A Wunderkind Looks at 40
"I thought that I'd be dead by now -- but I'm not."
So ends the first song on East Nashville Skyline, Todd Snider's newest and best album. The song is called "Age Like Wine," and it improbably casts Snider as an "old timer -- too late to die young now." It's a jarring image to the people who have thought of Snider as the perennial Young Turk of classic songwriting over the last decade, ever since he released his debut, Songs from the Daily Planet.
It's even more jarring to me. I've known Todd since the mid-'80s, when he walked into Sundance, the record store I was managing in San Marcos. He was a good-looking kid with an immediately engaging personality and, it turned out, a voracious appetite for music.
"It's funny. I was just talking to a guy yesterday in Austin and he asked me my influences," Snider says on the phone from his home in east Nashville. "I told him all about you and Bobby [Barnard] and how I'd buy something, and when I'd come in again, you'd ask me if I liked it, and if I did, you'd say, 'Try this, then,' and it was almost always fuckin' great. I forget which one of you guys turned me on to Keith Sykes, but I became obsessed with him and wound up moving to Memphis to find him. It was through him I got my record deal."
Another influence on Snider was Kent Finlay, the owner of the legendary Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos. "Maybe the biggest," he says. "Those songwriter nights are where I learned how to write songs and started to build my confidence. Have you been there lately? It's full of good-looking young guys and girls. Hell, when we were there, you'd be lucky to get 25 people, and most of them were middle-aged guys. He's built a little shack across the street where songwriters can hang out and bands can practice. It's the coolest fuckin' scene, man!"
Snider grew up in Oregon and has spent more time in Memphis and Nashville, but I still think of him as a Texas singer-songwriter. "I think that's pretty accurate" he says. "I'd say the three biggest musical influences in my life have been the hippie stuff, like the Dead and Country Joe and the Fish, that I heard when I was a kid in Oregon; the Texas stuff, like Jerry Jeff, Billy Joe, Townes, Delbert. And then when I moved to Memphis, I really got into the Stax stuff. But, yeah, definitely Texas. I could beat Jerry Jeff Walker in a trivia competition about himself. I don't think I could do that with Sam and Dave. When I first started writing songs, I really wanted to impress guys like Billy Joe Shaver. I wasn't really into Dylan at first. I just didn't get it; then one night, the night I was gonna make my first recording there in San Marcos, I was listening to Greatest Hits Volume Two, and I just had an epiphany, and I was like, 'Whoa -- I can't record right now! I need another three years to absorb this shit!' "
One of the things he absorbed was the talking blues form, and it's safe to say that Snider is one of the modern masters of this venerable, sadly disappearing songwriting style. Daily Planet's "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues" was one such, and it was also the song that introduced Snider to that world. One of the best songs on Skyline is another talking blues one called "The Ballad of the Kingsmen," which uses the story of the "Louie Louie" band to explore how people in power will work to demonize something they don't approve of while ignoring the real problems that exist around them every day.
"I feel like I finally got it right with that one," says Snider. "I worked on that for three years, and when I finished it, I felt like I had finally given something back, you know, added to the style."
East Nashville Skyline is the end product of a difficult three years for Snider, a time that saw him dealing with some major personal issues, including the death of his best friend. "It was a tough time for me. I didn't want to leave the house for, like, three years. Once I got myself together, I wrote a couple more songs ("Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males" and "Sunshine") and it just seemed like time to go in and do an album."
Once he had the songs together, he and longtime bandmate/producer Will Kimbrough went into the studio and cut the album themselves without even telling Snider's label Oh Boy. "We did it real quick. It took, like, a week, and then I just went by the label offices and dropped it off. I didn't know if they wanted it or not. If they didn't, I was prepared to take it somewhere else or just release it myself. I got a call from the president of the label, and he said, 'You did an album!?! Why didn't you tell us? It's great.'
"You know, Will and I have always been in the studio with some guy in his forties telling us what to do. Now we're the 40-year-old guys! We did it really spontaneously. We wanted to do it sort of on the sly because even though people always say, 'Do whatever you want to do,' you can't help but be influenced by other people and what they expect out of you. This was just us."
Snider appears quite comfortable sliding into middle age. He's always seemed like a kid with an old soul, and now he seems content to just be old.
"I had a moment when I was 24 watching Jerry Jeff at Gruene Hall. He was probably 42, and I thought to myself, 'This is just what I want to be. Somewhere telling my stories to people who want to listen.' I never wanted to be on MTV. I never wanted to be a 'star.' And luckily, I'm still alive and I still get to do it."
And he's still a rabid music buyer. "Man, I love the Kings of Leon. They're so rockin' and such great guys. I just left 'em a big ol' bag of weed in Bellingham, Washington. They were playing the night after me. I hope they enjoyed it."
He also keeps up with the Texas scene. "I love Hayes Carll and Slaid Cleaves and Adam Carroll. They're rescuing Texas music from the baseball caps. Not that there was anything wrong with that scene, mind you. Hell, Clinton was president, Robert Earl was hot, and everybody had a guitar! People just wanted to have a good time, but I'm glad to see thoughtful songwriting coming back."
The next couple of months will see the release of a greatest-hits compilation of his first three records, all of which came out on MCA. "It's weird. The first record did much better than the label expected it to, and then the two after that did about what they thought the first one would do -- so I got dropped! It was like 'You were doin' real good, but we thought you could do better -- so you're fired.' But it all works out. The yard is full of opportunities. You just gotta sift through them and take what you can find."
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