DigiTour Presents: Wes Tucker
Drusky Entertainment Presents
DigiTour Presents: Wes TuckerOct 18
DigiTour Presents: Wes TuckerOct 18
Todd Snider: Keith Richards said humor was rock and roll’s greatest weapon, Bob Dylan proved it and Snider takes it to heart. For twelve years, Snider has been a satirist, class cutup and the rare artist who understands and celebrates the connections between the Stones, Dylan, Bill Hicks, John Prine, Mitch Hedberg, Kris Kristofferson, Hunter S. Thompson and Randy Newman. Snider’s records are fun even when they aren’t being funny, funny even when they’re sad, and no less truthful for the laughs. Which brings us to The Devil You Know, a sparkling, smiling, snarling portrait of the doomed. “I was angry because I had no shoes ‘til I saw a man who had no feet. Now I’m really pissed off,” he explained. “If you’re going to accept your fate, you might have to accept fate as your enemy.” Things don’t end well, you know. But Snider has a unique way of sidling up to a topic, spinning a yarn, making you chuckle amidst all the sinister stuff going down. There’s an edge to what he’s done over seven albums, and this eighth album hones that edge. It’s not any more a concept album than many others – all albums come from concepts – but it’s as direct an attack as this master of the odd, oblique angle has ever waged. “At first this whole record was a reaction to living in a country at war,” he said, “But I didn’t want to do the typical war stuff that we’re hearing now. Didn’t want to say ‘Bush,’ ‘Iraq,’ any of it. No ‘Give Peace a Chance’ because as much as I love John Lennon’s reaction to early Bob Dylan, my favorite reaction to early Bob Dylan was Bob Dylan’s. So with that in mind, I pulled the camera back and found poverty under certainty of religion.” Certainty of religion, of politics or of much of anything is a grasp-slipper for Snider, whose life to this point has known few bedrocks. By the time he was 18, he’d spent three years in tired and hungry places. The Woody Guthrie phase of his life culminated with the time he was told by a cop, through a bullhorn, to get off a roof. “I thought, ‘Jim Morrison. I’ll be Jim Morrison,’” he said. Todd Snider is not Jim Morrison, thanks in part to the influences of folks like Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver, troubadour luminaries who at this point look to Snider as the next in their peculiar line. Shaver likes to say of his younger acolyte, “He reminds me of me,” and that statement reflects well on both men. These days, Snider sells out theatres, and sells out the large clubs he plays if the owner will agree to put chairs down for people to sit and listen. “I think I’m doing okay,” said Snider, who is the only folk-singing fellow of his generation who has earned both the blessings of his esteemed inspirers and the career path that is allowing him to fill their rooms. Shaver writes about Snider’s talents in his autobiography. Kristofferson calls him “A true songwriter,” Walker says “Of all the young songwriters out there, I think Todd Snider is the best,” while Prine calls him “great.” Greatness is in the angles. In conversation, Snider is quick to remind that we live in a time when the president of the United States openly proclaims to know what God wants him to give the rest of us, and to remind that the impact of those proclamations tends to be received in inordinate doses by the poor and disenfranchised. In song, Snider shifts from the president part and moves right to what some might call the side stories. “I think maybe they aren’t side stories at all, and, anyway, I find them more entertaining,” he said. The Devil You Know starts and ends with uncertainly and moves through manual labor, prostitution, heartbreak, crime and fidelity in the middle. “Poor people have Thanksgiving, too,” is something Snider repeats every now and again, and this album brings us people who greet hard luck and bad karma with parties, curses, promises and bottle-swigs. And then there’s “A Tale Of Two Fraternity Brothers,” a glimpse at the other side of the coin and an evocation of the good times of a couple of buddies, one of whom winds up as the leader of the free world. Neither one of those frat guys would feel much at home among the characters who populate the rest of The Devil You Know. After the furiously questioning “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” Snider gives us “Lookin’ For A Job,” a drywall hanger’s take on Kristofferson’s notion that desperation and freedom can live close together, like the slums and $500,000 homes that coexist underneath police helicopters in Snider’s own East Nashville neighborhood. In “Just Like Old Times,” a hustler and a hooker find their own safe haven behind a motel’s deadbolt lock, through hard drugs, memories and a shared distrust of the mainstream. It’s the quintessential Todd Snider song, with compelling detail and dialogue, a couple of plot twists and a full-on embrace of the unbending sincerity required in any good grift. Like Dylan said, to live outside the law you must be honest. Snider’s outlaw-appreciating tendencies extend even to those who’ve harmed him. He tried unsuccessfully to write “Highland Street Incident” until he figured out that the story was more interesting if told from the point of view of the guys who mugged him that night in Memphis, instead of from the perspective of the then-struggling songwriter who got held up. In Snider’s song, the anxiety and fear that spurs the crime is as frightful and real as the anxiety and fear of the victim. A similar situation arises in the album’s title song, in which a robbers’ prey becomes a conspirator, surmising, “Poor kid, probably never had a chance to give a fuck.” The album-closing “Happy New Year” finds Snider labeling himself an “Evangelical Agnostic” – “I don’t know what we’re doing here/ You don’t know what we’re doing here” – but there is belief to be found in the two songs that precede it. “Unbreakable” portrays a woman who is happier erecting a permanent shield than to open her heart, while “All That Matters” takes the opposite approach: “I don’t care if I know where we come from or where we go/ You’re all that matters to me,” he sings, over backing instruments that underscore the lyrics’ fragility. Other artists might figure this spare track as a demo. Snider figured it that way, too, and now he doesn’t. Eric McConnell’s as-yet-unnamed studio – the same place where Loretta Lynn recorded her Grammy-winning Van Lear Rose – was the setting for Snider’s new album. It’s the same structure where Snider made his acclaimed 2004 album East Nashville Skyline, and the musicians used the whole place. “We recorded in every room in the house, even the kitchen,” Snider said. They also made a louder noise than usual, not surprisingly since the band included the rocket-fueled guitars of co-producer/longtime collaborator Will Kimbrough (a sought-after guitarist and author of multiple albums) and fellow songwriter/artist Tommy Womack. “Lookin’ For A Job,” “Highland Street Incident,” “The Devil You Know” and other tracks are both centered and powered by Snider’s own propulsive electric guitar figures. McConnell, Kimbrough and Womack are all friends, as is the case with the rest of the players on The Devil You Know. Lloyd Green, whose steel guitar has graced The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album along with works by Charley Pride, Don Williams, Paul McCartney, Tammy Wynette and Nanci Griffith, is here in these tracks. Drummers Craig Wright and Paul Buchignani and keyboard man David Zollo are here, too, as are other pals including fiddler Molly Thomas and bass honcho Billy Mercer. Nashville Tennessean music writer/ East Nashville neighborhood buddy Peter Cooper is also onboard, singing harmonies and playing some bass. He and Snider co-write Thin Wild Mercury, an explication of bad decisions and a study of a mutually regrettable incident between Bob Dylan (who called his own Blonde On Blonde-era sound “thin, wild mercury music”) and folk singer Phil Ochs. “We saw the whole thing as a metaphor for the potholes in life,” Snider writes in The Devil You Know’s liner notes. “We declared ourselves finished when we decided to make the line ‘If he ever thought better, he thought too late’ applicable to whichever of the two men you choose.’” With The Devil You Know, Snider has assembled a bag of songs that speak to the politics of the day without ever speaking politics, that talk to the wars being fought away from cameras or reporters and that balance truth, beauty and humor. “I’m a gypsy first and a singer second, and I always will be,” he says. But he’s married now – his wife, Melita Osheowitz Snider, painted the cover of The Devil You Know – and lives in a house with a sweet rooftop bar that has become local legend. As for that gypsy spirit, he need not worry about it. Performers wander the world for a living, and the best ones do it for the rest of their lives. Todd Snider is one for the wandering.