if I had to. But I think in a poetic sense I was trying to talk about the idea that violence is out there. In any history book I ever read there’s no, like, ‘And then there was the period of no violence.’”

That religion-implicating song is titled “In the Beginning”, and Snider got the idea for it while he was holding court with his drinking buddies at Drifters, the very same East Nashville watering hole where he eventually improvised his album art.

Another time, inspiration hit when he hung out with a friend who’d come to hear him play. (Snider attracts a strikingly broad variety of friends and fans in terms of social station and political orientation.) This particular friend happened to be Rahm Emanuel, former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago mayor. On his suggestion, Snider wrote about the housing crash.

In the resulting song, “New York Banker”, Snider sings about a teacher of retirement age arriving at a crushing financial revelation: “I came to the day I had waited on just to find out all the money in our pension was gone. We invested in something called the Abacus Bond sold to us by a New York Banker.”

“It’s a pretty dark little story,” he admits. “But I hope that if some teacher was living in Arkansas and heard that, they’d… I don’t know. They’d at least have a three-minute distraction.”

LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE

 

Providing a three-minute distraction may sound like a strikingly modest goal for a guy who habitually takes up for down-and-outers in his songs. Then again, Snider is the rare folksinger who possesses a gift for getting people to laugh even when they disagree with his views. His skewed, frequently surprising punch lines make his confrontational ideas go down easier. He’s never forgotten how he drawn was to the similarly humorous approaches of his songwriting idols, one of them being John Prine—to whose indie label he was once signed—and another Jerry Jeff Walker—whose songs he covers on the new tribute album Time As We Know It.

Striking a playfully triumphant pose at the Ryman. Photo by "Nashville Dave."

Striking a playfully triumphant pose at the Ryman. Photo by “Nashville Dave.”

“For me, music has always been Saturday night,” Snider explains. “And for me, Saturday night has always been drinking and joking around. …The last thing that you want to do, or that you want someone to do to you, in my opinion, is be preached at or lobbied or educated or any of that. …I feel like I just try not to take the Saturday night out of it. Because then you might as well go into speech-writing or that type of thing, for my money.

Then again, if Snider ever wants to get really serious about political discourse, he can always see if Rahm Emanuel is hiring.

 

 

 

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