The first cut of night is almost gone, and the sky is just flat, thick dark. Inside the Family Wash, the music is too loud to talk. Todd Snider, the insurrectionist folk singer who practically colonized East Nashville’s hip factor 20 years ago, suggests moving to the patio. In the almost bake-in-your-own-sweat humidity, he gently settles himself on the bench along the sidewalk wall, out-of-shape-from-wearing olive fedora plunked down on his lank sand’n’straw hair.
Snider smiles a beatific smile, as he looks up from under the floppy brim with the spray of fake flowers tucked under the band. Hard to believe this is the guy who’s launched a thousand trips to rehab, who’s wreaked havoc on the straight lives of big time music execs and who speaks up with such alacrity, his straight cut truth slides right between the eyes before it hits you. He’s also a New York Times’ bestseller with I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like, a Garth Brooks song supplier with “Beer Run” and the lead singer for jam world supergroup, Hard Working Americans.
A homeless man wanders up in the thick stillness, looking for whatever help he can find. His body language suggests he’s used to being waved away, but the musician extends his hand.
“Hey, man, how ya doin’?” Snider genuinely inquires, exchanging small details of his day with the ashy not quite elderly gentleman, as he fumbles through his wallet. Handing him a few dollars, he looks into the older man’s eyes.
“Now, what’s your name?” he asks, again. When he gets his answer, he returns,
“Well, I’m Todd and this is Holly, and you have a good rest of your day, okay?”
The man smiles a genuine smile, one from deep inside. Snider nods, then says, “I’ve gotta get back to work” and returns to the interview. As the man walks off, he exhales slowly, shoulders dropping just a little. “You know, you never know people’s stories, the things that happen along the way. But I talk to all kinds of people, and they’re mostly all the same in the heart: either good or bad.
“Being out here on the streets doesn’t mean you’re bad. Or lazy. Things happen, and I, well, I’m not gonna judge. I just want people to be okay and to love each other.”
He pauses for a moment, and then another. Small talk takes over, and in the back and forth, what he’s thinking spills out, “You know a couple dollars doesn’t change anything, but it’s taking that little bit to talk to someone, to really see them, I think that’s what folks really need.”
When Snider hit the music business, it was in the fat days of Nashville. He was Shakespeare’s Puck bouncing along on Jimmy Buffett’s MCA-distributed Margaritaville Records. He had management from John Prine’s team. And dropping Songs from the Daily Planet, he jabbed straight into 1994’s main artery with the Madonna SEX book citing “Alright Guy” and the plucky Pearl Jam tweak “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” loosely using “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme as melody. Snider was a sensation. He was also not prepared for the dog and pony show aspect of the music business, nor was he so hungry for fame that he was going to go along with the program just to get along.
Having left a fractious home in Houston at 15, he returned to Portland, Ore., where he was born. Couch surfing at friends’ houses, he got through high school, then headed to California to be a harmonica player.
Drifting like lost youth do, unprepared for the world, yet not able to stay where he was, his brother sent him a plane ticket to Austin to come live with him. For a troubled kid not finding his place in the world, he wandered into a bar and got hooked on songwriting after seeing Jerry Jeff Walker. Thinking “I can do that,” Snider bought an acoustic guitar, started writing and playing where he could for a decidedly hippie crowd. It was kinda like Willie Nelson without the years banging around the music business.
Establishing a residency playing every week at the Daily Planet in Memphis, Keith Skyes — a guitar player and songwriter known amongst the country rock elite — stumbled on the scrawny kid. Sensing there was something there, he started making calls: Jimmy Buffett, Prine, Kris Kristofferson.
At a time when the next wave of Texas songwriters was firmly established, people like Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith, even Robert Earl Keen, Snider was like them, yet different. With a record deal, a slot opening for the poet king of the Tiki Bar and management in place, Snider became the voice of an alienated generation rejecting Yuppie values and consumerism.
Daily Planet was followed by Step Right Up and Viva Satellite, released in perfect two year increments on MCA. People weren’t really buying folk singers during the rise of Pearl Jam and death of hair metal, but Snider continued with Happy To Be Here, New Connection and the seminal East Nashville Skyline also in two year increments – as well as the rambling live Near Truths & Hotel Rooms in 2003 – on Prine’s Oh Boy! Records.
And so it’s gone, like an Irish Catholic household. Rehab, tour burn or personal upheaval, the albums come every 18 months to two years. The Devil You Know, Peace Queer, The Excitement Plan, the 2012 doubleheader Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables and Time as We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker.
Plus 2013’s Hard Working Americans and 2016’s follow-up Rest In Chaos. “The thing about Todd,” says fellow Hard Working American and Widespread Panic bassist/producer Dave Schools, “he’s the kind of guy who’s studied with the masters: Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker. They may have batted him back in the day, but he’d just work harder on his writing and come back better. And he’s a writer all those guys respect.
