Todd Snider: A Singer’s Life of Jest, Sarcasm and Politics

By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO

Todd Snider is an unbound spirit outside the ordinary. And that’s precisely where he wishes to be – and to stay.

He unapologetically cusses, parties, touts drugs, and hammers Republicans in his lyrics, and he generally doesn’t give a damn about his own image or ego. Like him or loathe him, the Portland-born songwriter has morphed from a reliable country-ish journeyman to the cleverest and most relevant protest singer toiling today.

As a pesky fixture on the Americana, alt-country, and folk/rock scene, the maverick singer/songwriter has been spinning yarns since his 1994 debut album Songs For The Daily Planet. In addition to his sharp-tongue and working-class ethic, he’s also known for his entertaining live concerts and natural propensity for intermingling with his steadfast spectators. And then there are those who could scarcely be labeled admirers.

“I get a lot of hate mail from people,” says Snider. “Most of it goes to my agent’s office. There are about seven or eight people on a list that we try to keep note of. I get a lot of nutty situations, too. The chick that broke into my house, and was claiming that her parents were about to kill her, is on that list.”

Todd Snider: A Singer's Life of Jest, Sarcasm and Politics

The American dream has become a uniquely American expectation. For many, the formula for a satisfied adulthood means acquiring a job, entrapping a spouse, buying a house, and having kids. At 46, Snider shares many of those byproducts (he lives in Nashville with his wife Melita, who he met at a drug and alcohol rehab facility). But Snider’s occupational milieu will perhaps never revolve around cubicles, soccer practices, and commuting on the highway from the suburbs. Indeed, this man of music says that he can scarcely live without frequent intervals of pot and hallucinogenics.

“In my free time, I take acid and we party balls,” says Snider. “There are no kids around.”

Snider is a showman, a storyteller with an expansive spiritual atmosphere, who’s drawn on personal experience and keen observation to create more than 15 albums over the years, including two highly acclaimed releases in 2012: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables and Time As We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker.

“Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables,” made the Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums list in 2012. Featuring songs about greedy bankers, the delights of recreational drugs and the pitfalls of organized religion, the album’s unhappy conclusions are articulated with Snider’s typical wit and sensibility.

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“Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables,” made the Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums list in2012.

“In Between Jobs” informs listeners that if you rebuff a desperate beggar that he may rob and kill you. “New York Banker” is an anecdote about a schoolteacher whose retirement money is looted by crooked Wall Street workers who get off unpunished.

“I write and sing about those things that come to me and seem real to me at the time,” says Snider.

Snider’s place of worship is either the recording studio or stage, where he takes on the role of preacher, teacher, and boss. The peacenik in him understands that persuasion, not force, is the legitimate instrument for swaying the human mind. When you hear the songs, it’s no wonder that he has enticed many loyalists; Snider really has a soft spot for individuals who’ve been bullied by modern life’s circumstances.

Whatever one says about Snider – call him a shoeless hippie, an agnostic, a peddler of pro-drug gibberish – there is one thing that he could never be accused of being, and that’s a phony. He isn’t one to deliver sham diatribes. He isn’t consumed with worrying about the response of others. He is no dangerously loony Utopian, irreversibly divided from his mental faculties. In truth, he’s approachable, unguarded, reckless, fairly pragmatic, and genuinely grateful to be able to resonate on a sensory or social level with his fans.

“There is a new documentary, just released, and it’s really of me simply being myself,” laughs Snider. “And if people don’t like it, then they don’t have to fucking be around me. I don’t care about being a bad influence to peoples’ kids. I really don’t. I’ve been writing songs eight hours a day for twenty five years, and the reward of that is that I get to keep my spirit going the way I want to.”

Todd Snider: A Singer's Life of Jest, Sarcasm and Politics

Taking into account his disobedient nature, anti-corporate platform and short-lived experience with a bevy of record labels, you would think Snider would be a zealous critic of the music business, or at the very minimum, a little disgruntled.  Not the case.

“I don’t really think about where things have been or look ahead to the next big thing,” says Snider. “Everyone is always asking about the next big thing. I just want to play music. If I die tomorrow, then so be it. Whatever’s left, I’d give it all away happily.”

Folk/roots music has had its share of self-satisfied romantics, and he is aware that a folksinger with a serious or even smug societal or political agenda can easily find himself with a dwindled fan base.

“I’m not sure why some people get so pissed off when someone acts the way they are,” laughs Snider. “I don’t think about that type of stuff when I tour or when I am on stage.”

Nonetheless, Snider does earn high marks for delivering point and well-timed commentary and for possessing an unswerving commitment to the passions that have shaped his own quirky cultural and social persona. While his catalogue is extensive and includes memorable songs about every subject from Mike Tyson (which, he says, Tyson enjoyed so much that Iron Mike’s Main Man’s Last Request will be featured in an upcoming documentary about the boxer), to the alt-rock satire Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues, which resonated with younger people in addition to aging rockers who live through the Dylan-charged folk revival of the 1960s.

Todd Snider: A Singer's Life of Jest, Sarcasm and Politics

His tunes almost always deliver something special: immensely quick-witted and funny, acerbic, down to earth. However, it’s Snider’s political, anti-establishment, and anti-religious outbursts that alienate him from some folks.

“I even had a guy pull a knife on me in Santa Cruz,” says Snider. “It was frightening. I had to walk along the shore with this lunatic. The funny thing is that Republicans can come to my shows, they really can. As far as the religious shit, I pray to Him or Her for wisdom and compassion, I do it at least thirty times a day. I’ve said all along that I can’t find the answer. I don’t know. It’s okay to not know. If people want to believe that their God published a certain book and then published it again, and then edited it five or ten times until he got it right, that’s fine, too.”

Ultimately, music is about relationships, and Snider enjoys the positive reviews from indie and mainstream media and is respected by a wide range of listeners who like to be touched by his melodies.

“It may sound corny, but I really open my heart when I play,” says Snider. “Since I’m really vulnerable to others, I ask people to open their hearts. I ask them to feel something. It doesn’t have to be something that they understand. It’s not something that has to be explained. It’s just about being able to feel, really.”

Snider, who plays at Stage 112 in the Elk’s Club, in Missoula, Tuesday, April 30, doesn’t confess to having impetuses any more noble than a wish to keep others amused. Simply stated, he’s a hard-working folksinger who’s also an unreservedly slack dude.

“I’ll be getting into Missoula by bus on that very day,” says Snider. “Missoula is a great town. If you are around, come by before the show, say hello, and smoke a joint.”

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Read more of Brian’s stories about the fascinating places and personalities that shape Western Montana in his blog archive.

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Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country NewsUSA TodayWisconsin TrailsBark MagazineMontana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine.

His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. He is also the author of Montana Summer: 101 Great Adventures in Big Sky Country. D’Ambrosio’s next book, Desert Horse: A Life of Marvin Camel, a biography of the Montana boxing legend, will be published by Riverbend Publishing in 2013.