Very few banjo players possess enough talent to influence a music scene so powerfully as the late Leftover Salmon banjoist Mark Vann. But when Vann lost his battle with melanoma in 2002 at age 39, some of his fellow bandmates came up with an idea to memorialize their friend through an annual benefit concert — a gathering of friends and fellow musicians to pay tribute to the man who many say redefined the banjo and influenced countless other players during his too-short life.
“Mark was a phenomenal banjo player who really broke a lot of new territory in the rock ’n’ roll banjo realm with his playing and was also kind of the central organizer in Leftover Salmon, and it was really hard to go on without him,” says mandolin whiz Vince Herman, one of Vann’s bandmates in Leftover Salmon. “He was a real giving, and loving character, and we love the idea of keeping his memory alive and associating it with new and good see things.”
From its humble beginnings at the now defunct Trilogy Wine Bar in 2002, the Mark Vann Foundation Holiday Benefit Show has now grown into somewhat of a local tradition at the Boulder Theater, with each year bringing a smattering of guest musicians together to raise money for the Mark Vann Foundation, which this year will benefit nonprofits There With Care and CareConnect.
This year, on top of a bill that includes Herman’s new group, Great American Taxi, Bill McKay Band, Bonfire Dub, Shannon McNally & Hot Sauce and others sits Nashville-based songwriter Todd Snider, the wry, sardonic singer known for his clever blend of folk and country styles.
Snider’s first breakthrough came with a song included as a hidden track on his first CD, Songs for the Daily Planet. The song, “Talking Seattle Grunge-Rock Blues,” was a piece Snider wrote in 1993, at a time when everyone was aware of this new sound in rock ’n’ roll called grunge but before everyone fully grasped the influence it would have on the world. The song tells the story of a band that moves to Seattle and creates a gimmick to sell records: They won’t play any music at all. “Silence, the original alternative,” the band advertises. The band goes on to become superstars, of course, with spots on television and at the Grammys, even releasing an unplugged album. It’s a telling example of Snider’s understated, Woodie Guthrie-type talent for storytelling over simple three-chord changes, a trait that has become somewhat of his trademark ever since.
Snider, a native of Portland, Ore., has released 10 studio albums but has never quite had what could be termed mainstream success. We caught up with the songwriter last week.
Boulder Weekly: OK, how’d a Portland guy end up playing country and folk in Nashville?
Todd Snider: My family moved to Texas when I was a sophomore in high school, and I didn’t go with them, but I would go see them in the summer, and one summer I was there and saw Jerry Jeff Walker, and that was it. I was about 18, and I thought, man, I’m gonna walk like that and talk like that and dress like that and act like that. I went the next day, got a guitar.
It seems like most groups always have the guy that always needs a ride, and I was just that guy, the gypsy of my group. And so when I saw Jerry Jeff, I thought, “Shit man! You get a guitar, and go from freeloader to free spirit in three chords!”
BW: I wanted to ask you about “Talking Seattle Grunge-Rock Blues.” Being from Portland, it’d be easy to assume you were a grunge fan.
TS: Sure, I felt really out of place at the time. I was about 26, and I was trying to be a singer, you know. I was playing in Memphis, doing that what they called the too-country-for-rock, too-rock-forcountry thing that people loved to play — more people loved to play it than loved to hear it. It was probably about around ’93. Yeah, I think Nirvana had just one record out, and I had a haircut like him, and all that shit. I’m from Oregon — so I had a flannel shirt with holey jeans and long hair. I had to go, “Ah shit!” This is what everybody from my high school looked like all the time. And now, if you don’t want to look like you’re trying to look like that guy, you’d better go figure out something else.
BW: You’ve done lots of work with Great American Taxi, and you’re also pretty close to the Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB) guys. How’d you get to know all these greats of the Boulder- Nederland music scene?
TS: Jeff Austin [of YMSB] was who I met first. I think we just went out drinking somewhere or something. And then I met Vince, and I knew that Vince was like Jeff ’s hero, and I knew who he was, of course, and so me and him met at a festival in Michigan … and I was standing on the side of the stage and he looked over and he stuck my name into one of their songs or something, and then right when they got off stage, I was like, “Ah, I’ve always wanted to meet you!” And then we were like, “Let’s go pick!” As soon as we met each other, we said hello and then we ran onto this bus — these hippies had this bus, like the Partridge family — and him and I ran up into the back of it … with Drew Emmit [of Leftover Salmon] … so it’s just the three of us and the Manson family, and it was a fuckin’ blast.
BW: Let’s talk about your latest record, 2009’s The Excitement Plan. What made you want to write a song about about Dock Ellis? [Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter in 1970 and later claimed he did so under the influence of LSD]
TS: It was somebody at Telluride, or one of those Planet Bluegrass shows.
I was backstage at one of those, and one of the younger musicians was tripping, getting ready to play. And I said to someone, “Man, isn’t it amazing that in our line of work, you can do that? And, yeah, it’s fine; sometimes it’s even better. There’s just no other line of work you can pull that off in.” And somebody who I can’t remember told me, “I don’t know; one time this guy took a bunch of shrooms or LSD and fuckin’ threw a no-hitter and won a baseball game.” And I thought, “Oh, fuck. I gotta write a song about that.”
BW: Have you ever done acid yourself?
TS: Oh, yeah. Shit, yeah. Well, maybe not that many times. I always took shrooms when I wanted to do that. But there was a few times I took it and it was pretty dramatic. I liked it, thought it was good for me.
You know, I only had to take LSD once to figure out that guys who fight in parking lots are dumb. … OK, you guys go and beat the ass out of each other. I’m going to go down to this other bar where they listen to Phish.
On the Bill:
8th Annual Mark Vann Foundation Holiday Benefit Show takes place at the Boulder Theater on Saturday, Dec. 11. Doors at 7:30. Musical guests include Todd Snider & Great American Taxi, Bill McKay Band, Shannon McNally & Hot Sauce, Bonfire Dub and more. Must be 21 to enter. Tickets are $20. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.