Much like a gifted kid who studies exhaustively for the spelling bee and then blows the two-syllable word, the roots rock-inspired hippie Todd Snider seemed unprepared for his close-up on The Late Show With David Letterman earlier this fall. Snider is a certified ace at performing troubadour style–just his voice, wits and a guitar. But for his national television debut he assembled a band, to which the show’s cameramen responded by shifting the performance’s focus away from him and toward guitarist Will Kimbrough, who was considerably more animated. By the end of the three-minute ditty “Unbreakable,” you’d have been forgiven for wondering why the shoeless slacker-type with the too-cool fedora obscuring his eyes was deemed worthy of a segment at all.
The millions tuning in might not have known that Snider’s missed opportunity was almost the latest peak in a midcareer renaissance. A 40-year-old whose upbringing in Bible Belt boomtowns brought him to his current home base near the ghetto in East Nashville, Snider has spent the past decade and a half barnstorming across America. Along the way, his half-dozen or so record-label affiliations have earned him a coterie of mature loyalists, the kind of folks who understand that the circuitous road to success is paved with richly detailed songs. Snider’s latest release, The Devil You Know, isn’t his first disc on a major label subsidiary–that distinction goes to his mid-’90s stint on Jimmy Buffett’s now-defunct Margaritaville Records. But like its 2004 predecessor, the masterful East Nashville Skyline (recorded for John Prine’s Oh Boy! imprint), the album has inherited the yarn-spinning of the Nashville-outsider genre alt-country while dispensing with the romance of outlaws and losers that often makes the genre seem both wrongheaded and condescendingly boho. “I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned,” Snider writes in the new album’s liner notes, quoting poet-spiritualist David Whyte. In its effort to parse hard truths about survival in Bush’s America, Snider’s music stands alongside the work of artists like Buddy and Julie Miller, Gillian Welch and Rodney Crowell as part of a God-fearing country-and-western left wing that carries even more creative weight than twangy cause célèbres Steve Earle and the Dixie Chicks.
And yet Snider would be the first to admit that his audience, for all its devotion, does not always agree with him. These days, one of the staples of his live set is a comic provocation from East Nashville Skyline called “Conservative, Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight White American Males” (check the video-sharing site YouTube for a clip). Although Snider’s charm gets him through it whether he’s gigging a roadhouse or a more formal concert venue, he recently told an interviewer from No Depression, a bimonthly publication devoted to American roots music, what happens later, offstage. “There’s a part at the end of the show where you get to meet people,” Snider recounted. “They like you, and you go from that element to the hotel or wherever. In between, there are people that are mad. And they’ve got a half a minute a night to go tell me I’m a dick…. I always just think, ‘I wish that guy hadn’t called me a dick.'” Ultimately, the songsmith is philosophical about it: “If the idea that you were a dick overwhelmed your show, though, that’d be something you’d have to address.”
Notwithstanding the subjects in “Conservative, Christian,” most of Snider’s recent characters are hard-luck types. He breathes quite a bit of humanity into portraits of men and women taking repeated trips down the low road, which suggests that Snider is well aware that life can’t be so bad if your major complaint is that someone called you an expletive after a sold-out show, or that you came up short during a TV appearance, or even that Garth Brooks scored a hit with a melody that was legally pilfered from you. That last fate befell Snider as a result of a bizarre turn of events that he now mines for comedy when introducing his new song “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” Details are sketchy, but the upshot is that the melody of one of Brooks’s earliest hits–a ballad also titled “If Tomorrow Never Comes”–bears an eerie resemblance to Snider’s frat-boy anthem “Beer Run.” Snider has never taken legal action against the Brooks collaborator credited with the alleged theft, but he states plainly both onstage and in the liner notes to The Devil You Know that his new song–a sort of Jerry Lee Lewis-style mix of hymnal and raucous fire–is a somewhat laughable attempt at stealing the melody back. It’s a “way to let the guy know that I love him and his version of ‘Beer Run.'”