“Todd’s smart; he studies a lot of things, pays attention, digs deeper than most people. All that is in (his writing).”
Snider’s not quick to embrace the idea of being a genius, in spite of the kind of long features he’s had in The New York Times, SPIN, Rolling Stone and beyond. He views himself not just as a songwriter, but as someone who honors the traditions started by Woody Guthrie: chronicle how the world is, share the truth, poke it with humor.
If you’ve ever heard East Nashville Skyline’s “Conservative, Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight, White American Males,” Agnostic Hymns’ “New York Banker,” or Peace Queer’s “Dividing the Estate (Heart Attack),” you understand a few things.
Snider reaches beyond live and let live; he’s not just picking up the picked on and the overlooked, he’s letting the air of the establishment’s tires with a big “Come Back, Y’all” smile.
“Music’s supposed to…,” Snider says, trying to marry his purpose to his process. “If you’re afflicted, it’s supposed to comfort the afflicted – and afflict the comfortable. Anyone who feels emboldened by it, that’s what this is about.
"And people who don’t appreciate it,” he says, cutting his eyes away and back, “well, maybe those songs feel a little too familiar. Though, you know, sometimes the people I’m singing about… it just goes right over their heads, they don’t get it at all.”
Veteran Nashville music critic/East Nashvillian Associate Editor Daryl Sanders laughs when thinks about Snider. “Todd is so humble, you’d never know he’s probably one of America’s great singer/songwriters – and is inching closer every day to being a genuine icon like Dylan or Springsteen. But he’s such a captivating storyteller, right from his first album and the alternative radio hit ‘Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,’ so you listen.
“And he’s committed to the songs he writes. He works harder on his art now than he ever has. He spent three years working on Agnostic Songs — and many of Hard Working Americans’ songs on this year’s album, he’s been refining for that long, too.”
An East Side institution, when The New York Times wrote about city relaxing its marijuana laws on Sept. 18, Snider was not just quoted, but photographed for the story. His practice bunker in 5 Points is always painted with murals to recognize whatever projects or moments seem important.
On Oct. 7, to honor spending half a century on this planet, Snider is going to throw a birthday party with a career-spanning show at the Ryman. As much as he’s found he loves being the Jagger-esque front man of the truly rocking Hard Working Americans, Snider also recognizes that no matter how you dress his songs up, he’s a singer/songwriter.
But the ever-fluid Snider refuses to allow his primary storytelling, finger-picking, light-rocking oeuvre to be a straight jacket. He’s always invoked elements of pop culture, Nashville twang, old blues and Black Crowes’ minimalist rock when needed with the same ease his wry dry wit lashes the bloated.
After years of blowing out the creative carbons by playing around town as Elmo Buzz & the Bulldogs, Snider’s biggest gift to himself is the release of the barrelhouse raver Eastside Bulldog. A collection of churning, seemingly mindless songs, he still gets a wallop in by praising Hank Jr., while slicing up a music business poser on “Hey, Pretty Boy” with its surf guitar, high school pound-down drums, flaring piano, squawking sax blasts and a chorus that rages: “Chicks and cars and partying hard.”
“That’s the whole idea,” he admits. “It’s the opposite of what you’d expect from me. But I like songs that say, ‘Hey, baby, let’s rock and roll…” especially more than once. I like that there’s a lot of spots to yell. I like that this record is over in less than half an hour, but it’s all fun.”
Snider sees no contradiction to “who” he is and “how” Bulldog with its rapacious rock fills feels. To him, the slinky old school dance “The Funky Tomato” or the Bo Didley-beat bully-stomping blues “Enough Is Enough” is every bit as valid as his most socially conscious songs.
“To me, it’s a deeper thing: if you don’t think ‘Whomp BOP a Lu Bop’ is genius, you’re missing it. As a person in folk, I think, ‘Sha na NA na NA’ or a bunch of ‘shadoobies’ are the lyric that’s got it. ‘Tutti Frutti’ is deeper than ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ even as the guy who wishes he’d written ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’ It says more about everything: love, rage, sex — all of it.”
The hour is growing late. The lights in the buildings are mostly out, and the Wash is about empty. It’s not that Snider doesn’t like looking back, it’s that he really tries to live in the now, to live true to his heart and his art.
Playing solo shows, plus Hard Working Americans dates when his bandmates can make their schedules work, he’s often up at or before sunrise working. As his second century begins, he’s philosophical, but refuses to become so serious he’s a drag. He also knows that pushing any envelope – even in the name of a free-for-all roadhouse party record — comes with risks.
“I hope my artsy-fartsy friends can hear this and like it. For some people, if it’s not super-serious and talking the things they think they should worry about, then it’s not art. But you know, real art is stuff that makes you feel.”
Pausing, he understands the weight his smart aleck commentary has.
“This is genuinely my political statement to the world! If you ask me about the election or the state of the world, I’m like … we’re doomed, let’s dance!”