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Still funny after all these years: Todd Snider brings his tunes and tall tales to Gateway City Arts

  • A barefoot troubadour: Todd Snider channels Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Jerry Jeff Walker, Bob Dylan and other singer-songwriters to create a style all his own. Image courtesy Todd Snider

  • A barefoot troubadour: Todd Snider channels Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Jerry Jeff Walker, Bob Dylan and other singer-songwriters to create a style all his own. Image courtesy Todd Snider

  • Todd Snider, who’s also the lead singer for the jam-band “supergroup” Hard Working Americans, has won much praise for what the New York Times calls his “pin-sharp, big-hearted, devilishly funny songs.”  Image courtesy Todd Snider

  • Todd Snider, who comes to Gateway City Arts Nov. 14, is seen here with one of his mentors, John Prine; Snider released several albums on Prine’s Oh Boy Records. Photo courtesy Todd Snider

  • In addition to his solo work, Todd Snider is also the lead singer for the rock/jam-band “supergroup” Hard Working Americans. Photo courtesy Todd Snider

  • Aside from his many songs, Snider is also the author of the acclaimed memoir “I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like.” Photo courtesy Todd Snider

  • Snider is also the author of the shaggy-dog memoir “I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like.”



Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Todd Snider has carved out a fine career for himself as a folk/alt country singer-songwriter, a raconteur and humorist, and as someone who can sketch a scene with just a few lines and a bit of melody. But the veteran musician says some fans have also found it hard to reconcile his often laugh-out-loud lyrics with his seemingly bleak world view.

“A few years ago, I remember getting asked some questions about my music, and people would be surprised about how cynical I was,” Snider said in a recent phone call from his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. “I don’t know that I’m cynical, but I’m not an optimist. I mean, I’m still dancing, but the ice is so thin.”

But if Snider thinks America (and the world in general) can be a dark place with its wars, political divisiveness, prejudice and gross economic disparities, at heart he still seems — at least during this interview — an affable, likable guy who’s happy to make music, poke fun at himself or just have a good time (sometimes fueled by various intoxicating substances). 

“I’m lucky to have a job doing something I still like doing,” he said.

And Snider, who comes to Gateway City Arts in Holyoke next Wednesday at 8 p.m., has taken on some more varied musical roles in the past four-plus years. After years of touring mostly as a solo act with acoustic guitar and harmonica (and performing barefoot), he’s become the lead singer for Hard Working Americans, a rock/jam-band “supergroup” that includes Dave Schools and Duane Trucks of Widespread Panic, Neal Casal of Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi.

Now 52, Snider has also invented an alter ego for himself, Elmo Buzz, which he uses as part of an ad-hoc rock and roll band he sometimes gigs with, Elmo Buzz & The Bulldogs. On his most recent album, 2016’s “Eastside Bulldog,” Snider takes up the electric guitar to front the group, offering songs more focused on good-time roots rock — with shades of the Rolling Stones and Tom Petty — than lyrical insight.

“It’s just this idea that songwriting is not gonna change the world,” he said. “Words can only take you so far. The music part of music — you know, the beat, the rhythm, the melody, maybe the energy — that’s something that can help people and make them feel good.”

You can hear that energy and beat on cuts from the album such as “Hey Pretty Boy,” a straight-up rocker that has Snider lampooning the music business, with a chorus that explains the only thing he’s really interested in is “chicks and cars and partying hard.”

Of course, this being a Todd Snider song, it’s hard not to imagine that he’s also delivering that line just a little bit tongue in cheek.

A barefoot troubadour

Snider, who grew up near Portland, Oregon but has lived in and around Nashville since the 1990s, made a memorable debut with his first album, 1994’s “Songs from the Daily Planet,” on a label owned by legendary singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffet. The album had its slower, contemplative songs, but it also featured plenty of upbeat, alt-country rock, and Snider toured at first with the hard-hitting band he’d recorded with.

As time went on, however, he performed more as a solo act with his acoustic guitar, though he’s never been a conventional folkie or country singer. With his sly humor and scratchy voice, as well as the rambling, stoner monologues from his shows (like the one about how he quit playing high school football to hang out with the school’s druggies), Snider is roughly one-third singer-songwriter, one-third beat poet and one-third class cutup. (He’s also written an acclaimed memoir, “I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like”)

But Snider also writes movingly about people who’ve been knocked about by life, and he’s hit hard and deep on any number of subjects, such as child abuse (“You Think You Know Somebody”), the racism a biracial couple faces (“Betty was Black, Willie was White”), George W. Bush’s presidency (“You Got Away With It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers)”) and how Wall Street greed destroyed people’s lives in the 2008 recession (“New York Banker”).

More often he’s turned to satiric humor to highlight the absurdities of life, like the relentless pressure to make money that’s driving the narrator of “Stuck on the Corner” over the edge: “We’re makin’ money out of paper, paper out of trees / We’re makin’ so much money we can hardly breathe.”

But about three and a half years ago, Snider got divorced, and his personal troubles coincided with a period in which he’d developed some doubts about his songwriting — whether it was worth spending so much time trying to write the perfect lyric, and whether he needed a change from “the solo folk thing … It just felt like I needed to do things a little differently.”

When he was asked to become the singer for Hard Working Americans, Snider jumped at the chance: “It’s just an adventure to be part of that … I’m still divorced, and it’s still pretty hard, but now I have this way to kind of balance what I do.”

It’s given him a different way to write songs, too, as he’ll often hand the band members a poem he’s written and have them set it to music “so it’s really kind of a group project.”

The band members have their own gigs, of course, so after touring a lot with the group in 2015 and 2016, Snider has been on his own more during the last two years (he’ll be playing solo at Gateway City Arts). But he says spending time with other musicians has also helped him improve his guitar playing; Dave Schools has been a particular help, notes Snider, who now plays a lot of fingerstyle guitar as opposed to the strumming that was long his mainstay.

And Snider isn’t finished with writing songs as a solo singer-songwriter. He has a new album due out next spring that was recorded in the famous Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tenn., a town northeast of Nashville where he now lives. The studio, run by Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, has seen a veritable who’s who of country singers and bands (including Johnny and June Carter Cash) record there.

Snider says he and John Carter Cash are friends and near-neighbors, so he was thrilled to work in the studio; Cash even lent him one of his fathers’s acoustic guitars to play on the new album, which he says features just his vocals, guitar and harmonica.

Working in the famous studio has given Snider more grist for his between-song tales, too, like one about Loretta Lynn dancing outside the studio in the middle of the night when she was recording there not long ago. “It’s a wild place — I wonder if it might be a little haunted,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com

Todd Snider plays at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Singer-songwriter Kevin Gordon opens the show. For tickets, visit gatewaycityarts.com/todd-snider.