Todd Snider becomes the devil you know

Jason MacNeil, September 2006

Todd Snider has always been one to go by the beat of his own drum. He doesn't pay too much attention to record sales, isn't keen on how much he's taking in from merchandising on the road and doesn't seem like he's going to spend nights tossing and turning thinking about either.

The Oregon-born and now Nashville-based singer-songwriter has created an impressive catalogue over the course of eight albums. And his latest, "The Devil You Know," does nothing but add to his critically acclaimed body of work.

"The words just sort of ended up going in their own direction," Snider says prior to a gig in Oregon. "It seemed that the more I tried to talk about my neighborhood, my neighborhood was talking about the rest of the world."

Snider says he recorded about 20 songs for the record, with 11 making the final cut. However, the recording process for Snider is as unique as the singer himself.

"I live in East Nashville, which is different than most towns because everybody on the street plays with somebody," Snider says. "You run into your neighbors on the road as often as you do at home. But on days when I'm home and I feel like some song is really finished, I just walk over to the studio my friend Eric McConnell owns.

"I don't tell anybody," he adds. "I just call the studio and say, 'I'm going to walk over there today.' And then I do, and when I get there, I start calling everybody, and then they start walking over. I try to keep it really spontaneous. They usually find out about five minutes before that they're playing on my record. And then they walk over, and I say, 'Have some beer.'"

It's that relaxed, good-natured and free spirit attitude that has made Snider, and perhaps more importantly his work, praised by singers such as John Prine and Kris Kristofferson. Yet, he doesn't put much importance in such praise.

"Sometimes when I'm sitting by myself I'm astonished that I know those guys," he says. "I don't know if you ever read that book, 'The I Ching,' I try to stick to that. I'm not very good at it. I'm a bible-head mostly, but I like that I Ching thing 'Do your work and keep moving.' I'm stopping long enough to be thankful when someone says something nice about me. But I don't want to stand around and dwell on it because people gain weight that way."

Snider also says he hasn't gotten proverbially stabbed in the back when it comes to the music industry.

"Everybody I ever worked with seemed like they wanted to work with me," he says. "I know that I still don't have anybody in the music game that I don't like. I'm difficult to work with because I'm an irresponsible person. I don't have goals. I love to drink and don't care if people know that. I've got like four brain cells left, but I have a lot of ideas."

And it's those ideas that results in "The Devil You Know" working so well. Whether it's the opening track "If Tomorrow Never Comes," which is not a cover of Garth Brooks, or "Carla," Snider manages to give these songs a slightly different take or twist.

After years of songwriting, Snider says he knows when a song has been completed.

"The expression I use is that I can just feel them showing up for work," he says. "I'll have a few songs going, but I'll know in my mind that, 'That one is done, but that one in the middle there is the one that's going to end up showing up for work.' Other times, it's just a certain part or a line will come out, and I'll say, 'That's why I know I needed to get this out.' This will probably be a tool that I'll use for the rest of my life."

Although there are some lighter moments on the record, one of the album's darkest moments comes during "Highland Street Incident." The song, based on a robbery Snider was a victim of years ago, was in the singer's head for years. But the viewpoint is similar to Bruce Springsteen's "Dead Man Walkin'."

"That one was like 10 years throwing around," he recalls. "I kept asking myself, 'Why? Why are you doing this?' Then I kept thinking, 'Certainly it's a song! You got robbed, there's a gun, how could you miss?' But it wasn't a no-brainer until about a year ago."

"I was sitting in a different bar in some different town, and I don't know why it hit me," he adds. "I may have seen somebody who was doing crack. I don't know if you've ever been around people on crack, but they get this certain look in their eye that's different than potheads like me. Then something in me said, 'I wonder what those guys were going through that night before they met me. Those guys had their back against it that night, poor f--kers.' And when I felt like that I thought, 'Oh here we go.'"

As ominous as the lyrics are for that particular track, Snider also throws some veiled, but pointed barbs towards a few politicians on a few numbers. "You Got Away With It (A Tale Of Two Fraternity Brothers)" is such a song, with the lyrics similar to events regarding a certain president and his brother. Snider says the song came together after his wife was singing the chorus and added the title line.

"My wife helped me with that," Snider says. "Part of me thought that I don't want (the album) to go by without me poking fun at the conservative type people because it's just fun to do. I like to watch David Letterman do it, and I don't take it anymore seriously than that. I like to make fun of the president, and I'll make fun of the next one too. It's not personal as much as I like to have a little thing going about modern times."

"But I didn't want to say George Bush. When I try to do something like that, I try to make it so that it feels about a certain person. But I was very careful to make sure that if you wanted it to be about the Kennedys, it can. I feel like it dates the song less, and it's already a dated endeavor you're embarking on."

As pleasing as those tunes are, the album's first single is the fun, catchy and roots-y "Looking For A Job." A video for the song was also shot showing Snider driving around with "Quit Your Job" spray painted on the side of his van and encouraging others to follow suit.

"That was one of the first ones that popped up," Snider says. "My manager and I were in an argument, and he told me, 'Man, I was looking for a job when I found this one.' I thought, 'That's great man! Can I have that?' I just sat on that one for months. The only thing I could relate it to in a conversational tone was my father was a construction worker, and I heard his employees turn on him a few times."

"I don't know if you've ever been around a boomtown where they're building a million houses, but it ends up being the carpenters telling the foreman what time he can be there, and the foreman deals with it. I just wanted to say, 'Watch what you say to someone with nothing, it's almost like having it all.' That's something I've been probably wanting to get off my chest all of my life."

Aside from the new album, Snider also had a hand in putting together his own collection of favorites for "That Was Me: The Best Of Todd Snider 1994-1998." The album, released in 2005, was a feather in Snider's cap.

"They called me up after I moved to Nashville and said, 'We're doing a Best Of, and we want you to do it for us," he says. "That was really gracious. They didn't have to call me. They could have picked the songs and pictures that they liked. Most of my friends like Drivin' N' Cryin' said, 'Man, I found out about my Best Of record when I saw it at the store.' So I was really touched that they cared enough to let me pick what I wanted."

"I don't think I put any of the singles on there, I never liked our singles," he continues. "It was like I was almost going to take that off the record. But I don't care, you guys are making a video, there's going to be free food and drinks at it. I'll be there."

And in a day where several artists are so critical and concerned about the effects the internet has on their music and more importantly their bottom line, Snider definitely sees the silver lining.

"I'm about to play this festival tonight with the Yonder Mountain String Band, and I don't know how many people are going to be there," he says. "But I don't know if tonight would be happening if there wasn't an internet. I know there's going to be 2,000 people coming tonight, but I can't for the life of me figure out where they might have heard about it. Some people I tour with may say, 'I wonder how come you can tour these days and have a nice life and not necessarily hear yourself on the radio?'"

It's this nice life on the road that Snider has nestled into over the years, but he says the last two years of touring have been his most favorite.

"I've never gotten tired of it," he says. "I guess I'm getting older, and we've got this country pretty wired right now. I know what restaurant I want to go to when I'm in a town, and I know where I want to go. I know where I'm going after the show tonight. I feel like America is my neighborhood, and I'm starting to learn it."

Snider toured throughout the summer behind the album and has several dates set for the U.S. in the fall. There's a New Year's Eve show set for St. Louis where he'll have Bottle Rockets backing him. And, although he talks about trying to record new material as well, there will probably be several radio and television appearances between now and then.

Just don't ask him for exact dates or times. He's not exactly the type to study his itinerary.

"I'm terrible with keeping up with it, but I'm always there."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •