Drifters is an East Nashville bar, a tan, squat, cinder-block building that serves up barbecue, nachos, corn dogs and Brunswick stew. It’s an easy walk from Todd Snider’s house, and the singer/songwriter often strolls over to imbibe some beverages and match tall tales with the other barflies. Sometimes Snider’s shaggy-dog stories evolve into actual songs, and such was the case with “In the Beginning,” the first track on his new album, Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables.
“I had read somewhere, maybe in a magazine on a plane,” he says, “that Napoleon once said that religion was invented to keep the poor from killing the rich. Talking to the bartender and my friends J.J. and Jill, I started this rap, just riffing on that Napoleon quote. It was one of those stoner fables you hear in a bar, a three-drink rant where someone says, ‘I’ll bet you it was this way’ or ‘The whole universe is in my fingertip.’ This one was kind of interesting, and I thought if I put a little rhyme into it, it could be a song.”
On the album, the song begins with the flourish of a strummed electric-guitar chord and Snider talking as if he were still leaning on the bar at Drifters. “In the beginning,” Snider drawls, “man wondered to himself, ‘Why, oh, why are we here?’” Snider’s cavemen are soon making plans to gang up on the wealthiest of their companions to steal all his stuff—and for a moment it seems this will be a parable about the individual vs. the mob. But that’s a red herring, for the rich guy has soon convinced the threatening mob that he’s rich because God favors him—and if they want the deity’s help, they should start by cleaning up the rich guy’s cave. The magic of religion turns the human race’s first would-be revolutionaries into janitors.
As the mob gathers, the guitar stiffens into a garage-rock riff, and Snider rides that rhythm with a vocal that straddles the border between talking and singing. That boundary, it turns out, is a good place for Snider, for it provides the illusion that he’s talking to us up-close-and-personal at a bar, even as the guitar, rhythm and hint of a melody are providing the pleasure of rootsy country-rock. If he had just spoken the whole piece, there wouldn’t have been enough sonic stimulation to hold our interest. If he had just sung the whole piece, we wouldn’t concentrate on the storytelling the same way. Snider has found the sweet spot between the two.
“The speaking is something that just happens,” he says. “It comes from influences; I like the way Lou Reed does it, Jerry Jeff Walker too. I can’t sing all that good, so I saw the talking as an ‘in.’ I heard Kristofferson and said, ‘I’m in.’ I have tapes of me doing songs different ways, singing certain parts, speaking others. I pick the one that makes me feel that if I ever had a kid, this is the one I’d like him to hear.”
Most of the tracks on the new album employ this seductive mix of speaking and singing. Whether he’s riffing on the Bush Recession with numbers such as “New York Banker” and “In Between Jobs” or on troubled romantic relationships with “The Very Last Time” and “Brenda,” he lures us in with a wobbly warble and a chunky guitar and then pushes beyond the song form with long, talky lines. He might never have explained as clearly, for example, how a Manhattan banker stole an Arkansas high school teacher’s pension if he’d had to keep his lines within the constraints of a conventional pop song. On the other hand, a purely spoken monologue on bankers would never have had the same effect as this song with its sing-along chorus, “Good thing happen to bad people, bad people, bad people.”
“I know Rahm Emanuel a little,” Snider reveals. “He came to a show in D.C. one time; we had a few beers then and then he and his wife came to my show in Chicago. He worked for Bill Clinton and Obama, so I was enamored. He’s funny and he must think I am. He told me, ‘If you want the song Woody Guthrie’d be looking for, write a song about bankers. They’re doing the most sinister things.’
“I don’t know money; I never cared about it, because folk singers don’t need it. But I started reading about what bankers were doing to people who were normal, and Rahm was right; it really was sinister. What makes it so disgusting to me is these people who are already wealthy are cleaning out these ordinary people. One of my card-playing buddies is a teacher, so I tried to make it like it happened to him. Once I did, I could start making up a story. I started seeing it as something I could play it for Shel Silverstein, something Bobby Bare might like, because I come from that school.”
Shel Silverstein is best known as the author of such children’s books as The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, but he was also a prolific cartoonist, playwright and songwriter. He penned such memorable songs as Bobby Bare’s “Marie Laveau,” Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” Emmylou Harris’ “Queen of the Silver Dollar,” Marianne Faithfull’s “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way” and Dr. Hook’s “The Cover of the Rolling Stone.” All of these are narratives with an irreverent undercurrent, an obvious model for Snider.
“There was something about the way Shel did story songs that really worked,” Snider says. “I like it if the character seems real; I like it when there’s a Shel Silverstein twist. ‘Brian Hennessey,’ which Bobby Bare recorded, is the perfect story song; a guy goes to see a gypsy and she says he’s finished, so he stops living. It’s got it all: descriptive shit, emotional shit.
“I’m down at the bar all the time wondering how I’m going to turn these stories into Shel-type songs. How does it happen? That’s like asking which horse is going to win. I don’t know; I just like being at the track. Sometimes I write the story out in prose, then I keep looking at it until it’s smaller and smaller. I try to get rid of the poetry, the stuff that makes you sound like something you’re not, the stuff you wouldn’t say in a bar.”
Next month Snider will be releasing Time as We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker, an album of Walker’s songs to celebrate his 70th birthday. The disc will contain 14-15 songs from the 15-30 Snider recorded with producer Don Was and the backing band Great American Taxi. The project is payback to the man who unknowingly launched Snider on his career. It all began when Snider was 19, wanting to join a rock ‘n’ roll band but not knowing how, as he slept on a friend’s couch in Texas.
“My friend Trog played me Jerry Jeff’s ‘Gypsy Songman,’” Snider explains, “because it was about staying on couches and he said it was about me. We went to see Jerry Jeff at Gruene Hall, and I just identified with it. He was putting a nice spin on what my life was like at the time. He made me feel like I was free rather than a freeloader. And he did it by himself; I saw I didn’t have to join a band to make music.
“I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ I got myself an acoustic guitar and started making up songs. As a person who seemed destined to be a busboy the rest of my life, I thought, ‘This guitar might get me into parties and with some girls.’ In fact, it got me a life; it ended up being something I really liked to do. I still work hard at it every day for hours, without ever saying, ‘Ah, crap, I’ve got to practice.’”