Dream So Real
No doubt about it, Todd Snider is -- to quote the title of one of his tunes -- an "All Right Guy." As a friend of mine once observed, "He's a stoner goof-bag, but a really cool one." In other words, he's that air guitarist in the audience whose fantasies have largely become a reality.
If there's an archetypal good-time rocker for the modern age, a true believer in the redemptive powers of rock and roll, it's Snider. After all, once he got his first guitar at the age of 19, music quickly went from his favorite pastime to an all-embracing obsession.
"I don't think I would have done anything but this, not this go-around," Snider admits. "I had a love and a hobby that turned into a job real quick. I think that should be the way it is. I wish that for everybody -- that your job is the thing that you would do for free."
With his 1994 debut, Songs from the Daily Planet, Snider proudly displayed his proletariat sensibility in songs such as "All Right Guy" and "My Generation" (a sly update on Pete Townshend's original notion), not to mention a cunning wit regarding the latest musical trends in contemporary music with the hidden bonus track, "Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues." Through Planet's follow-up, Step Right Up, to his just-released third disc, a rowdy, roots-rocking declaration of self called Viva Satellite, Snider has continued to pen odes to simple, shiftless folk much like himself -- minus, perhaps, the fully realized musical aspirations. (Fully realized and then some: Snider and his backup unit, the Nervous Wrecks, remain one of the hardest touring acts in America today.)
Although he lives in Tennessee, his musical sensibilities were honed here in Texas. A native of Portland, Oregon, he first came to the Lone Star State as a teenager. "I ran away from [Portland]," he notes with a laugh. "My family went bankrupt, and so we packed a U-Haul and the station wagon and drove to Houston, where this friend of [my dad's] had some big thing going."
But by the end of his sophomore year in high school, Snider was on his way back to the West Coast. "I'd been in Houston for about four months and took off back to Oregon," he says. "I never really did go home, even though I am very close to my family."
Back then, Snider was a typically aimless kid. "I didn't do anything," he explains. "I hung out in arcades." Even so, music was still a passion, and after living on his own in Portland and then in Santa Rosa, California -- where he went ostensibly to attend college -- Snider landed once again in Texas.
"My brother was living in Austin," Snider recalls. "And he told me, 'Yeah, man, [if] you want to start a band, you oughta start a band here. They've got these guys Stevie Ray Vaughan and Joe Ely, and this band the Fabulous Thunderbirds and all these other people. You oughta come check this shit out.' So he gave me a plane ticket, and I flew down there."
Snider stuck around long enough to see Jerry Jeff Walker perform at Gruene Hall, and his life changed: "I went and got my first guitar."
At the time, Snider had been slacking in San Marcos, "keeping journals and writing stuff that I thought could be songs," he says. "I always thought that [performing] was what I would like to do, but never really did anything about it. But as soon as I got that guitar, I started writing songs."
And soon thereafter, Snider was up on-stage playing them. Eventually, he migrated to Memphis, put together a band and landed a regular gig at a club called the Daily Planet. For the young singer/songwriter, it was a fulfillment of a dream: "Even when we were playing at the Daily Planet, before I had a record deal, I would go, 'This has got to be the best job, ya know?'
"I still do it for free a lot of the time. I don't make any money on the road. We just break even."
A frequent visitor to the state where he first started playing music, Snider thoroughly enjoys the homecomings.
"The music there was such a big part of my thing," he explains, adding that he fondly recalls "going to see the bands that I loved -- getting to a club at two in the afternoon so I could be in the front when Joe Ely came on. Now I get to go play those clubs where I stood on line."
In a time when popular music is infected by careerist ambitions, Snider still sees his job as a mission. "There's something really necessary about dancing and shit, and we provide that. It's very necessary, in fact."
Snider declines to say whether he is, in fact, that "All Right Guy" he sings about, but the tune does show his faith in music's power to bring relief to existence on this mortal coil.
"It was just the idea of a bunch of people getting together on a Friday and Saturday night and drinking beer and eventually screaming out loud that they think they're all right," he explains of the track's genesis. "Some people charge a lot more for that than I do."
Describing his prime directive in life simply as "love ... that's it," Snider the Hippie isn't afraid to wax intense on the deeper inspiration behind what he does. "I think that God is love. But I have to be careful what I say," he says. "I'm a singer in a band, ya know? God is a huge, huge part of my life. But if I was to say something about God to you, that would definitely be a preaching situation."
Still, Snider doesn't demur: "But I love to talk about God, and I will sit here and talk to you about God. I feel like it's a very individual thing, and also completely all-encompassing. There's lots of books about it, about how to find love in your heart. I kind of have my own path with God."
And even if the Man Upstairs may well have provided Snider with his cause in life, the 31-year-old rocker isn't about to overstate his role as a musician. "I've always thought of what I do as just being a guy in a rock and roll band," he says. "I'd always liked Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, and then when I saw Jerry Jeff and Joe Ely, I thought I could just combine that stuff. When I moved to Memphis, I got into the whole Stax Records thing, and figured I'd combine that with it, too."
In his heart, he's still that "All Right Guy" out there in the audience -- albeit one who's been fortunate enough to wind up on-stage like his heroes. "I would say that I am one of the biggest fans of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. And I steal from them just as everyone else has stolen from them."
Rock, says Snider, is "like the only drug that no one ever came and said, 'Okay, now, that's gonna kill ya.' That's the best way to describe it," says Snider. "[And] it's a lot better than any drug, lemme tell ya."
Todd Snider and the Nervous Wrecks perform Saturday, May 2, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. Bottle Rockets open. For info, call 869-
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