Todd Snider got his first real break in Memphis, where he landed as an itinerant young folk singer after growing up in Portland and doing a stint in Austin and where he finally went national in 1994 via a deal with Jimmy Buffet's MCA-connected Margaritaville label and his "novelty" semi-hit "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues." Afterward, Snider settled into a seemingly modest if occasionally troubled career as a witty, rootsy, regional singer-songwriter.
And then things changed. Exactly a decade ago, around the same time as a low point in Snider's personal life, he found his voice, evolving into a folkie humorist and barroom philosopher as idiosyncratic and essential as later label benefactor John Prine. And then into something even more.
Snider's artistic second life was formed by twin testaments, the first ostensibly closing the book on his first decade, the other ostensibly launching his second.
Released in 2003 and drawing from what was then a five-album discography, Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms is more meaningful to the story of Snider's evolution than you'd expect from a mid-career concert album. On it, Snider applies a new feel to old material and finds himself in the process.
"As that record was being planned, I felt like I had stumbled into a new way of making songs, and I was changing the way I made records too," Snider explains, speaking by phone from his home in East Nashville, at the end of a recent tour.
"If there was a turning point, it was when we were piecing the songs together," Snider says. "By going through the old material and seeing what still resonated with me I was figuring out what kind of songs I wanted to sing."
The difference was palpable: The sound was more relaxed and less calculated. And Snider's personality — with the stories and introductions often topping the songs themselves — came through more clearly than it ever had before. This might have merely been an indication of an artist better live than in the studio. But when East Nashville Skyline emerged the next year, it was clear that Near Truths and Hotel Rooms was instead a document of an artist evolving into something different and better.
"My new stuff is nothing like my old stuff was," Snider sings on East Nashville Skyline's opening verse, before musing, still a couple of years shy of 40, that it was "too late to die young now." With that opener ("Age Like Wine") followed by a confessional about an overnight jail stay in Oregon ("Tillamook County Jail"), a tribute to a recently deceased, much-beloved road manager ("Play a Train Song"), and a cover consideration of musical self-medication ("Alcohol and Pills") — and, then, later, by the story of a man failing to commit suicide ("Sunshine") — East Nashville Skyline was often posited as a recovery album, coming on the heels of an OxyContin addiction Snider has freely acknowledged. But it wasn't quite that simple.
"By the time I did East Nashville Skyline, I was still doing drugs," Snider says. "It was happening at the same time. I would say most of that record. [Co-producer] Eric [McConnell] says his biggest memory of that record is me nodding off all the time and everybody just having to wait. Which is embarrassing. I didn't shake it until it was over. [The album] probably was out by the time I was over it. And it didn't end immediately. I had to give it a few tries."
Instead of being a product of conquering personal problems, East Nashville Skyline was the product of a musical evolution hinted at strongly in Near Truths and Hotel Rooms.
"The word 'loose' gets thrown around a lot by a lot of people," Snider says. "When I say 'loose,' I mean I want us to get out of the pocket sometimes. I'm not joking. I started exploring producing myself for the first time. I was ready to try being a guitar player more. And if I couldn't get it totally in the pocket the whole time, we left it. And I would sing live, and if it got pitch-y, so what? It's not going to be on the radio. And that's not what we're looking for anyway."
If Near Truths and Hotel Rooms applies this new feel to old material, East Nashville Skyline applies it to material that matches. Songs that are more naked, more at ease and that integrate Snider's storytelling ability more fully.
"A lot of young songwriters will make up a song and finish it just 'cause it sounds cool or just 'cause the riff's great or just 'cause they like a line in it. And I stopped doing that," Snider says. "I was starting to get some confidence. It doesn't work if you don't open your heart. That sounds corny as shit, and I didn't want that to really be true. But if you're not wading around in your own sorrow, it's going to come out as some crafted thing for business. It's not going to hold up. You're going to be on tour and you're going to be on your 12th night in 12 days and those songs will take 30 minutes in your head to do — here's this song that I can't remember why I made up. And you feel like you're taking a piano up a hill. Those days, it did."
If 2004 was a time of musical evolution and personal upheaval for Snider, it was also an election year. And East Nashville Skyline gave it a soundtrack. At first blush, "Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males" seems to be a topical novelty on a par with "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues," but it's a deeper, richer, more empathetic, and more all-encompassing satire of a culture war with no end in sight.
The song represented a shift for Snider into more "political" material, and that shift is documented in how he presents his music in concert. Snider had long before developed a standing introduction at his shows. On Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, it goes like this:
"My name's Todd Snider. I've been driving around 15 years, making this shit up and singing it for anybody that'll listen to it. Some of it's sad. Some of it's funny. Some of it's short. Some of it's longer than others. And sometimes I'll go on for as many as 18 minutes in between the songs."
Around the time of "Conservative Christian," Snider added an addendum that he says wasn't an intentional reaction to more political content but that he allows might have been a subliminal response to concerns some in his old audience might have about the new material.
You can hear it on 2011's Live: The Storyteller, on what is labeled "18 Minutes Speech," which goes according to the old form but adds this:
"I want to let you know that I also might share some of my opinions with you over the course of the evening. I'm not going to share them with you because I think they're smart or because I think you need to know 'em. I'm going to share them with you because they rhyme. I didn't come down here to change any of y'all's minds about anything. I come down here to ease my own mind about everything. If everything goes particularly well this evening, we can all expect a 90-minute distraction from our impending doom."
While "Conservative Christian" was showier and more instantly classic, "Incarcerated," the quick Judge Judy-inspired song that follows it on East Nashville Skyline might be more important to what Snider's music has become. After blasting through the stuttering hard-luck story of a TV defendant, Snider abandons his protagonist's voice to make his own assertion: "Nobody suffers like the poor people suffer."
In between that fatalistic home truth and a related one from 2012's Great Recession anthem "New York Banker" — "Good things happen to bad people" — are a battery of songs that explore the underside of contemporary American life with just the right doses of humor, insight, humility, empathy, and anger.
Snider is too modest, too nice, too sure about our impending doom, and too unsure about anything else to lecture anybody about anything, but he seems to understand in his bones just how extreme American life has gotten over the past few years.
And in writing about it he's become something like the comic poet laureate of the widening income gap, speaking for himself and others shuffling around his downbeat corner of town: A man living on the edge of a "bad" neighborhood who offers help to a fleeing stick-up kid. A small-time crook talking his partner into another score. A coked-up hustler who goes looking for female companionship in the classifieds and finds an old classmate. An ex-con who takes a new job but won't take any guff. An increasingly menacing panhandler. A high school teacher who lost his retirement in a financial scam. Latchkey kids and bullied high school outcasts known and unknown.
Ten years ago, as he recounts on "Age Like Wine," Snider was surprised to find himself still alive. But in the unexpected decade between Near Truths and this year's Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, Snider's body of musical journalism — rooted in the people he knows and meets at bars and his own wayward journeys through these United States — has made him our finest, wisest, funniest musical tour guide for troubled times.