By Andrew Dansby
(LSM March/April 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 2)
Perhaps things have changed since, but in the early- and mid-90s, Trinity University in San Antonio wasn’t much for concerts. Yet in the spring of 1995, the student events committee planned a multi-band show, to be held at the Sunken Gardens Amphitheater across the street, that would be headlined by De La Soul. De La canceled and — due to availability or an attempt to salvage promotional materials thanks to a similar name — Austin’s Soulhat filled in. Hours before the headliner, Todd Snider and his Nervous Wrecks played in front of about 20 people. “I assume you guys must’ve found a way to sneak liquor in here,” Snider said. (This was true.) Then he and the band played a set of garage country as though the theater were full.
I’ve seen Snider at least a dozen times since, usually dragging along a future convert. While his albums have been mostly hit and occasionally miss affairs, Snider’s show — be it solo or with a band — is where he displays a particularly elevated talent. It’s a place where he appears more comfortable than when dealing with people one on one or, God forbid, at a business meeting regarding some tangential aspect of the music business. His songs are stories and his stories have a certain musicality, and Snider orchestrates the whole thing like the youthful reprobate operating a rusty ride at a second-tier amusement park. He gives off the illusion of ramshackle danger in thrilling fashion. Or maybe he knows the whole thing could come undone and he finds that funny . . . so long as nobody gets hurt.
His new album might be his best album because it’s a live album, and a double at that. Live: The Storyteller is heavy on songs from a trilogy of excellent albums — East Nashville Skyline, The Devil You Know and The Excitement Plan — he released between 2004 and 2009. This five-year period was crucial for Snider, as his writing got sharper and more poignant without sacrificing the humor that has been there since he released Songs for the Daily Planet way back in 1994. At the time, Snider seemed like he might become a one-note act, a guy capable of funny songs that pulled at dangling treads of the times, only to be forgotten faster than you could say “Mud’n’honey.” Instead, he studied those he admired — songwriters who became friends and admirers, like John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver — and others who he just admired, like Randy Newman and Roger Miller.
Sometimes he studied those writers too well, with close calls and rehab and run-ins with the law. At their worst his learning experiences were scares for family, friends and fans. At their best, they became songs. Snider writes transparently, so when he’s singing about a pro baseball player pitching a perfect game on acid, that’s not him. When he’s singing about how the handcuffs hurt his hands when he leans back, and then asks, “How do you know when it’s too late to learn?” — well, that’s him.
Blessed with a gift for gab, Snider is always one of the funnest (and funniest) guys to interview in the business. Here, he talks candidly about heroes, dancing athletes, and — oh yeah, his new record.
From time to time I hear things on the news that remind me of a song of yours. This morning it was about a car salesman in Chicago who was asked five times to remove his Green Bay Packers tie and got fired over it.
[Laughs] Right? Well some things are just a matter of principle. My wife was totally sold on the Packers. She was bit by them. I was bit by the Jets, which should’ve been her team, because she’s from New York. I was sad to see them lose. It’s only once in a while you see a coach on TV saying funny shit, which is something I like.
He [Jets coach Rex Ryan] was a talker.
He was a talker. But I mainly go for Coach Fisher [former Tennessee Titans’ coach Jeff]. I saw him drinking in an airport bar and that was enough for me. He just wasn’t jocky. Me and my wife throw down for the Titans. We have a big party but nobody comes over, it’s just our own party. So we get shit-faced by ourselves and play “Tighten Up,” that old song, and dance around. My parents always wanted me to get into sports and I always hated it. But now that I’m older, I get the whole sports riff: gambling and drinking, you know?
You’ve said before that you were made an honorary Kansas City Royal, right?
Yeah. The best place to go when you’re on the road is to the baseball stadium for a team that’s not kicking ass. You get a quarter-full stadium where you can run around and get beer real quick and watch fireworks. If the team’s failing bad enough, you can go to some empty spot and smoke weed. I had a day in Royals Stadium. I had my radio tuned to some oldies station, smoking grass and drinking. Me? I root for extra innings. My main team is extra innings.
Ever see the St. Paul Saints play? They have a ball pig, the Spam Mobile, and the local fire department puts out a fire in center field during the seventh-inning stretch.
No shit? No, never heard of them.
I believe Bill Murray is a co-owner, along with the son of the guy, Veeck, who sent the little person to the plate in a game in 1951.
Oh man, I think Bill Murray has another minor league team, too. He might be my favorite actor. Have you ever seen that movie, Where the Buffalo Roam?
Yeah, most people don’t like it.
No, man, nobody liked it. But I was staying up late once as an eighth grader and I saw that fucking thing. I was a different person the next day. That became my hero. Not even Hunter (S. Thompson), but the way Murray played him. I started walking around at school like that the next day. I heard he’s a pot head, which I also admire.
I could talk baseball all day, but I suppose there’s a new album to talk about. A lot of time live albums seem to be placeholders or contractual obligations. But you seem to be very much in your element here.
Um, I hear that. Let me think … I guess I always felt that way. I like records, but I’ve made, what? Ten? And shows, I’ve done thousands. I’ve just had more practice at being on the road than anything else I do in the world. And I’ve always hoped that the thing I was working on would be unique. I always told the people who help me run everything that my goal was to be hard to describe. Something so weird people don’t know what to call it.
Steve Earle once told me about a small number of guys — John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Goodman and Loudon Wainwright among them — who could own a room with just voice and guitar. I’ve always thought your shows had that feeling.
