For a fan of Todd Snider, having to explain who Todd Snider is and why he deserves a place among his songwriting heroes – John Prine, Randy Newman, Tom Petty and Kris Kristofferson among them – is impossible without getting into a long, excited conversation. It’s tempting to just tell people: “Read the book.”
Snider does an entertaining, sometimes poignant and often hilarious job of summing up his 20-year career as a recording artist in his recently published memoir, “I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like (Mostly True Tall Tales).” The book mines a lot of the stories he has told over the years in his solo shows, covering everything from growing up as a jock in Oregon, discovering that he wanted to be Jerry Jeff Walker, finding out (the hard way) that he didn’t really want to be Tom Petty (or anybody even remotely that commercially successful), learning who he really wanted to be as an artist from John Prine and telling the fascinating and possibly true stories behind his songs and the people who inspired them.
It’s telling that one of the few cover songs you’ll find on a Snider studio album is “The Joker,” by Steve Miller. In a body of work that probably fits best in the alt-country/Americana genre (which also encompasses folk, blues and rootsy rock), Snider looms large as an insightful observer of and commentator upon the human condition, often targeting hypocrisy and absurdity, and he is known for writing songs tinged with humor. One of the standout songs from his first album, 1994’s “Songs for the Daily Planet,” is a talking blues about a band that becomes a big (if fleeting) success by not playing music at all.
In a phone interview last week from East Nashville, Snider seemed a bit world-weary and self-deprecating, but his humor shone through as he talked about Blind Lemon Pledge, one of his two alter egos (the other being Elmo Buzz). He also joked that his new band project, Hard Working Americans, really was started because they had printed the name of the band on rolling papers and backscratchers and needed some kind of vehicle for the merchandise.
And he joked about his outsider/outlaw reputation. “Folk music hates me,” he said, “after what I did at its party.”
As is clear from the book, Snider has never really had an interest in growing up, conforming, commercial success or taking anything too seriously. That got to be a problem after his first three albums on Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville label. Things came to a head when, out of frustration with being a pawn in the music game, he insulted the audience and stormed off the stage of L.A.’s famed Whiskey a Go Go after three songs, prompting the label to fire him.
In retrospect, Snider mainly regretted that the incident meant the members of his band, the Nervous Wrecks, were out of a job. Considering his reputation now as a tree-hugging, peace-loving, pot-smoking, bare-footing, folk-singing hippie, the L.A. tantrum seems out of character. People who go to his show Saturday at the Cavalier Theater and Lounge will likely find Snider to be charming, humble and loveable. These days, he goes with the flow.
Since Margaritaville dropped him, he’s gone on to release 13 more albums since then, including five on Prine’s label, Oh Boy. His last album, 2012’s “Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables,” was one of Rolling Stone magazine’s top 50 albums of the year, and it was the best charting album of Snider’s career, peaking at No. 23 on the rock charts and No. 6 on the folk charts.
Meanwhile, Hard Working Americans – a rock supergroup of sorts – released its debut album in January, a collection of mostly obscure cover songs that focus on the struggles of, well, hard-working Americans and those on the fringe. For Snider, it’s all about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, and it made sense to cherry-pick other songs from other artists rather than write an album’s worth of songs.
“I don’t know if I could make up 12 songs as good as that,” Snider said, even if he had two years to do it, and he didn’t.
Snider does the singing in Hard Working Americans – “They probably could have gotten a better lead singer,” he quipped – with Neal Casal of Chris Robinson Brotherhood on guitar and vocals, Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi on keyboards, bassist Dave Schools from Widespread Panic, Jesse Aycock on guitar and pedal steel and Duane Trucks on drums. Staehly is the brother of Christian "Chubba" Staehly, guitarist and singer for the La Crosse-based Smokin' Bandits.
For Snider, it’s a bit of culture clash being in Hard Working Americans, which takes its music seriously, even going so far as to rehearse. “Our band wants to be popular. That’s never been part of my artistic process,” Snider said. “It’s very different. We want to be the KISS of jam bands.”
While it goes against his grain a bit to rehearse, there’s something about playing in a full-tilt rockin’ band that has a lot of appeal, giving him something he doesn’t get from going around with just him and his guitar.
“It keeps you in shape, it keeps your spirit dialed in. You get to yell and sweat,” Snider said. “I think the point of the whole thing is really dance. … The most healing part is to be part of other people dancing.”