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Drawing Crowds

Nashville’s Todd Snider has that everyman appeal.

By Randy Harward
Posted // February 26,2009 -

What happens when an artist’s work bites him in the ass? Todd Snider took a risk calling his latest EP Peace Queer, a name that opened him up to a few undesirable expressions from fans and passersby. So far, he’s not too undone by the fallout.

“Every record I make, there’s been people that strongly disliked it,” says the mellow Oregonian hippie-turned-Nashvillian hippie singer-songwriter in an early morning phone call. “It comes with the territory, even with concerts. You just have to accept that some people out there aren’t gonna like it.”

Peace Queer was Snider’s big political statement, the upshot of watching the Bush administration plow the country’s reputation into a brick wall. Until then, Snider’s political ideology was obvious—like on “Conservative Christian Right-Wing Republican Straight White American Males” from 2004’s East Nashville Skyline— but not a central theme of his music. He might make a comment from the stage or toss one in a song, but he wasn’t trying to be Billy Bragg or Steve Earle. Just that old towheaded kid that got lucky. Now he’s said his piece—with the much-praised EP and a companion documentary—he’s happy to move on.

Snider, who is “over” Peace Queer, is happy that President Obama’s in office, but he’s not gonna make a career out of protest songs. “I’m not really a political person, but when I am, I’m very liberal. So I am excited.” His take on politicians, in fact, doesn’t necessarily give Obama a free pass. He tries to remember that, just like athletes and actors and singers, politicians are entertainers. “They don’t technically do anything,” he laughs. “That guy’s just drawin’ a crowd, just like me. He’s tryin’ to entertain. To a degree, I’m sure they care about the world, but I don’t know. It feels like people are just tryin’ to get by.”

Gettin’ by, now that’s a theme that is found in Snider’s songs. Not in the Springsteen or mawkish mainstream country sense. Since his debut Songs for the Daily Planet (MCA/Margaritaville, 1994), he’s written about regular people—typically ordinary average guys—who, despite their flaws (such as, on his signature tune “Alright Guy,” enjoying porn, pot and sloth) are basically good people who just want to get through the day, like on “Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern” (Happy to Be Here, Oh Boy, 2000). Sometimes he paints sadder portraits of those who fail or give up on the common endeavor, like the friend whose friend turned out to be an abusive father—or Eddy Shaver, who chose to end his life. And he’s known to focus his observations inward and bleed for his audience on songs like on his pre-success ballad “That Was Me” and his ultimate gettin’ by song “I Spoke as a Child” (both from Daily Planet). Snider’s also known for studying life’s more colorful characters, be they legendary (D.B. Cooper) or semiobscure, like late baseball pitcher Dock Ellis, whom Snider celebrates on his upcoming LP The Excitement Plan.

“[Ellis] just died a couple of months ago, but I’d written this song about him over a year ago,” Snider says. Ellis’ claim to fame was pitching a no-hitter “while he was high on LSD.” In the video on MyDamnChannel.com, Snider says he loves the juxtaposition of hallucinogenics and athleticism alone, but the charm of the story is how it impacted Ellis’ day. “He didn’t know he was pitchin’; he thought he had the day off,” laughs Snider about Ellis, who hopped a shuttle flight from Los Angeles to San Diego before accomplishing his feat, which has become a counterculture legend.

Nowadays, Snider’s a star in his own right, on par with singer-songwriter icons John Hiatt, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and one of his personal heroes, Jerry Jeff Walker. His success may come in modest increments, album by album, but he’s doin’ all right for himself. All he wanted out of the deal when he first started out was to write songs for his own entertainment, on his own terms.

Once in a while, he does paint himself into a corner. Like when he shot his mouth off about making a Peace Queer
trilogy that would involve a rock & roll album called Shit Sandwich. “I don’t think I intended to at the time, but now I’m doin’ it,” he says. “Maybe ’cause I said it.” The record, due in late 2009 after the Don Was-produced The Excitement Plan comes out in June, will be comprised of “Chuck Berry-type songs” and attributed to Snider’s neighborhood knockaround band, Elmo Buzz & the Eastside Bulldogs. But that’s not even written, while the Plan is all done. “They just have to take my picture and all that shit.”

Todd Snider Murray Theater, Thursday Feb. 26, 8 p.m. SmithsTix.com

 
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