ulfTone » artists » Todd Snider
happy to be here
"Now I'm sure it's all true
and I'm tired of this too
But I can't pray for someone to fall
I say let all the people do what people do
I'm just happy to be here at all"
Todd Snider burst on the scene, a wry voice with an eye for inherent conflict and a sardonic presence with his well-received "Songs For The Daily Planet". Since then, the tousle-headed songwriter has leveled his view at any number of cultural phenomenons and traveled the country sharing his perspective on whatever caught his mind for any and all who would listen.
With Happy To Be Here, the ironic iconic's debut for John Prine's Oh Boy label (released in Europe on ulfTone music), Snider returns to ground zero. Whether it's the the tugging slow-shuffle of the bittersweet "Long Year" with its skeptical eye for 12 Step groups and their judgemental attitudes, the tackling of the notion of 'til-death-do-us-part-except-for-my-stuff ode to prenuptials of "Just In Case," the free-strumming personal balance against an indictment of churning news for its sexiness over its worthiness of "Happy To Be Here," or his taut cover of the Bis?quits stinging racism toward interracial romantic commentary "Betty Was Black (& Willie Was White)," Snider has never been afraid to tackle the things that work on his sense of fairplay.
"The songs that seem to hurt or don't want to be written -- the ones I avoid tend to be the ones that stick to me," Snider says, addressing his process. "Usually those things start out not right or even hypocritical. Its some sort of angry reaction or sad reaction, but I'm really into Woody Guthrie who once heard that song called "Born To Lose" and wrote a book called Born To Win. Woody made two roads out: the Bob Dylan biting angry road and the Jerry Jeff Walker road."
"I use records and songs to encourage myself rather than bleed all over everybody. So even when I start out angry or sad, by the time it's done, the songs are always more like Steve Goodman than Kurt Cobain. In my humble opinion, you can make a bigger point that way. After all, "This Land Is Your Land" is a lot angrier than "Masters of War"!"
Happy To Be Here veers from Snider's hilariously insightful worldview to moments of tender beauty. Listening to the hushed tenderness of the yearning and tentative invitation of "Lonely Girl" or the sweetly settled "All of My Life," the acoustic guitar-slinging songwriter weaves a vulnerability that draws his listener in.
To accommodate the breadth of the material, Snider desired an intimacy he felt he'd been evolving away from in his travels with his band, the scorching Nervous Wrecks. It became the main directive for the recording process.
"Over the last 6 or 7 years, I've started to understand what I do," Snider confesses. "I'm a pretty good story songwriter. I write pretty good sweet songs, pretty good good-time songs, even pretty good humor songs. But the thing about those kinds of songs, there needs to be a certain intimacy to really make 'em work."
"So I wanted to get back to making a record that was all about the playing 'em all as a person with a guitar. That was what set the first record apart. I wanted to get where I could play these songs alone for the audience because to me, I'd ceased to be a folk singer in front of a rock band and was really just more of a rock band. I mean, I always wanted to be the loudest band in the folk house rather than just another band in the rock house. I think this gets me back headed that way."
Produced by Ray Kennedy (half of the critically acclaimed twang trust, known for their work with Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams) and recorded at Nashville's famed Room & Board, things were stripped back to a core of Snider and his guitar. Literally.
"The actual technical stuff was very different," Snider says. "I'd go into the booth with no head phones on and just start playing and singing. That's how we got the performances. Then we'd layer the other things we thought the songs needed onto what we had."
"We used a full drum kit only on two songs. For the rest, we rigged something together from Home Depot. We'd do that, then bring in the bass player, then the horns, maybe some electric guitar . . . whatever made sense to us in terms of the songs."
"Rather than the usual Tele (Telecaster) with organ, I really wanted something acoustic with horns. I always wanted to combine the music of Texas and Memphis together -- trying to make it more folky Southern rock, more soul-folk Memphis style. I don't know if it's that, but it feels right to me."
Whether it's the Dylan-esque panhandler-style romp "Keep Off The Grass" which sails along on a tambourine-shaking, horn punctuated ride, the swinging fervor of "Back To The Crossroads" with its low-slung swagger, or the Dixieland-infused clarinet and trombone laden small town, life-loving bar-room wisdom of "The Ballad of the Devil's Backbone Tavern," Snider moves easily across genres, moments and insights. His ability to change up without creating aural backlash is one of his strong suits.
"The closest I come to fiction is sarcasm," Snider jokes. "But, you know, people can see right through that -- and we're all a lot more complex than that - - always sniping, always cracking some kind of barb thing. These songs are all true for me, unfortunately for me, but fortunately, too. You write about the different parts of you, and it all becomes a whole."