Yeah, well thanks, and I think Steve can do it too. I think Hayes [Carll] does it. And Jerry Jeff Walker … Fuck, when I first started thinking that this was what I wanted to do, it was 1985 and I went to Gruene Hall. It was just Jerry Jeff and a guitar. I had no background information on him at all. I didn’t know what “Redneck Mother” was. All I knew was I was going to see the guy who wrote “Mr. Bojangles.” We were in the second row. And he did what I try to do now. I immediately set out trying to copy what I saw.
I remember a San Antonio show in 1995. I think there were maybe 20 people there, and you referenced that fact from the stage; I think you said the only people there must’ve found a way to sneak in booze. But you guys still played like the place was packed.
For our group at that time we weren’t really concerned about what was happening out there. We were just very connected with what we were playing. I was still young and this label had given me money. So we ran around and played. The talking between songs, there was plenty of time to do that later. Now I’ve morphed into this Fred Sanford type. But back then, I was a kid running around trying to be like Joe Ely, who we always patterned ourselves after. I remember when I took the guys to see him, he had that sax player, Bobby Keys. Man, I saw him at an airport recently. It was this guy with a saxophone, and I thought, “Man, if I know anything, that’s Bobby Keys.” I walked up and said, “Mr. Keys?” “Yes.” I just said, “Damn, you made my life better. Thank you, and I’ll leave you alone now.” He said, “Well, thank you, son.” Fourty-four, and I’m still flaking over people in an airport.
He’s a big player in Keith Richards’ book. Have you read it yet?
Oh yeah, man, I love that guy. And I gotta say I liked Mick Jagger more after reading it. I love those two. I’d hate it if they ever left us. I’ve got a new song about ’em called “Brenda.” No music with it yet though. I’m sure I’ve told somebody this before, but if one of those two guys killed somebody in my family, I’d have to say, “Well, what did they do to deserve it?” I’m in the service of the Stones. Dylan too. Those two songwriting groups, I never get tired of. I listen to all the shit people say sucks. They don’t have a record I don’t like. I once bought a tape of Dylan talking to some guy on the phone having an argument. That was worth my money.
Who was the guy?
It was a guy who went through Dylan’s garbage. Somehow he got him on the phone and they got into an argument. I paid $20 for it. Me and Elvis (Snider’s tour manager) were listening to it. I said, “Another great album by Bob Dylan!”
Your recommendation is the reason I revisited and fell in love with New Morning.
Man, I loved that one. It’s so multi-faceted, getting into this guy exploring being a little older and thinking about happiness a little.
Which is healthy.
Sure, you gotta be happy sometime. At least for a summer or two.
Some people think their songs are holy, but you seem to relish the opportunity to meddle with them live.
Yeah, especially when you’re playing solo. Solo, if you fuck up the words, well, technically that’s an edit since I’m the writer. I could argue that I was just editing it. [Laughs] But the band I’ve been playing with lately is different than the first one. There’s more of a Grateful Dead style of improvisation, which I’ve come to enjoy more as I get older. I saw Joe Ely the other day and they’re so tight it’s ridiculous. And not in a bad way. But these days as I get older, when it comes time to make a set list, I don’t really want a plan. No plan. The beat doesn’t even have to be the same.
I like the shout out to Widespread Panic in “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White American Males.” I get grief from friends for liking that band.
I love those guys. I love that kind of music. People ask me what I listen to and I tell them I like to listen to hippies. I mean, I love the word guys, the obvious old ones and guys like Hayes and Jack [Ingram]. But when we’re having a cookout I want the woodling, noodling shit with 19-hour songs. The less words the better. I don’t want to hear any words when I’m grilling.
I guess they can be distracting.
Yeah, man, it’s like, “Wait, what’d he just say? … Goddamit, honey, just fucking finish the burgers for me, I gotta rewind that.”
In an intro, you call the show a 90-minute distraction from our impending doom. Do you really feel that way?
[Laughs] I think … yeah, I think that’s a pretty accurate description of most things. For some reason that’s what we’re all doing here. I guess I’m a negative doomist, just naturally. That’s how … [laughs] I am, I guess I’m a gallows guy. There are different ways of doing it, though, distracting ourselves. A bar mitzvah. Or a football game. By the way, isn’t “important game” an oxymoron? I saw this list of oxymorons online.
Now that you mention it, it kind of is. I could look and see if it’s listed anywhere.
Yeah, I’ll definitely look it up. I’m fairly new to the computer, but I love the computer. The iTunes thing is unbelievable. It’s like a jukebox in your house, but you get to keep the songs. And YouTube, fuck yeah. I was just looking up clips of Keith Richards talking about his book.
Speaking of important games, I was glad “America’s Favorite Pastime” was included on the live album. Dock Ellis didn’t seem to believe in important games.
Yeah, man, I like that guy. He was funny and not just for doing that [Note: Ellis claims he pitched a perfect game on acid]. It takes us back to that Jeff Fisher conversation since I’m mostly into sports because of gambling and drinking. I just don’t like jocks who are jocky. I don’t want to hear that bullshit about doing it for the team or any of that stuff. I like guys like Dennis Rodman and Mike Tyson and Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali. I especially like it when it’s an athlete who dances. I like it when they dance.
Like Icky Woods?
Man, the Icky Shuffle killed. Love the guys who dance. Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, that dude could dance.