You may have recently heard the news that America’s best working songwriter is coming to Fort Wayne. No, no, not that one.
I’m talking about Todd Snider.
I first fell for Todd in 2004, at the start of the second half of his career. (You may remember a couple of buzz cuts from Todd’s debut album back in the mid-90s, like I did, and maybe recall liking them, but not in a way that made it occur to you that you wanted to come back and see what he’s up to now.)
Todd was on John Prine’s Oh Boy Records label at this point and had put out his sixth album, East Nashville Skyline. My girl and I had just been looking for a place to call home in East Nashville—spoiler alert: never found one. I picked up a copy of Nashville Scene and read a review of this album by Peter Cooper and thought, “Well, crap, I have to hear this.”This album was the soundtrack to a borough we thought we might like to live in.
As with so many (but not quite all) of Todd’s records, ENS has a horrible album cover. It’s also one of my top-ten records of all time, top to bottom with incredible Snider songs and a few choice covers—including the 55-year old “Enjoy Yourself” which Oh Boy honcho Al Bunetta reportedly sang to Todd as he (Todd) lay in a hospital bed. Some might argue that Todd’s follow-up, The Devil You Know, is even better—and maybe that’s true. (I stick with ENS because we can all spend a lot of time, sometimes, chasing the feeling of that first kiss.)
One Lucky Guitar used to do a lot of work for Oh Boy and we got asked to do the artwork for Todd’s last album for the label, an odds & ends collection called Peace, Love and Anarchy. It’s a mixed bag, as those kinds of albums sometimes are, but contains some drop-dead killer tracks, including a song called “East Nashville Skyline” that is one of Todd’s very best songs, and which was left off of the album of the same name.
By the time we were asked to do the artwork, I’d seen Todd in concert a few times, and knew he performed barefoot. Being barefoot onstage seemed to be something of a signature move. (He memorialized the approach in his song “Conservative Christian Right-Wing Republican Straight White American Males” in which he refers to himself as a “Tree-huggin’, peace-lovin’, pot-smokin’, barefootin’, folk-singin’, gay weddin’, pro-choicin’, lazy-ass hippie.”)
So for the album cover we took a photo of my own bare feet with some jeans that were a bit too long and my buddy Matt Traughber illustrated them and then they were on the cover. I handwrote all the song titles out like a setlist and used those, too, and figured someday I would say, “Hey, Todd Snider, those aren’t your feet and your handwriting on your album cover, those are my feet and my handwriting on your album cover.”
The rap on Todd is just that—he’s an “aw, shucks” freewheeling stoner with a warm-hearted, couldn’t-care-less approach to…everything. And that’s kind of true, I imagine. But like that other songwriter and his Woody Guthrie incarnation (not to mention a few dozen others), I sometimes think Todd is the greatest, longest-running character actor of his generation. And he’s the smartest, most eloquent guy in the room. Underneath the bumbling, beyond the bare feet…there’s a guy putting on a show that absolutely warrants being on the Arts United Center’s stage, where so many memorable theatrical performances have gone before. It seems like he’s making it all up on the spot; I think it’s rehearsed to perfection. And it’s absolutely brilliant. (And worth noting—authentic to the core.)
So yeah, Snider is a can’t-miss live performer, and if you didn’t make it to the Tim Rogers concert at 1301 Lafayette, this is your last chance to see your favorite show of the year. He’s as much storyteller as singer. As much stand-up comedy as musical performer. Naysayers may note he’s too liberal and takes too many shots at those across the aisle (or pew). I really don’t think that’s the case—he’s endlessly empathetic, and calls out foolishness with equal abandon, wit and insight, no matter which side you’re on, if there even are sides. At a Todd Snider show, you’ll laugh. You’ll consider. You may get a little mad. Your heart may break just a little bit. You’ll be talking about it the whole next day, and through the weekend, and buying up his music next week. (Again, the order to tackle is: East Nashville, Devil You Know, Agnostic Hymns, Near Truths and Hotel Rooms*, then take a breather. (There are other artists to listen to, too.))
* The live solo Near Truths neatly (and sometimes hilariously) sums up everything pre-East Nashville—and gives you a snapshot of his live shows—so much that you don’t really need to revisit any of the earlier studio records.
Earlier this year, on the same day, Todd Snider and Bruce Springsteen released albums. Both were written up as being “of the times”—songs about the economic challenges (and perhaps injustices) that many Americans are facing, songs about the American middle- and lower-class, songs for an election year. Readers of The Dial (or people who have more than one drink with me) know that I love Bruce—I honestly don’t think this whole “One Lucky Guitar, Inc.” thing would be here today if it weren’t for the music and performance of Bruce (and that other songwriter, Bob). Having said that, Snider’s Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables is an incisive, ragged, free, funny and effortlessly cathartic album that is—against all odds—fun to listen to and tackles issues you might find in higher-ed economic and philosophy courses. Bruce’s record is the opposite: way too populist, too simplified, too everyman. It’s like he forgot his parocosm, if you let NY Times‘ David Brooks introduce you to a new word. Plus, the production sucks. It’s not a bad album, it’s just not the one to define the times, not the one to own the year. (Todd’s is.)
The first song on East Nashville Skyline is “Age Like Wine”; I thought it was perfect the first time I heard it, in 2004, and interestingly enough it has fulfilled its title and only gotten better with age. I sing the first line of the song in my head a few times a day, every day. It’s a challenge, a defense, a position. A point of pride. Todd, too, has fulfilled the song’s promise.
I hope we’re all so lucky.
“Age Like Wine” by Todd Snider
My new stuff is nothing like my old stuff was
and neither one is much when compared to the show
which will not be as good as some other one you saw,
so help me, I know, I know, I know
I am an old-timer, old-timer, it’s too late to die young now
old-timer, five-and-dimer, trying to find a way to age like wine somehow
I met every fool that ever signed their name upon these walls
in the backs of all these beer joints and concert halls
I’ve been through seven managers, five labels, a thousand picks and patch cables
three vans, a band, a bunch of guitar stands, and cans and cans and cans of beer
and bottles of booze and bags of pot and a thousand other things I forgot
I thought that I’d be dead by now
But I’m not.
Get your tickets at Arts United’s website.