by The Spin
Any time spent at the Mother Church of Country Music is time enjoyed — The Spin has a sense of history, such as it is, and Saturday night's show featured two songwriters who may have encountered a bit of resistance in the glory days of The Grand Ole Opry at the grand old Ryman. Nowadays, things are different. What could be more perfect for a history lover who wishes to contemplate the evolution of the narrative form as it exists in the periphery of Nashville country music than the inspired scholarship of Justin Townes Earle and the post-stoner mastery of song that Todd Snider exhibits in such enormous quantities? Nothing, we say, absolutely nothing, and as usual, Captain Ryman forgot to line his hard, unforgiving pews with either bubble-wrap or soft dollar bills, but that's part of the fun of historical consciousness and all.
Justin Townes Earle's pedigree as an adept of American song comes naturally, of course, from his father, Steve Earle, and the younger Earle paid tribute to his mother, who was in the audience at The Ryman. Beginning his set with a tip of the hat to the late Levon Helm and Donald "Duck" Dunn — a pretty fair rhythm section by any standards — Earle said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have a band wandering around somewhere," and he started off with a solo rendition of "They Killed John Henry," a song from his 2010 Midnight at the Movies full-length.
Wearing a pale-yellow suit and sporting a bow tie that periodically went a little askew, Earle walked the floor in a dance with his guitar, and when his band came on, they grooved into a fine, Amazing Rhythm Aces-style number from this year's Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, "Memphis in the Rain." Drummer Jon Radford kept everything in the pocket, while guitarist Paul Niehaus and bassist Vince Ilagan provided bite and wit.
Earle proved himself a master at laconic, deadpan storytelling, and The Spin couldn't help but admire the way he combined the roles of scholar — one bit had the slender man with the guitar expounding on the blues roots of honky-tonk music — and the job of all-purpose entertainer. "One More Night in Brooklyn" got a subtly Chess-blues-flavored treatment, while Earle showed off his blues and punk roots with covers of Lightnin' Hopkins' "My Starter Won't Start This Morning" and The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait." The set ended with "Halfway to Jackson," and by this point, The Spin needed to rise up out of our pew and get on that train, no matter where it was bound.
Coming out to the funky strains of Quincy Jones' "The Streetbeater" — that's the actual title of the theme from Sanford and Son, as the history-hungry Spin has brought to your attention — Todd Snider grinned from under his hat like the Nashville hero he is. Barefoot and ready to make some noise on guitar, Snider went into "The Ballad of the Kingsmen," one of the songs on his classic 2004 full-length East Nashville Skyline. His band — comprising drummer Paul Griffifh, bassist Eric McConnell and violinist Molly Thomas — shadowed Snider throughout the night, with Griffith looking suitably distracted while playing some of the most minimal drum parts The Spin has ever witnessed.
Unlike Earle, whose tight arrangements and well-constructed songs signal a return to the basics of ensemble playing even as they reveal the songwriter's roots in the Texas charm of such tunesmiths as Willis Alan Ramsey and Earle's namesake, Townes Van Zandt, Snider makes a minimal stab at arrangements — his music is a backdrop for his precisely turned and seemingly simple songs. Still, the music reinforces Snider's message of liberal forbearance in the face of drug use, bad behavior and the kind of no-job, no-future laziness that could only produce a genius such as Snider.
As usual, his stories were choice, and he delivered them with an impressive combination of simplicity and craftiness, and that's not to mention the craft behind such tunes as "Alright Guy" and "Beer Run." He did a parody of a song about how the younger generation just doesn't understand — ironic coming from this professional-fuckup-turned-good, right? — called "Precious Little Miracles." It was ghastly and hilarious, with Snider attempting the kind of sensitive, jazz-inflected vocal that his work abjures.
Musically, Snider is indeed a minimalist as well as a miniaturist, and The Spin finds this combination of attributes especially interesting. "Conservative Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males" and his other equally — and justly — celebrated tunes are the work of a master wordsmith who happens to need music as a form to deliver his insights. Yet the basic and rather perfunctory nature of the performances makes it clear that Snider is a rock 'n' roller at heart, even if he is one of those respected Nashville tunesmiths.
At The Ryman, Snider deflated his own bohemianism, not to mention the boho leanings of his core audience, who are the converted. Whether or not Snider admits he wants to convert those straight Republicans out there, his storytelling and music could change some minds in the midst of the Tea Party era of American politics. Snider gets at something warm and humane in situations many would find a bit seedy, and the singer's gamy inclusiveness is another part of his genius. As for rock 'n' roll, The Spin realized he really believed in it when he encored with the venerable old "Louie Louie," and made it sound as new as The Kingsmen — and the half-forgotten author of the tune, Richard Berry — did back in the days before a drummer ever defiled The Ryman's sacred stage.