Troubadour for a Lost Generation

Todd Snider must have had plenty to think about all those hours he spent sitting in the darkness. As a troubled teenager on the lam from college and a screwed up family life, he'd escape to the roof of his brother's Santa Rosa, California, house when desperation set in. Snider wasn't your typical 18-year-old; he reveled in the life of the wanderer and the grifter, finding more glamour in the outlaw excesses of Jerry Jeff Walker than the spandexed antics of David Lee Roth.

"They'd let me go out there at night and I'd sit there," Snider says. "My family was completely dissolved and I'd think, 'What the fuck?' And I couldn't do nothin' for a while. But it was kind of liberating in that it didn't matter what I did anymore. One night, I decided I wanted to be in a band."

Snider continues to have a lot on his mind, and none of it involves the traditional routes to success. His 1994 debut, Songs for the Daily Planet, covers much of it with miles of perspective, from state-of-the-world preachiness to cheeky digs at some of the more fleeting aspects of '90s pop culture to quieter, more reflective bits on growing up without a foundation. He wraps it all in a rootsy vibe part Dylan-derived folk, part Steve Earle-ish small-town candor and part Mellencamp-style sweat-rock grandstanding.

In front of the camera, his surfer-bohemian dress, straight blond mop and chiseled good looks give Snider the look of an alt-rock pinup à la Lemonhead Evan Dando, but his music is hardly about image. In fact, Snider spends a good deal of time on Daily Planet taking on the superficiality of the last few trend-weary decades. "My Generation (Part 2)" cops choice lines from the Who classic and then continues in an upbeat, countrified fashion to talk up all the shallowness his baby-boomer father just can't understand: "Here's to hair gel, hanging out at the health spa, using condom sense and watching L.A. Law / Here's to living off dad and blending in with the crowd / My generation should be proud." Snider snaps back at his flannel-clad colleagues with "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues," a hidden track at the end of the CD that tells the story of a grunge band earning the adoration of millions by, of all things, not playing a note. The single caught on this spring at a few dozen radio stations around the country.

Snider's more-aware-than-thou perspective on issues that relate to his own demographics could come off presumptuous, though the 28-year-old insists that he tries "not to be preachy, although just by definition you're standing in front of the mike, and it's hard not to be." His knowledge of new bands extends little farther than the country-rock leanings of the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo-offshoot Wilco. He's heard enough about the now-dated grunge aesthetic and other changes in rock, but he isn't much interested in any of it, preferring to steer clear of the mosh pit in favor of taking in nightly Joe Ely shows. And though Snider doesn't mind the inevitable comparisons his Everyman style draws to the likes of John Mellencamp and Tom Petty, he's not sure he sees the connection.

"I don't mind [the comparisons]. I don't care -- although I don't get it," Snider says. "I like that shit, but I was always more into other stuff. I pretty much could play all the Jerry Jeff songs before I even got into Dylan."

At first, Snider's couch-hopping lifestyle came about not by choice but by necessity. As a kid, he lived comfortably with his family in Portland until the roof caved in financially. "My dad was an interesting guy, kinda nuts but he did real well. He had a lot of money. We had like a pool and he even put a tennis court in there," Snider recalls.

Then one day, Snider says simply, it just didn't happen for his father. "He didn't have any money," says Snider. "He was also having an affair on my mom with his secretary." His parents' struggles prompted a move to Houston. "My mom and dad were going to patch things up and he was going to start all over again," Snider says. "Little did we know that the secretary had moved down there as well. It just got too funky for me. I was 15 and I just left."

After "just barely" finishing high school back in Oregon, Snider headed to Santa Rosa to try junior college. But following his epiphany under the California sky, he hightailed it to Austin, bought a guitar and started writing music. "I loved Austin a lot. That's where I got all the shit I rip off," Snider chuckles.

The itch to roam returned again after a few years, so Snider headed north, making it to Memphis before his car broke down. There, he met the core of his band, the Nervous Wrecks -- drummer Joe Mariencheck and bassist Joe McLeary -- while playing a regular gig at a club called the Daily Planet (hence the title of his CD). Things started clicking in Memphis, and Snider caught the ear of Jimmy Buffett band member and collaborator Keith Sykes, who first became Snider's guitarist and then his publisher. Buffett himself signed Snider to Margaritaville Records. Live at the Daily Planet -- essentially a collection of favorites from Snider's Thursday night sets -- followed.

Now based in Atlanta, Snider says he's ready to settle down, though it took the needling of a significant other to temper his urge to wander. And he's more or less content within his own sphere of popularity, which usually stretches no farther than the doors of a crowded club. All the other perks that come with a major-label deal and critical recognition, quite frankly, astound him.

"As long as I've been doing this, I could go play somewhere and people would come and listen," Snider says. "But I never got in the paper -- except when I got arrested for not wearing my seat belt."

Todd Snider performs at 9 p.m. Friday, August 25 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $10. For info, call 528-5999.

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Hobart Rowland