The Songwriter You Know

An interview with singer/songwriter Todd Snider


You probably know Todd Snider. You may not think you do, but you probably do. The songs "Beer Run," "Alright Guy" and "Late Last Night" ring with a class-clown mentality, and yet a cultural significance that have made him one of the most popular songwriters around.

Snider got his start in the Eighties by establishing a regular gig at the Memphis hangout, The Daily Planet. It was there that Keith Sykes--a member of Jimmy Buffet's Coral Reefers Band--saw him. With a little help from Sykes, Snider was signed to Jimmy Buffet's label, and in 1994, Snider released his debut album Songs for the Daily Planet. The album combined Snider's straight-up songwriting with his wry sense of humor and poignant observations of the human condition. As an afterthought, Snider added the song "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues," a tune that comments on the state of popular music at the time and told the comical tale of a band that made it big by refusing to play their instruments--the song became an instant cult classic.

Sykes wasn't the only guy rooting for Snider. Kris Kristofferson, John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker are also members of Snider's fan base. Kristofferson once said, "Todd Snider is a true songwriter, with the heart and humor of John Prine, the wild unpredictability of Roger Miller and a fresh, original spirit and freedom of imagination that's absolutely his own." Jerry Jeff Walker adds, "Of all the young songwriters out there, I think Snider is the best. By that, I mean he has found a way to take his feelings and observations and turn them into songs that can get an audience. He won't quit 'til he gets the audience, and he always gets the audience."

Snider followed up Songs for the Daily Planet with Step Right Up in 1996 and Viva Satellite in 1998, the latter of which has been cited as being a tribute to Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. In 2000, Snider signed to John Prine's Oh Boy label and released Happy to Be Here. He released New Connection in 2003 and Near Truths and Hotel Rooms Live and East Nashville Skyline, both in 2004, on the same label. His latest release, Devil You Know, came out last year and subsequently ended up on a number of best-of-2006 lists.

Snider holds the old adage of it-takes-a-spoonful-of-sugar-to-make-the-medicine-go-down close to heart. And with that in mind, he laces his songs and live performances with gut-busting humor that later (sometimes days later) often reveals itself to be a collection of wise, moving observations of truths. He has said that in live performances, "sometimes I go on for as many as 18 minutes in between songs." And those 18 minutes are filled with tales that move his audiences every bit as much as his songs do.

Like his stories, an interview with Snider might take days to sort out. When Boise Weekly asked Snider (via e-mail), among other things, how he goes about writing a song, he replied that he had fun with this interview because he made all his answers read like song lyrics: "Last night, two third-world drug abusers/dressed as hotel employees/forced their way into my room/ransacked it/ did all my drugs/ate my dinner/listen/I'm telling you/if security precautions are not beefed up on this front desk/I will seek safer accommodations/it's a pretty sad day/when this songwriter has to travel heavily armed to breakfast/but/what a breakfast it is/Two eggs, bacon, toast, hash browns, juice/I've often wondered how different my life would have turned out/had my name been Loose Moose/or Horse fly/Todd feels like a long name to drag up the songwriter hill/At least for my bread/So in the morning before anybody in town is up/I feed the birds/the ones I respect anyway/make a little coffee/read the paper/and then the magic happens."

Snider continues, "This morning I sawed a woman in half/It was a bloody mess/(that could have horrible implications)/But as we work the kinks out/and hone in on the right assistant/I think were gonna have a nice trick for the show/maybe a show stopper/As for the songwriting/I usually do that at lunch/or some other time."

Snider's latest album, Devil You Know, has been called as a protest album of sorts. The song "You Got Away With It (The Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers)" chronicles the relationship between two young men, one who eventually becomes the president of the United States. The last verse is as follows: "You never did tell me what happened with you and your brother down there in Florida/I heard they gave you a hell of a time/Everybody around here was afraid you might lose/I told them not to worry cause I knew you'd be fine/Had me out here to Camp David a few times over the years/I think the first time we were teenagers sneakin' beers/Look at you now you old son of a bitch/You got the run of this place/Unbelievable."

It's not as if the lyrics are shrouded in mystery. And yet, Snider doesn't consider himself a protest songwriter. When asked what he thought about Devil You Know being called a protest album, he wrote, "If I knew how to do it/I think I would protest/The war on terror/The war on drugs/The war on the impoverished/and the war on homosexuality/Cuz all of them upset me personally, for reasons that I can't prove/are wise/or dumb/but my main theory on singers who protest [or] save the wolves or whatever/is that it can be pretty annoying/what I would call a "folk nazi"/and I don't wanna be one of those/But, I also don't want to be the kind of guy/who's afraid to repeat an opinion I rhymed/just cuz it might offend somebody/or cost me a buck. I can borrow a buck."

Snider has been around for a long time. And if his track record is anything to go by, he'llll be around for a whole lot longer. When asked if he feels blown away by the fact that he's been able to make a living playing music, his reply sheds a little light on this man who writes smart, thoughtful, humorous music and shares it with the world. " ... When I think about the life I personally/have been allowed to enjoy/I am filled with thanks towards the idea of a higher power/By any name/And as much as my biggest hope in life is that there is a place after this/where the circle remains unbroken/and that I'll have done whatever it takes/to be part of that circle/if it's nothing at all after this/I'm still thankful to God/So thankful/That I don't even care if he or she or it exists/And as Homer Simpson always says, as he's about to die, 'I've had a good run.'"

At the end of the interview, the question to Snider was, "A lot of people know your songs, but don't know you. Your thoughts?" His reply? "I'm a household name at my house."

: Todd Snider plays at The Egyptian Theatre on March 3 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $24. Visit for the original transcript of the Todd Snider e-mail interview.