"I grew up with a lot of demons, so getting over them was the motivation to sing. It seems like I get farther every day, trying to get over all the stuff everybody is trying to deal with, and it makes writing more of an exorcism for me and for the people who listen to this stuff."
"I mean, I ran away when I was young and there was no money. Being real poor when you're 20 years old is hard, especially if you're around all these frat kids -- which is a lot of us. Of course, I couldn't hold a job, so writing and singing became my first therapist and it showed me the way music gives you a place to put that stuff."
Snider drifted to Texas and the Lone Star State coffeehouse scene. It was a place where songs that rang true were the ultimate currency. He learned a John Prine song from a perhaps less than utterly scrupulous folkie who passed the song off as his own. Whether it was the writer's or someone else's, though, the sentiment rang true -- and Snider set out to immerse himself.
"I bought all his records real fast," Snider confesses. "Then years later, I was living in Memphis. I'd gone there to find this guy Keith Sykes, whose records I'd found about the same time as I'd found John's and loved what he was doing. I was trying to get away from a girl, and I went searching for Keith. It seemed the thing to do."
"Through Keith, I got a job as a production assistant and ended up as John's driver when he was in Memphis doing some recording. I didn't bother him, and after a while he started coming to my shows. That's how I got to know his managers Al (Bunetta) and Dan (Einstein) and they always were willing to give me advice even though we weren't working together or anything."
Out of that loose friendship, Snider found people who were simpatico with his stripped down ideals. Not only did Bunetta, Einstein and Prine understand putting the songs first, they understood that the career really needs to serve them above all else.
Frustrated with the reality of neither being fish nor fowl at MCA -- he was signed through the Nashville office but was never ever a country artist -- the young man who has had songs cut by Rick Trevino ("She Just Left Me Lounge"), Mark Chesnutt ("Trouble") and Jason & the Scorchers ("This Town") never settled into a home. He made records that critics responded to and his fans were maniacal in their love of, but he never had a partnership in realizing his music in the broader place.
"I knew what this music needed to be," Snider says. "And I knew I needed to find people who knew what to do with that kind of music. Like John, I guess, I do that funny sweet thing -- and having him listening to the songs, he not only tells you when they're good, he lets you know if they're done. So there were times I went back and worked on 'em more, and they really are better for it."
" That's what Oh Boy is about: songs and performances. They build it from the grass roots, just the way we made Happy To Be Here. So, it seemed like they'd always been straight with me and they understood what I was doing -- which made it a logical fit."
For Snider, finding a musical home paralleled finding a home for his heart. He got married during the transition time from MCA to Oh Boy and the impact of finding his soulmate provided not only balance, but inspiration.
"My wife really helped me get my sense of humor back," Snider offers with a sweet smile. "She helped me deal with a lot of issues I never thought I'd ever bother to deal with -- and she reaches for stuff inside that is just so cool. That is an amazing thing."
For Snider, Happy To Be Here is a record that cuts and pastes pieces of his sky into a 13-song frame. Sometimes it's the raucous "DB Cooper" which celebrates his ability to elude, or the swaggering indictment of romantic paranoia in the bluesy "What's Wrong With You." Other times, it's longing for what the isn't right now but always is of "Missing You." But all of it is unified by the fact that people are multi-faceted even if they don't realize it.
"People my age -- that's always who I try to speak to 'cause I think we're all looking at the same things. I don't aspire to change lives the way Jerry Jeff Walker or John Prine changed mine, but if I could: WOW! I'll go for the sweeter story rather than the darker story every time - and after grunge and punk, I think that's something we all want even if we don't know it."
"There's plenty of dark, plenty of stuff that sucks . . . all you have to do is look around. I mean, I'm not just some big happy smiley face. Not at all. We know how it is out there, that's probably why I write the songs that deal with stuff, but I think hope is really important, too. Hope and those other emotions."
"So, put me down for romantic. I guess, I feel like I'm an indifferentist, most of the time, not really having an opinion. But if I do, it'll always be the sweeter, more philosophical one 'cause after all the years and all the miles, I know that's the thing that lets you survive."
Todd Snider has been inside the belly of the industry beast. He's been set-up to be the voice of a generation, and he's walked away from what people expected. After all of it, he's come to a spot where he feels like it all makes sense for him. It's about songs and friends and love and the struggle to get through in a way you can live with. Pretty simple stuff, really -- and Todd would tell you as much, that it's the people who make it complicated.
Or as he sings with wordly understanding in the churlish folk of "Forty Five Miles":
They say life goes in stages
like seasons I say something about all of them sucks
It's as hard to be hot as it is to be cold
You're either out of control or you're stuck
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