By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch


December 2, 2004

Singer-songwriter Todd Snider is on the phone from his home in East Nashville -- an important distinction, as he'll explain later. Someone is leaving the house and he's trying to reset the alarm and a dog is barking, and he apologizes for being grumpy.

This is kind of funny because Snider doesn't sound grumpy and, besides, he's the kind of guy who's too laid-back to get really angry, and so liberal he really doesn't hate anybody.

Sure, he has a bad back and he hates yoga -- "They tell me to bounce around like a cat, and I say I'd rather have back pain" -- but he's about a year past his third stint in rehab for alcohol and pills and he's feeling "good, surprisingly good."

And he'll be heading back out on the road in a couple of days behind his new CD, "East Nashville Skyline," his sixth studio collection of folk, country, rock and talking blues that manages to be topical and autobiographical at the same time and, as usual, quite funny. He'll be telling his stories tonight at Off Broadway. The CD began as songs strictly about his neighborhood in East Nashville, Snider says, but then he found himself writing about "my own life with drugs, and a friend dying who was a huge part of my neighborhood, and all of a sudden I was playing a big role in it."

And with Snider, the words come in bucketfuls. On the short lead track "Age Like Wine," he refers to himself as an old-timer -- he's 38 -- and brings listeners quickly up to date:

"I've been through seven managers, five labels, 1,000 picks and patch cables, three vans, a band, a bunch of guitar stands, and cans and cans and cans of beer, and bottles of booze and bags of pot and thousands of things that I forgot, I thought that I'd be dead by now, but I'm not . . ."

Snider says he started writing journals when he was 17 ("like Jewel -- but she actually puts that stuff out!") but really wanted to be a singer in a band. That all changed when he saw Jerry Jeff Walker in a club.

"He was playing alone and telling his stories and singing his songs, and I said, 'That's what I'm gonna do,'" Snider says. "So I just started following him around, and I've spent 15 years trying to unlearn all the stuff I did to imitate him."

Two weeks after seeing Walker, he saw John Prine perform and jokes that he stalked him until, three albums into his career, he switched labels from big-time MCA to Prine's Oh Boy. It's a great fit for Snider, for whom Prine has been a songwriting mentor and whose songs also are liberally leavened with humor.

Some artists in the alt-country/folk mold are more or less contemptuous of Nashville's contemporary Music Row and its production of rock-heavy music sung by hunks with hats and Shania clones. Snider isn't, although he moved to East Nashville from Fairview, about 30 miles southwest of Nashville, because his wife, artist Melita Osheowitz, wanted to be closer to the city.

"In my neighborhood, it's like Hank (Williams) III lives over there, and BR549 and Gillian Welch live over here," he says. "And if it sounds like I'm braggin', I am. The connection feels like these people are working artists but it's the not-as-ambitious side of town -- or maybe it's the more-ambitious side of town, I guess it depends how you look at it.

"But it's not like Austin (Texas), with all the anger there toward Kenny Chesney. Sometimes we get our songs cut by the cowboys on TV, but it doesn't seem like we're desperate to fix our songs so the cowboys will sing them. They're great. I just like (Guy Clark's) 'L.A. Freeway' better (than current country), maybe. But I'm painting my house this color, and I like the color of your house, too. It seems to be unhip, but I don't like music based on music we hate."

Snider's mostly live-and-let-live attitude carries over to "Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males," one of the tracks on "East Nashville Skyline".

Snider says he's really put out by the politics of anger -- although "the Republicans are mad more than the Democrats, but that may be genetic."

"That song really describes how I feel," Snider says. "I'm in the hippie camp but it's like I'm on the less mad side. That's not to say I don't fully disagree with the Republicans, but in the big picture, with both teams, I don't think any of it is as important as my TV says it is."

Snider puts his position in musical terms: "It's a weird fence for me, like between John Lennon and Elvis. Those guys are both right."