The Real Y'Alternative

Todd Snider, Too Rock for Country, Too Country for Rock

by Andy Langer

"Hell, that's alternative to alternative/ I feel stupid and contagious..."

-- Todd Snider "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues"

Although his name isn't often bandied about in the same sentences as Son Volt, Wilco, or the Bottle Rockets, Todd Snider is perhaps just enough country, folk, and rock & roll to qualify as "alternative country" -- or as HITS magazine recently referred to it, "Y'alternative." And yet, because he's more worried about what Joe Ely or Jerry Jeff Walker thinks about his work rather than a couple of Uncle Tupelo expatriates or Gram Parson's ghost, Snider may just be the alternative to y'alternative.

"At the first rehearsal, we got together and decided we'd go for a Jerry Jeff/Joe Ely rip-off band thing," a proud Snider says of his band, the Nervous Wrecks. "So when I come in with a new song, we'll get it as loud or as weird as we want, but if at the core -- lyrically or melodically -- it couldn't at least be redone to fit one of those two guys then we throw it out."

Once you hear him explain his modus operandi, it's clear this formula is behind Snider's debut, 1994's Songs For The Daily Planet and this year's follow-up, Step Right Up. In fact, "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues," the anti-Seattle sentiment that put Snider on the alternative radio map, is actually more than loosely modeled after Walker's "Ramblin' Scramblin'." And while Snider's unlikely acoustic hit -- originally buried on his debut as a hidden track -- indeed bordered on novelty, it eventually created a respectable sales base and touring market for the singer-songwriter's other half-serious odes to political protest, heartbreak, and drinking like "My Generation" and "Alright Guy" -- material that further cements his place as a latter-day Cosmic Cowboy.

"I came here to visit my brother in early 1985 and went to Manor Downs to see Jerry Jeff, Delbert McClinton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan," says Snider of the time following his Portland, Oregon upbringing and a quick Santa Rosa, California stint. "All three of 'em had me packing my bags and knowing exactly where I wanted to go."

Less than a year later Snider was in San Marcos, knowing only that he'd come to "play guitar." And in one of those only-in-Austin stories, it was one cheap guitar and a day job later that Snider found himself in San Marcos clubs as a solo singer-songwriter act. "Actually, it was just three chords later that I was making a living at it," Snider says. Before long, Snider began commuting up I-35 for gigs at the Cactus, Raven's and Chicago House, laying the foundation for moderately sized but wildly enthusiastic Austin crowds.

"When I'd play in San Marcos, I'd pack the shit out of places, but it was harder to get gigs in Austin," recalls Snider. "I'd eventually get the Cactus pretty full, but you've got to remember when I said I knew three chords I really did. And I was practicing the fourth one hard. I was winging it, really winging it."

Although Snider was doing alright on his own, by 1988 he'd just missed riding the national coattails of other similarly influenced locals like the Sextons, Wild Seeds, and Will T. Massey. "I remember at the time, Massey was doing real good," says Snider a little sheepishly. "I always wanted to play guitar as good as him. But in Austin, and even later in Memphis, I was never real good at making contacts within a scene. I just got gigs. But since my records have come out, I've met a lot of 'em. I was talking to Charlie Sexton the other day and in the middle of the conversation I said `Shit, I'm older than you.' He's like `Yeah, you are.' But it was weird, because I'd been watching him forever and it freaked me out."

As it winds up, Snider may have been better at hanging around a scene than being a part of one, and if Joe Ely and Jerry Jeff Walker had known at the time that Snider was spending his Austin years following them around, it might have just freaked them out. "Followed? Hell, I'd do like five-show runs," he says. "But I suppose I was the only young hippie-looking kid hanging around outside their shows." Following Walker and Ely got a little tougher in 1989, when Snider decided instead to follow a woman -- all the way to Memphis -- taking with him a 40-song catalogue from his Austin stint. The Austin songs were enough to land him a residency at Memphis' Chicago House equivalent, the Daily Planet, and once there, Snider quickly wrote another 100 songs -- a dozen of which surfaced on Songs From the Daily Planet. "It wasn't so much about being prolific, but about not caring," explains Snider. "I don't see that much of a difference between `Let It Be' and `Pissing In The Wind.'"

Despite such irreverence, Snider's debut wound up proving that the songwriter had an oddly cohesive knack for witty lyrics ("My Generation"), sharp country-blooze melodies ("Trouble"), and cultural criticism ("This Land Is Our Land"). "It all goes back to Jerry Jeff and Joe in that they always seemed to make records with a lot of different types of songs that talk about a bunch of different things," he says. "They do fun ones and sad ones and all different types of things. I just tried to do that too."

While a lot of great country records have utilized similar strategies for crossover hits, Snider says he came perilously close to becoming a Nashville "product" with his failed first record deal with Capitol Nashville in 1991. As Snider tells it, the deal fell apart when he refused studio backing by Garth Brook's band and the label thus concluded Snider was a "loudmouthed asshole."

"They said we were too country for rock and too rock for country," says Snider as if he's recounting Ely's own story. "We said, `Yeah, that's the point.' They said I'd be offensive to the Wal-Mart crowd, which sort of made me feel good. I'm not going to knock anybody making a living -- I'm happy for everybody who plays music for a living -- but I think country music is so fucked up right now and it's turned into such a big beer commercial that you have to be the Walt Disney poster boy to even talk to somebody about a record contract."

On Step Right Up, his second album for Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville imprint, Snider is still his witty, outspoken self, damning fast-food culture ("TV Guide"), the media ("Side Show Blues"), and conservative thinking ("I Believe In You"). Yet where his debut was singer/songwriter-driven, Step Right Up is also Snider's first true rock & roll set -- due in no small part to a couple years of touring with the Crazy Horse-style Nervous Wrecks.

"We're getting louder, that's for sure," says Snider. "I really hadn't been in many recording studios when I did the last one. So we didn't do nearly as many overdubs, if at all, this time. It's a little more live. On the last one we had Eddy Shaver in with us on guitar, but we'd only been hanging out three weeks when we made the record. Then [guitarist] Will [Kimbrough] joined the band and has been with us all year. So that the four of us got to drive around and listen to records all year made it a whole lot more instinctual."

And by now, it should come as no surprise who Snider and The Nervous Wrecks chose most often as their touring soundtrack: Jerry Jeff Walker. "Most of the thing we got from Jerry Jeff was not to be too meticulous -- not to care too much and to let the spirit be more important than the melody or the lyric," says Snider. "He always says `Let your music set you free,' which is funny because he's looking for it to set him free, not make him bread. When you think about it, that's a real heavy thing. He's sort of our hippie side. But we all drink a lot too, and we got that from him also."

This week, Snider will come one step closer to becoming his hero's peer by playing Walker's Labor Day party in Luckenbach, an event Snider says may rival his excitement for his own Austin City Limits taping last year. Add into the mix "Oh Boy," the track Ely and Snider recorded together for a Buddy Holly tribute record last year, and Snider says if he was ever in danger of turning into the "loudmouthed asshole" Nashville predicted, these opportunities have been duly humbling.

"I'm just enjoying playing and getting these chances," says Snider. "I still don't think about what level I'm at much. When I started playing guitar I was just thrilled. And as soon as someone said I can do it at a club, that was it. To me, that's as high up as you can go when you're playing and someone lets you keep playing. Everything else is more about money and numbers and I've never cared for that. I've never made a lot of goals, either. But every time I go back to the Daily Planet, I ask them if I can have my gig back and they say `Yeah.' I went and checked on that the other night. No goals, but I do have a back-up plan." n Todd Snider plays tonight, Thursday, August 29 at La Zona Rosa.

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