In the music business, there’s a thing called a radius clause. It dictates that if you play a show, then you can’t play another show shortly afterward within a certain radius. To get around that, Todd Snider created an alter-ego, Elmo Buzz, who fronts a band called the Eastside Bulldogs. The band only plays East Nashville, Snider’s home turf, and refuses to take money.
Fictional front man Buzz “hates me, of course, and he’s angry that I’m profiting off his poems,” Snider said in a phone interview, his tone suggesting that he enjoys the heck out of the life that this lavish fib has taken on.
The ruse worked. Buzz helped Snider around that radius clause and kept him entrenched in his local music scene. Snider, who’s 50, said he’s grateful to be thought of as something of a “dad” of that scene. He spoke passionately about its up-and-comers.
“Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, they’re not just good artists—they’re good men,” he said. “And I think that’s going to bode well for the people that they replace and the people that they’re paving the way for. It’s exciting. I feel like Willie and Waylon are in town again.”
Snider put in a couple of decades building his reputation as the rare performer who used a straight-up country folk twang to voice his sharply leftist, don’t-fence-me-in politics, such as in the 2004 anthem, “Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White, American Male.” His latest album, 2016’s Eastside Bulldog—named after Buzz’s band but recorded as Todd Snider—is something entirely different, a tight combination of early ’60s dance-party rock, a flip of the bird to the music industry, and a clarion call to shut up and party. The first track, “Hey Pretty Boy,” sets the tone: “Nobody cares about the music business/ Nobody sounds like they’re telling the truth/ … I don’t want to talk about it/ I like to talk about chicks, and cars, and partying hard.”
“I spent this 20 years of really working at this thing that meant a lot to me, and then I just spent one night dismissing it completely,” Snider said. “We went to the session with no songs, a case of wine, like a pound of weed and a ton of mushrooms.” He said the album was recorded in under an hour.
Snider’s current tour will bring him to Sparks in April, and he said he’s likely to play his own songs, Elmo Buzz songs, and some tracks from yet another band he’s in, the psychedelic/blues rock group Hard Working Americans.
“You just get out there and see what everybody wants and, within reason, I’ll give it to ’em,” he said. “Well, shoot, if somebody yells, ’Freebird,’ I’ll do it.”
Snider is known for being a skilled storyteller, so of course he has a story about Reno. He once fell asleep on a rock near the Truckee River. A young pastor approached and woke him up to announce that a free lunch was being served by the church.
“I started to tell him I wasn’t homeless” Snider said. “But then there was other guys sitting there listening, and I was embarrassed. We were all sleeping on the rocks, and now I was the big shot? I didn’t want to be that. So I walk in a small line with all these other guys over to the homeless shelter, and it was one of the funnest afternoons of my life. I’ll never forget it. I was so glad I got that lunch. It was just a sandwich and a banana. But I felt like part of something. I really felt connected to that town that day.”