Long since graduated from the anti-heroism of mid-90s, grunge-skeptical, alt-folkie status, Todd Snider has quietly grown into a songwriter of unique vintage, capable of uncorking rickety masterpieces of unsung contenders, sardonic social commentary and offbeat counter-narcissism. He can describe a working man’s dive like Tom Waits, the calluses wrapped around a bar glass like John Prine, the exhausted glory of surviving the chase like Willie Nelson, and still make it sound like something he wrote while waiting for a bus downtown.
His latest CD, The Excitement Plan, replete with tripping pitchers, no-bullshit women and a sideways request to stop complimenting him so much, was cut in Los Angeles earlier in the year. Veteran producer Don Was oversaw the proceedings with a light touch and sensitivity for Snider’s studied practice of not being overprepared to build substance around his sometimes fragmentary songs.
“The fun part of the record is makin’ it, y’know?’ When it comes out, you’re on the road and it’s such a blur … but I’m enjoying playing the new songs, it’s fun having them in my toolbox,” Snider says.
Snider probably got the most attention for “America’s Favorite Pastime,” his dungaree ballad of the recently deceased Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, the guy who threw a no-hitter in June 1970 while tripping his face off on LSD, framing it as an allegory for a common man forced to salvage a bit of glory under unforeseen circumstances. (Ellis wasn’t supposed to pitch that day.) But the CD has other gems as well; including a lusty honky-tonk duet with Loretta Lynn called “Don’t Tempt Me.”
How exactly does one sing a duet with Loretta Lynn? Snider laughs. “Uh, it was a little intimidating, and the writing part even more so,” he says. “I mean, there have been a few times when I’ve been able to be around people and watch them work on songs, and just go, ‘Wow, geez, that’s what I’m trying to learn.’ I just felt like I learned a shitload from her. And the singing part … man, she just opens her mouth and the shit comes out. Just astonishing.
“I’ve spent a few really magic afternoons down at her house. Soon as I get there she starts making drinks for me, and then I get to go down and look at her vault … she’s got this vault of lyrics that she keeps.”
Snider comes through Colorado for a series of dates with Great American Taxi, a departure from his now routinely solo gig, and a welcome opportunity to dress his own tunes up in some new threads.
“We’ve only done about seven shows together. … When I play with them, it’s really a different thing,” he says. “People ask what record we sound like when we’re playing together, and I wouldn’t say we sound anything like any of my records. I mean, we play my songs, but we try to give them a new spin. At my age, it’s nice to have some friends who can help you reinvent your shit so it doesn’t get old.”
Well, there’s old, and there’s predictable. Snider’s lived in Nashville for some time now, the country music center of the known universe, and there’s no sense in denying that, at least in its more traditional forms, the genre still holds some inspiration for Snider as a writer. You don’t duet with Loretta Lynn harboring a disdain for country music.
We couldn’t help but wonder what a guy like Snider thinks about it — this is a guy who has bobbed and weaved around the outer borders of the mainstream for years, who is likelier to play a No Depression festival than a casino in Branson, yet still harbors some admiration for its roots, its soul and its once-proud tradition of mining the common moment for a great tune.
From a distance, country music’s canned songwriting, the cowboy hats, the heartland white-bread uniformity grinning its perfect teeth on pointless TV specials … is it, like, the arena rock of the 2000s? Carefully pre-packaged product?
Snider agrees, up to a point. “Living here, I think people would be surprised how many country stars are really genuine,” Snider says. “That’s the music they like, and that’s the crowd they like to be in, and those are the songs they like. The thing I learned by living here … you might go to a No Depression party, but that doesn’t mean you won’t bump into the least artistic person in the world. I met Garth Brooks, and he read me a poem he was working on. What always surprised me when I got here was I had heard the whole thing is plastic, and I wouldn’t say that most of it isn’t, but God bless ’em, most of them get a boat and a pool and go home, because that’s what’s in their heart. But there are a lot of really artistic people, incredibly artistic people here.”
As far as new material, Snider says it’s coming along. Sort of.
“Y’know, I’m trying not to make up so many songs, but I have some,” he says. “I’m not sure what to do. I came home for the winter, I have this group of people who help me do what I do, and I told them after the New Year I would give them some sort of plan. Just don’t know what it is yet.
“But I’m looking forward to playing with Taxi; we have a shitload of dates coming up. And other than that, I have some songs I haven’t really listened to yet. I’m just writing ’em all down, and see what happens. But most of them will wind up in a box in the basement.”
And maybe in 25 years he can dust them off and show them off to some aspiring kid songwriter.
“Nice,” he laughs. “That was a good one.”
On the Bill: Todd Snider with Great American Taxi plays the Boulder Theater on Jan. 8. Doors open at 8 p.m. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030. www.bouldertheater.com