Easy Does It

What the world needs now is another folk singer / Like I need a hole in my head. -- "Teen Angst," Cracker

Todd Snider can't tell you how happy he is to bury the Tom Petty thing once and for all. He can say this, though: You can't kill what you don't know about, and for a long time, Snider didn't know he had a Tom Petty thing.

Here's the deal: In 1998 when Snider released Viva Satellite, his third major-label album, many critics and longtime fans were surprised -- some downright pissed -- to hear that several songs sounded as if MCA had slipped in a few Full Moon Fever outtakes. The fellow doing that dead-on Petty impersonation was, in fact, Snider, the folksy, quirky singer who had already stamped out his own definitive songwriting style since the release of his 1994 debut, Songs for the Daily Planet.

Snider was defensive when interviewers zeroed in on the Petty deal. Sometimes he'd say the comparison was a compliment. Most of the time he'd blurt out answers he wished he could take back.

"It was the first thing all my friends would say to me. 'Hey, what's with the Petty thing?' But you know, it took me forever to really hear it," he says. "It was kind of too late, but one day I was listening to the record with my wife, and it hit me. And I said, 'God, how did we do that?' " Could it be that Snider let the sound of his kick-ass band, the Nervous Wrecks, or perhaps subliminal messages from his big-shot record company, get in the way of the songs? After all, when everything is stripped away, Todd Snider is really a damn fine folksinger; so in hindsight, it was a blessing that the album sank like a stone. The great Todd Snider rock and roll experiment had run its course.

"I had no idea how much I was craving going back to being the guy who could just sit there and sing and play his guitar," he says. "I came up with the words for that record in a big hurry, like a rock writer is supposed to do, I guess. But I'll tell you now, there are two or three [songs] I wish weren't on there."

Nothing has deep-sixed that episode more than Snider's new album, the aptly titled Happy to Be Here, which not only recalls the storytelling style of Daily Planet, but improves on it. The album, released on Nashville's Oh Boy Records, home to John Prine, finds the lyrics back out front and the big-ass beats on the shelf. Having Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams) at the controls certainly helped, but the sound is more memorable for what Kennedy decided to leave off rather than what he crammed in. "There were a lot of great musicians brought in for the record, and we started off with a couple of the tracks that featured a band, even though it was more acoustic," Snider says. "But one night after they left, I thought there was no way I was going to be able to do it all that way. I went back in and started recording stuff by myself, and Ray layered back in the other instruments, if they fit."

If Viva Satellite is the party record you play while chugging a fifth of Jack, then Happy to Be Here is what you play quietly when you wake up the next morning wishing you hadn't. Tambourines, Snider's mouthharp and some well-placed horn lines trickle in and out to give the album a warm pulse and enough space for the lyrics to leave a lasting impression.

Whether he's singing about the first time he laid eyes on his wife, Melita, sitting in a hotel restaurant, or about the ins and outs of a 12-step program, or a biker-cowpoke bar out on the Devil's Backbone or a guy asking his fiancée to sign a prenuptial agreement, Snider hasn't lost his knack for writing introspective, abstract songs that seem, well, real. Unlike some songwriters, who can spin intriguing tales about relationships that never existed, Snider can quickly rattle off the exact kernel of an idea or experience that inspired his songs.

He can also remember what happened on the day he decided to be a musician. Snider grew up in Portland, Oregon, but his heart, it seemed, was in the South. In high school, he thought Lynyrd Skynyrd was cool. After graduating, he split for California, and soon got his first taste of Texas music after being evicted from a house in Santa Rosa. His older brother sent him money for a plane ticket to Austin. A few years before Daily Planet was released, Snider ended up playing solo gigs in Memphis, where he hooked up with songwriting guru Keith Sykes, who has scribbled down hits for the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Jerry Jeff Walker. Sykes and his wife felt some degree of sympathy for the scruffy kid and took him into their home. Eventually a demo was passed to the right people, and Daily Planet was released on Buffett's Margaritaville Records.

Snider's influences have always been performers who are, first and foremost, writers: the Prines, Sykeses and Billy Joe Shavers of the world. But surprisingly enough, Snider says his biggest musical hero is ole Jerry Jeff, the country icon critics love to hate. In fact, when Snider was 18, he first saw Walker playing solo at Gruene Hall, arguably the shrine of Texas music, and rushed out to buy a guitar.

At 33, Snider is still in the early stages of a songwriting career, in terms of creating a body of work that compares to the likes of Prine (or even Jerry Jeff). But for a guy whose whole life has been one oddball detour after another, he likes what he sees on the road dead ahead, even if he gets occasional pangs of guilt for leaving the band life behind. Granted, the bigger paychecks as a solo artist have helped dull the pain, but Snider's mind (which, like the Butch Hancock song says, often has had a mind of its own) has finally caught up with the rest of him.

"I've been playing solo now for about a year, and I'm very comfortable with it," he says. "Sure, I love rock and roll, and when you play it, you have to do it all the way. But you know, I can't be 27 again, living on no sleep and finishing off a half-bottle of whiskey and three joints before going on stage" -- this from a guy who admits he can't handle his liquor too well -- "and still being able to remember all the words. I had my free pass to party for a few years. You just can't do it forever."

Todd Snider performs Saturday, July 22, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 8 p.m. (smoke-free) and 10 p.m. Tickets are $12. For more information, call (713)528-5999.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr