Todd Snider's the guy in the back of your high school math class cracking wise. A real smack-talking, dope-smoking free spirit with a folk-singing patois, lined with satirical asides, lighthearted irreverence, and self-deprecating wit. Along the way, he's grown into one of our finest Americana artists, though he'd be the last to cop to that.
Snider grew up in Texas, but after accompanying his father on a visit to Beaverton, Ore. (near Portland), he refused to come back. He surfed couches throughout his last two years of high school, then eventually took a construction job with his brother in Austin, where he saw acclaimed country songsmith Jerry Jeff Walker and decided to become a singer/songwriter.
Snider landed a major label deal with MCA and in 1994 released his debut Songs for the Daily Planet with a last-minute addition, "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Blues." It's a Dylan-esque spit-take on the burgeoning movement about some flannel-wearing wannabes who come up with the ultimate gimmick: "We decided to be the only band that wouldn't play a note under any circumstances. Silence, music's original alternative." (The album also included "Alright Guy," which Gary Allan would take to #1 in 2001.)
Songs for the Daily Planet created a small stir, but Snider's next two albums didn't make any commercial hay, and he ended up with John Prine's Oh Boy Records for four more, culminating in 2004's East Nashville Skyline, which reignited his career. It's arguably his finest moment, chock full of great songs including his paean to censorship, "The Ballad of the Kingsmen," an ode to Mike Tyson ("Iron Mike's Main Man's Last Request"), "Age Like Wine," (in which he notes, "It's too late to die young now"), and his signature bit of political skewering, "Conservative, Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight White American Male."
"I had overdosed a few times. My best friend died [2000 heroin overdose victim, guitarist Eddy Shaver]. You might say I lucked into having that 'Kingsmen' song being in my life right at the same time. That was a pretty painful time," Snider says. "I'm the kind of guy that if I move to an island and sat there, I would make up a record, and when you turned it on, it'd be, 'Sitting on the island. Still sitting here. Still sitting here,' and they'd be 'This isn't a good time for you to be cutting stuff, man.'"
Snider followed it two years later with The Devil You Know, another politically tinged album highlighted by his take on George W. Bush's early life, "You Got Away with It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers)." It maintained the last album's momentum and multiplied it, thanks in part to the charged political atmosphere of the time.
"I had not expected that kind of attention in my life. I had totally resigned myself to the idea that those days were behind me," Snider says.
It spooked him a bit, and he wanted to leave the political songs behind. "I wasn't sure if I thought I was into that so much," he says. "By that time, I was like, 'Oh politics, everybody's doing politics.'"
In the end, he collected those political songs on 2008's eight-song Peace Queer EP, and then returned a year later with a collection of more upbeat songs, The Excitement Plan. Though not a bad record, it lacks some of the previous discs' bristle and bite. "I had left out all that angst, put it on this EP, and separated the emotions," he says. "This is in hindsight, of course."
In February, Snider released a double-disc titled Live: The Storyteller, which functioned both as a kind of greatest hits album and cleared the deck of his prior between-song stories and humorous banter.
"Right now I'm working on new stories and hoping to have a whole brand new band, sound, and everything by then," he says. "I don't know. I'll probably go to the show and someone will be, 'Goddamn, you wore that last time. Is this that rope swing thing? Jesus Christ, is he on drugs again? I hope so, because that looks painful.'"
Snider is working on a new batch of songs largely related to his dysfunctional family. He believes it will be a bluesier album than anything he's done before. He hopes to hit the studio in October then release it early next year.
"I'm calling it Agnostic Hymns. It's anti-country, anti-religion, anti-family. I feel like it's really going to really tank for me," he says. "It's still a big huge mess. I'd tell the story, but I'd also want the part. I'd want that to be the end, but it's actually really awful, and a lot of why I ran away from home."
In the meantime, he's still working. "I've never written a song and not rewritten it 50 times. I don't trust a lyric that's less than 11 months old," says Snider, explaining that he's looking forward to opening a new chapter in his career. "I'm coming into my Fred Sanford years and trying to make music that sounds like the way I'm starting to walk."