Like any number of artists who draw inspiration from cultural detritus, Todd Snider adds autobiographical spin to his tales of substance abuse, jail time and terminal depression. But he doesn't glorify bad behavior so much as examine the toughness and resilience that make low life such an attractive subject for moralists of all stripes. On a series of remarkable records, Snider has gone head-to-head with the greatest songwriters and come up a winner — even if winning isn't what Snider originally had in mind.
Now 43, Snider was born in Portland, Ore., and grew up in various cities around the country. Moving to Memphis in the '80s, he honed his craft in various Bluff City clubs before making his way to the midstate a decade ago. He's thrived in Nashville, but says his decision to move here was pure serendipity.
"There was no logic in it," Snider says. "I drove past a house out in Fairview, and it had a 'For Rent' sign and a barn." He had already made an acclaimed debut, 1994's Songs for the Daily Planet, a record that grew out of his experiences in Memphis and Texas. In fact, it was in the Lone Star State that Snider had heard Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt and other Texas raconteurs. Snider seems to love rock 'n' roll, but he's a storyteller and a comedian who follows his own wayward strictures.
"This may sound like I'm being facetious, but I'm not sure I know anything about songwriting," Snider says. "I do it all the time, but it's been my experience that people who do it don't know anything about it. And I wouldn't say that I'm doing this with the hope of being understood. I'm practicing to die."
Songs for the Daily Planet was a promising debut, but it took Snider another 10 years to produce the masterful East Nashville Skyline. With its quick, dense rockers, Skyline swerved all over the highway like a beat-up Toyota driven by a man who sounded like he spent more time scanning the floor mats for pot seeds than watching the road. "The Ballad of the Kingsmen" crammed Marilyn Manson, Eminem, Marvin Gaye and "Louie Louie" into five minutes, and made it sound easy. It also fit into the tradition of Randy Newman's "The Story of a Rock and Roll Band" and Nilsson's "The Story of Rock and Roll," while "Sunshine" registered as an uncommonly nuanced song about suicide. Seemingly influenced by punk, Snider maintains that he was more enamored of The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones.
"The thing I didn't go for about some of the early punk was the same thing I didn't like about some early No Depression music: If the only reason you're making this music is because you hate a different kind of music, then I don't know," he says. "I love George Jones, so when I hear The Mudflap Wranglers talkin' shit on Kenny Chesney, I don't want to be part of that."
On last year's The Excitement Plan Snider continued to write about screwing up and straightening out, but the excitement was tempered by nods to the joys of marriage. Don Was' production added the bare minimum to Snider's voice and guitar. As for the artist himself, he's still full of surprises — which may well be jokes. As he says, "I'm into yachting, taking lessons. The first lesson was just to tell people you're into yachting. Next week we're gonna go back and they're gonna teach us some clothes to wear and stuff."