Page 2 of 3
Todd Snider has a lot of friends.
As he talks to a reporter one April afternoon at his favorite East Side watering hole, Drifters, the discussion is interrupted every five minutes or so as he greets various buddies.
But it's not a matter of quantity over quantity. Those who populate his circle tend not to be fair-weather types. And being the informal guy that he is — he often goes on stage barefoot, after all — he happens upon kindred spirits at profoundly unguarded moments.
For instance, he met Kimbrough in a coatroom at an industry showcase. Kimbrough was in roots-rock outfit The Bis-quits at the time.
"They had a big area where somebody'd carved some shit into some ice and there was shrimp and ... you know," Snider says. "Everyone was standing around. That was more than I'd bargained for. It made me a little nervous, I guess. So I went in to hide, catch my breath. I was standing there for a few minutes, and he came in to do the same thing."
Snider's relationship with his longtime road manager and close friend Dave "Elvis" Hixx had a similarly inauspicious beginning. Hixx had finagled his way into the title of Detroit street rep for Maverick Records through a buddy who was Madonna's brother. On this particular day, he'd used that business card to get backstage at a Pontiac, Mich., music festival.
"I had snuck into this concert and the security guards were throwing me out," Hixx explains, laughing. "I had just seen Todd perform. And the security guard asked me, 'Who are you with?' And I pointed at Todd and said, 'I'm with him.' And they looked at him, and I swear to God, he nodded and said, 'Yeah, he's with us.' And I have been eating off free buffets ever since."
Snider confirms the story. "He pointed right at me. I was moved by the artistic gesture. I kind of got what happened right away. ... He looked around and thought, 'Maybe this fucking guy will think this is funny.' "
Then there's the tale of how Snider met one of his dearest comrades, the late Skip Litz, a longhaired Marine Corps vet and biker who ran sound at former East Nashville club The Radio Cafe, sold pot out of his car, and even tour-managed Snider for a brief stretch.
Litz first got Snider's attention while Snider was walking around the block one day to clear his head. "When I came around again," Snider says, "[my] album — which was coming out like in a month or something — is blasting out of this guy's house. And I don't know how he got it.
"And I say, 'Where did you get that?' And he said, 'I'm not gonna say.' He was fucking with me, for sure. So I went in and started talking to him, started a conversation that we never really finished."
Litz is the subject of Snider's "Play a Train Song" — a phrase Litz was famous for shouting at just about every show he attended — and participated in a slow-speed motorcycle chase that became legend in East Nashville. As the story goes, Litz led more than a dozen cops from downtown Nashville to his driveway, going all of 5 mph the whole way, and honking and waving at friends he passed as though he was in a parade. (There are also legendary stories of Litz and Snider having such a good time on the road that Snider would completely miss a show.)
It was Litz who introduced Snider to Eric McConnell. Snider immediately took to McConnell's low-key East Side studio — the same bare-bones facility where Jack White and Loretta Lynn recorded Lynn's Van Lear Rose.
McConnell says his recording style is less about the "technical stuff" and "more about the hang," so he and Snider immediately clicked. "The weirder, the better for me," McConnell says. "If the music's not pretty interesting to me, I can't do it. We've always gone as far as we felt we needed to. There's a lot of tame music in this town, and I don't want to have anything to do with it."
And Snider's wife, Melita? Well, the two met in a place that was anything but conventionally romantic — a drug and alcohol rehab facility.
"I don't know what it was," Melita says. "I just felt warm towards him. I just felt a connection. But I really did feel like, 'You're here to do this work, and this is frowned upon here. Shit, I'm in trouble!'
"I was in a place in my life," she continues, "where I was fighting with myself about what I was gonna do with my artistic wants. I had really been putting a lot of that aside, just 'cause I grew up with the mentality of, 'Make sure you have stability — then if you want to do your art, do your art.' It was really nice to meet somebody who was ... just living exactly how they wanted to be."
For all this talk of Snider as a free spirit dwelling outside the mainstream, it's worth noting that he works in a musical tradition that's had its share of self-serious idealists. And a folksinger with a social or political ax to grind can easily find himself with a shrunken audience.
But that hasn't been the case with Snider at all. Major critics from The New York Times' Jon Caramanica to Rolling Stone's Jody Rosen have praised Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables for delivering sharp and timely commentary. When you hear the songs, it's no wonder; Snider really puts his heart on the line for people who've been bullied by present-day life's circumstances. The premise of "In Between Jobs" is chilling: Blow off a down-and-out panhandler and he may resort to killing you and taking your stuff. "New York Banker" is a vignette about a schoolteacher whose retirement money is wiped out by greedy Wall Streeters who get off scot-free. The song was partly inspired by a post-show conversation with former White House chief of staff, current Chicago mayor — and big Todd Snider fan — Rahm Emanuel.
The alt-rock talking blues "In the Beginning" got its start closer to home, while Snider held court with the regulars at his neighborhood bar. "Somewhere I read that Napoleon said that religion was invented to keep the poor from killing the rich," he says "Then I remember one day sort of taking off on that down at Drifters with, I think it was, J.J. [Johnson] and Jill [Ferree], and I was telling them some sort of almost Bill Hicks-ish kind of rant about how that might've happened."
The storyline would no doubt offend the sort of person who goes to a megachurch and buys into the prosperity gospel, which is probably what Snider was going for.
"It's funny," says Johnson, who works in marketing. "When I was playing [the album] on my laptop the other night for my wife, when 'In the Beginning' came on, the laptop crashed. It, like, overheated. So I just rebooted it and played it again. Came to the same point and it crashed. I don't know if that's an omen or not."
Provocative lyrics aside, opinions are always only part of the story with Snider. The rest is in the delivery. As Melita puts it, borrowing from Mary Poppins, "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." Her husband's sweetening agents come in the form of deliciously skewed punch lines, red-blooded melodic hooks, shambling grooves and a slacker-next-door delivery that makes clear this guy doesn't have a self-righteous bone in his body.