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Taking a New Approach to the Guitar & Touring Like a Teenager Again
During a recent concert in State College, Pennsylvania, Todd Snider did something somewhat rare: he played a solo on electric guitar. The solo wasn’t flashy, and it wasn’t long, but it was good, bringing to mind that thin wild mercury sound Dylan spoke of pursuing – a sound Snider himself sang about on his 2006 album, The Devil You Know.
As anyone who has heard Snider’s song and story “Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern” from his live album Near Truths and Hotel Rooms or has seen him pick and strum his customary Epiphone J-200 knows, Todd Snider will not soon be mistaken for Eddie Van Halen. But that doesn’t mean he’s sticking to three chords and the truth.
Speaking from his East Nashville home weeks later, Snider elaborates, “When I was a young entertainer on the road, I noticed [musicians] in the dressing rooms… if the excuse for being in the band was that they were the word-maker, that guy’s usually not as good a guitar player as the rest of the band…and then it seems like either people work on it, or they start getting really into the business side of the life. I just wanted to be one of the ones who tried to get better at the guitar.”
One listen to Snider’s most recent original release, the much-heralded Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, shows that his efforts haven’t been in vain. The bluesy riffs on “In Between Jobs” and the jazzy chord changes on “Precious Little Miracles” feature guitar work that’s more confident and adventurous than anything he has recorded before. After 11 studio albums and more than 20 years in the business, Snider is still developing.
Some of the credit for this development goes to Elmo Buzz and the East Side Bulldogs, Snider’s loosely assembled side project stocked with Nashville session players that started up a few years ago. (Snider doubles as Elmo Buzz.) “It’s a good place to practice without having to put a paying audience through it,” he says, laughing.
The band, which plays ’50s and ’60s rock and roll as well as a slew of originals (some of which are collected on their raucous six-song digital EP, Shit Sandwich), allows Snider the chance to jam along with records to practice, something he didn’t do until recently. “From the time I was 20, if I picked up a guitar, I was trying to come up with some new chords or new riffs or something I could make a new thing over. And that just became an obsession…I’d never practice. I’d just play six hours a day trying to find a new set of chords for a song.”
That process has yielded some of the most highly regarded folk/Americana music of the last three decades, especially the string of albums that started with 2004’s East Nashville Skyline and culminated with this year’s Agnostic Hymns. As a lyricist, Snider has proven to be among the best in the business, and recent accolades from the likes of NPR and The New Yorker have given a little prestige to the self-described barefoot, lazy-ass hippie.
Even as someone who has befriended and learned firsthand from musical heroes including Kris Kristofferson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Jerry Jeff Walker, Snider isn’t quite ready to take on any mentees. “I don’t think I have much advice for the young people,” he says, “other than, ‘duck.’ Or, ‘the water’s freezing, come on in.’”
Despite that (somewhat joking) trepidation, Snider has taken a few younger singer/songwriters out on the road with him, such as Hayes Carll and Jason Isbell, and in recent years he has moved into the role of producer, helming Jason D. Williams’ Killer Instincts and Great American Taxi’s Paradise Lost. More than telling anyone what to do or how it should be done, Snider’s example of constant touring, cultivating a grassroots following, and being true to himself is advice enough for anyone looking for a how-to guide.
True to that ethic, Snider and his band The Burnouts (Paul Griffith on drums and Eric McConnell on bass, along with a few additional musicians on select dates) have been spending the year, in Snider’s words, “touring like teenagers.” The band accompaniment keeps things fresh for Snider.
“I like playing solo,” Snider says, “although a few years ago, that was getting boring to me. And then I got the Taxi [Great American Taxi, Snider’s backing band on a few recent tours], and that evened it out and got me really enjoying my solo shows again…and now I’ve got the new band, and it’s just nice to have a bunch of friends to come out and play.”
Deciding what band to use and when is “a good problem to have,” Snider says. The songwriter has also been backed on an occasional festival stage by the Yonder Mountain String Band, and Snider even reunites with his first band, The Nervous Wrecks, every now and then. And while he may never again play with KK Rider, the Memphis country cover band he immortalized in a shaggy dog tale on the live release, The Storyteller, he at least got an epic story out of it.
As for what’s ahead, Snider says he may just “tour and get old.” His latest original record, coupled with his tribute album Time As We Know It: Songs of Jerry Walker (Walker being Todd Snider’s inspiration for picking up the guitar), seem to be the bookends he wants to place on his recording career. “I just feel like I’ve said all I meant to say, at least in the way I’ve been saying it,” he says. “I think I want to tour, become a good guitar player, and work on learning all the songs of mine that I made up but that I don’t know.”
If past is prologue, whatever Snider chooses as an outlet for his creativity will be filled with humor, poignancy, and maybe even a few new guitar licks to keep things interesting. The water may be freezing, but Todd Snider is going to keep on swimming.
photos by Todd Purifoy