Musician Todd Snider loves to spin a yarn or two during concerts. (Photo by Stacie Huckeba)
Sometimes audiences will complain when a musician talks more than sings during a performance. That is not the case with fans of Todd Snider. His enthusiasts know Snider can write tunes, but they also appreciate his ability to tell tall tales that contain cosmic and comic truths. His supporters want to hear the spiels as well as the songs.
Snider called his most recent double CD an acknowledgement of this aspect of his artistry. The album contains two dozen tracks where Snider informs the listener about everything from the saga of the infamous Kingsmen’s single “Louie Louie” to the time major league pitcher Dock Ellis tossed a perfect game under the influence of LSD.
Critics most frequently compare Snider with John Prine, another fine singer-songwriter with a humorous sensibility who comes out of the Americana tradition. Prine himself once signed Snider to Prine’s record label, Oh Boy. However, Snider goes to extremes of raconteurship that Prine never approaches. The anarchic Snider can be much blunter and more outlandish while invoking the virtues of common sense.
“Heck, I’m just saying what’s on my mind. That can’t get anybody in trouble, can it?” Snider joked over the phone from his Nashville home. His songs often poke fun at the problems he and his fictional characters have had simply by being engaged in that sort of subversive behavior.
Snider will be performing as a solo act when he comes to Iowa. He will be at the Ellen Kennedy Center in Cascade on Saturday, May 7, and the Englert Theater in Iowa City on Sunday, May 8. He does hope that Iowa City local musician Dave Zollo will join him on stage in Iowa City.
Zollo is the longtime keyboard player in Snider’s backup band, the Nervous Wrecks, along with guitarist Will Kimbrough, bassist Joe Mariencheck, and drummer Joe McLeary.
“Everybody in my band is a singer-songwriter that I admire. I thought hiring them would be a good idea. Who knew they would want to headline their own shows and do their own music!” Snider said with a laugh. “Seriously, Zollo is an amazing musician, and I am proud to call him a close friend.”
Snider has performed all over the state of Iowa during his 15-year-plus career, most recently at the Capital Theatre in Davenport in November 2009 on a bill with Robert Earl Keen and Bruce Robison. However, the Tennessee-by-way-of-Portland, Oregon musician is not worried about people hearing the same songs and stories twice.
“I have this kid who travels with us, and one of his jobs is to keep track of our set lists. He has done this for more than a decade. When I get to a town he gives me the titles of what I performed last time, so I don’t repeat myself.” Snider said. “It’s a trade-off, because some people shout out requests for me to do what they heard me do before. The number of people who want originals and the ones that want repeats are about the same, so I can’t win.”
Snider paused, and added, “But then again, I can’t lose!?
“Performing live is like eating pizza and having sex. Even the worst times are okay and still better than most other things you’d be doing,” Snider said. That’s the rock ’n’ roll side of Snider talking. Although he lives in the Nashville metropolitan area and there’s a strong country component to his music, Snider said he’s baffled by the country music scene.
“The country-music thought process is completely foreign to me,” Snider explained. “The performers are the popular kids in school who are on the team and love to sing and make art, but they can’t tell their friends that or their friends will think that they are fags, so they say, ‘It’s a business.’ They converse about whether a song is number one or number three on the charts, not the lyrics about the father and son who couldn’t get along. It’s water-bottle, aerobic-driven music and I respect it, just like the New York Yankees baseball team.”
“East Nashville, where I live, is full of Southern people who would move to New York City if they had the gas money and a place to crash. Going to the grocery store here is like walking into a Kings of Leon dressing room. Nashville is more like Garth Brooks’ dressing room, but. . . .” Snider’s voice trailed off. You can tell he’s uncomfortable disparaging his neighbors.
“I am the old-guy curmudgeon that used to be the swashbuckling hero, what a difference a decade makes,” Snider said. He has been in the recording business for about 15 years. “John Prine told me that when you are young, writing is as easy as tying your shoes. When you get older, it is like brain surgery.”
Snider said he had recently written nine or ten songs he expects to record sometime in the near future, with about four to five more that don’t quite fit with the others. For someone who considers himself less than prolific, he has released almost a dozen full-length recordings.
Snider’s The Storyteller is on his own label, Aimless Records. He’s thinking about signing up some other artists and issuing their CDs as well. “It would be fun to put out a record for someone whose music I liked. I have a bunch of great people who help me get my stuff out there. I could use ’em for good purposes,” he said.
“The magic that can happen with the right musicians and the right audiences, that’s really what it is all about.” Snider continued. “Whether I am doing it on stage or bringing it to you by someone else, that shouldn’t really matter."
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