When Todd Snider takes the stage at the Levitt Shell Thursday, June 18th, it won't be just another concert for the Nashville-based, Memphis-connected singer-songwriter, whose profile has been on the rise the past few years.
For starters, it will be a concert that Snider sought out. Passing through town awhile back and "banging around Midtown" at some of his favorite local stops, such as the Midtown Huey's and Shangri-La Records, Snider stopped by the Shell to check out the renovation work he'd heard about. Impressed, he asked his manager to look into booking a show at the classic Memphis venue, a place he hadn't performed at since he started making records in the early '90s.
"I played an embarrassing show there once, like at a 'Hugs not Drugs' festival," Snider remembers during a phone interview from New York. "Me and the band kind of ruined it for everybody. I thought it would be a good idea to go back and redeem myself ... I hope."
Snider will have some special company in the form of the "Original Nervous Wrecks," a reunion of Snider's first band, which formed to play the Highland Cue back during Snider's stint on the Memphis scene. The band will feature current Memphians Joe Mariencheck (bass) and Joe McCleary (drums) as well as the now Nashville-based Will Kimbrough (guitar) and later addition David Zollo (keyboards). The band had reformed for a show in Reno, Snider says, but McCleary wasn't able to make that trip.
"This will be the first time in 10 years we've all played together," Snider says. "We'll play mostly stuff off [my] last three records, but we'll do a few oldies and probably take some requests."
Snider, who was raised in Portland, got his first big break in Memphis via his 1994 "novelty" hit "Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues." Over the next decade, he settled into a modest career as a witty, roosty singer-songwriter in the mold of John Prine, Robert Earl Keen, or Memphis' own Keith Sykes, an influence partly responsible for Snider's move from Austin to Memphis in the late '80s.
"My dad was [in Memphis] working construction, and I was living in Austin, and he knew that Keith was someone I was a fan of," Snider remembers, recounting how his dad met an acquaintance of Sykes' in a local bar and arranged to get the Memphis songwriter one of his son's tapes.
"[Keith] didn't ask me to move there, but I did. I wouldn't leave them alone," Snider says.
Though most of Snider's recording career postdates his Memphis years, the city makes recurring appearances on his albums. On his 2003 live album, Near Truths and Motel Rooms, Snider introduces the song "Side Show Blues" with a long, funny, and, he says, absolutely true story about a more-lively-than-expected trip from his apartment at the Gilmore (on Madison at McLean) to the Circle K across the street for a cup of coffee.
"It's the one across from Fino's," Snider says. "The guy had a knife stuck all the way in [his back], in his upper shoulder-blade area. I wondered how that was going to work out. The shocking thing was the sign on the door: 'Will reopen in 15 minutes.' I probably wasn't as afraid as I should have been."
On 2006's The Devil You Know, Snider revisits another violent Memphis experience with "The Highland Street Incident," where he recounts his own mugging from the perspective of the muggers: "Did we get arrested?/No we did not/Didn't shoot anyone/Didn't get shot." And on 2004's East Nashville Skyline, Snider tips his hat to an old Memphis friend with a verse about piano player Jason D. Williams on the song "Nashville."
It was with East Nashville Skyline, a decade into Snider's recording career, that the songwriter seemed to find his groove — artistically and commercially.
"It's hard to know," Snider says about the career transition that seemed to come with that album. "I've deliberately tried to keep my eye off all of that. The only thing you can't ignore is the volume of the clapping, and that seemed to be getting louder."
That album was the beginning of a new, more outwardly political stretch of Snider's career, which has continued with subsequent albums, including the new The Excitement Plan and especially last year's more thematic EP, Peace Queer. The Bush years may have been bad for the country, but they were good for songwriters and comedians, and Snider's a bit of both.
"I work hard at not being a preachy person when I write those kinds of songs," Snider says, and though he wobbles along that thin line on The Devil You Know's Bush-directed "He Got Away With It," Snider mostly succeeds. East Nashville Skyline's "Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males" is a classic that gently but sharply skewers the era's stark political/cultural divide from both sides. And "Bring 'Em Home," from The Excitement Plan, is simply one of the best songs anyone's written about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the "'em" referring not just to the soldiers but also to their mementos of home and their battle-scarred memories. And there's something in the song's propulsive rhythm, rousing chorus, and the down-to-earth verses that feels positive and righteous.
What makes Snider's so-called political songs stick isn't just his rare humility and humor but his feel for characters at economic and cultural margins that seem to have swelled in the past decade.
"I have a few bars I hang out at, and I tend to regurgitate what people say in the bars as well as try to get my own emotions out," Snider says. "I'll hear a debate going on in a bar and then I'll go home and try to get my two cents in. But, really, I like story songs about people."
Todd Snider and the Original Nervous Wrecks
Thursday, June 18th, 7 p.m.