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Todd Snider: The Storyteller

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February 8, 2011  |  9:00am
Todd Snider: <i>The Storyteller</i>

Songwriter’s songwriter creates hilarious and heartbreaking time capsule of life in our time

Comedy albums aside, I’ve never laughed so many times listening to a record as I did when I put on Todd Snider’s The Storyteller. And I’m not talkin’ about a little chuckle. I laughed, loudly and involuntarily. Snider is one of the wittiest folks to ever pick up a six-string. But he’s a whole lot more than that.

In Cameron Crowe’s love letter to rock ’n’ roll, Almost Famous, there’s this incredible scene where William tells Penny Lane that Russell sold her to Humble Pie for 50 bucks and case of beer. For a moment, she’s frozen. She looks away. She looks back. She looks at the ground, fighting back tears. A few seep out despite her best efforts. In a matter of seconds, she cycles through an entire range of emotions—love, joy, longing, shock, anger, pain, pride, sadness, strength. Finally, she pulls herself together, smiles through the tears, and asks, “What kind of beer?”

It’s the kind of depth Snider sustains in his best songs, several of which appear on this new live record—“Greencastle Blues,” “Just Like Old Times,” “Sunshine,” “Rose City,” “The Ballad of the Kingsmen.” These are wistful, weary and/or aching ballads delivered with a wink, a sigh and a grin, never taking themselves too seriously, but turning to fatalistic humor to stave off the tears. It’s an extension of the blues, really—laughing to keep from crying.

Snider is also a master at creating rich, believable characters in his tunes—especially of the underdog variety: an ex-con construction worker, a nostalgic alcoholic, a washed-up old timer, a man holding up traffic while he debates whether to hurl himself off a bridge, a middle-aged corporate slave slowly going mad in a cubicle, a pool shark and a hooker in the throes of a long overdue reunion, a brutally picked-on but resilient high-school geek and the bully who has to live with the shame of what he’s done. And, of course, Todd himself, naked to the world.

If you really wanted future generations to know what America was up to around the turn of the millennium, you could just pop a Todd Snider live record in the time capsule and call it a day. What do you think would do a better job—some politician’s “historic” speech? The way life appears in Snider’s songs is as close to reality as art gets. Good, bad, ugly, dumb, beautiful—it’s all there.

Over the last seven years of listening to and writing about Snider’s music and interviewing the man himself, I’ve come to believe he’s more than just a songwriter—he’s a charmingly self-deprecating philosopher. Even more than that, he’s a barometer—measuring our society as it fluxes continually between disdainful and redeeming, trying to talk sense in a sea of madness while all the while recognizing his own certifiable neuroses. Though he’s never too heavy-handed, and that makes him all the more effective as a persuasive musical essayist. In fact, he always rattles off a disclaimer during his shows. Anyone who’s seen him has heard it in some shape or form, and it’s included in The Storyteller’s fourth track, “Eighteen Minutes Speech”:

“I might share some of my opinions with you over the course of the evening. I’m not gonna share them with you ’cause I think they’re smart, or ’cause I think you need to know ’em; I’m gonna share ’em with you because they rhyme. I didn’t come down here to change any of y’all’s minds about anything; I come down here to ease my own mind about everything ... If all goes well this evening, we can all expect a 90-minute distraction from our impending doom.”

As great as his songs are, Snider’s stage banter, and the rambling, off-the-cuff yarns he weaves into to his tunes when he performs them live, can be every bit as mesmerizing—sometimes more so. As the album title suggests, he’s a king-hell musical storyteller, possibly the greatest of his generation. And there’s plenty of evidence included on this double album. During the break in “Rose City,” he unspools a story of Peter Pan syndrome, in which he plays his old hometown of Beaverton, Ore., gets blackout drunk and ends up writing “Todd Snider Rules” in a tunnel he once graffitied as a kid. “Bill Elliott Story” hilariously recounts an evening in which Snider meets his brother’s hero, NASCAR driver Bill Elliott. (“These guys, what do they do?” Snider says, unimpressed. “They turn left at 200 miles an hour for three hours. ... I can probably do that.”)

“KK Rider”—“one of those classic show-business stories about somebody being in the right place at the right time”—explains how a dire need to pay the rent, a rope swing, a bell and a couple of drunks in sleeveless .38 Special T-shirts led to Snider becoming lead singer of country cover band KK Rider.

But the biggest pearl of all the monologues is Snider’s revealing “Mushroom Story,” about his riding the bench in varsity football but eventually leaving it all behind to join “the burnouts from the smoke pit.” Replete with football blocking sleds that morph into Fred Sanford and Jesus, it’s the “touching story,” says Snider, “of how psychedelic drugs turned me from the scoreboard-watchin’ jock that my Dad was hopin’ for into the peace-lovin’, pot-smokin’, porn-watchin’, lazy-ass hippie that stands before you this afternoon.”

We’re in Snider’s playground here—live on stage with an acoustic guitar, the subtle backing of his band Great American Taxi, and no safety net in sight. Sure, the studio records are great, but this is where he’s at his best. Along with 2000 live gem Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, The Storyteller is Snider’s finest release to date. I can’t think of many Snider fans who’d be upset if he just toured and put out live albums for the rest of his days. And who knows, maybe he will.

Snider has always followed his own path, always been the champion of the underdog—the patron saint of all the wonderful weirdoes out there. His music speaks to a different kind of American Dream, one not comprised of picket fences and SUVs and super-size fries, but of true freedom, of finding your own best version of life—whatever it is—and going after it with gusto.

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