Happy and he knows it

Todd Snider kicks off the RN&R’s Rolling on the River summer concert series

TheRE’s sOmething aBOut a happy and good-natured singer-songwriter that catches your attention. In a musical genre more typically characterized by relentless self-analysis and tortured solipsism, a guy with a sense of humor about the tragedies in his past comes as quite a breath of fresh air.

“I left home at 16,” Todd Snider says with a laugh when asked about how his difficult youth affected the sense of humor in his songs. “When you want someone to let you stay on their couch, I guess you learn how to crack a joke or two.”

Snider headed for Oregon after leaving home, an experiment that he says “didn’t work,” although he did earn a high school diploma. Then he drifted to California, not because he had a particular desire to get there, but because it was where a ride was headed. In California, he learned to play the harmonica and started to think about a future as a musician. Conversations with his brother in Texas gave definition to that dream, though it remained a pretty nebulous one.

“My brother told me that Austin was a place where a person could make a living as a musician,” Snider says. “I went there with the vague intention that that was what I’d do.”

When he arrived in town, he was met by “a guy named Bonehead” instead of his brother. Bonehead helped him find a place to stay and, fatefully, took him to see a performance by local outlaw-country legend Jerry Jeff Walker.

That concert sealed his fate. The next day, he bought his first guitar and got a day job as a busboy. Months of playing small clubs ("I played all originals, because I couldn’t figure out how to play anyone else’s songs,” he laughs) resulted in modest local acceptance, but more importantly garnered him contacts and exposed him to a world of singer-songwriters, one of whom was Keith Sykes, an obscure Memphis artist whose songs deeply impressed Snider. Through an unlikely network of friends and family members, Snider was able to find Sykes’ address in Memphis. He drove all the way from Austin and showed up at Sykes’ door unannounced.

Sykes invited Snider to stay at his place for a while, and it was at that point that Snider’s musical career began to take shape.

“I had sent demo tapes to a bunch of record labels, and they all wanted me to do something more like grunge,” he recalls. “But when I started playing clubs in Memphis, I started building a following and attracting crowds. That got the A&R guys’ attention, and they started coming around.”

A contract with MCA Records followed, and Snider recorded three albums for that label.

“The first record [1994’s Songs for the Daily Planet] was pretty folky,” says Snider. “But then I put a band together and we started playing places where we’d start playing at 11 p.m. That led us to start rocking more.”

That sonic progression led to Snider’s more rock-oriented second album, Step Right Up, which was the first to give billing to his back-up band, the Nervous Wrecks. Both that album and its follow-up, 1998’s Viva Satellite, won critical acclaim for the wry humor of Snider’s lyrics and the rough-hewn country-rock sound generated by the Nervous Wrecks.

But by this point, Snider was getting uncomfortable at MCA, where his particular brand of scrappy neo-folksong seemed to fall through the cracks between musical categories. His albums were selling, and artists such as Mark Chesnutt and Jason & the Scorchers were covering his songs, but his label wasn’t quite sure how best to handle him. So he left MCA and found a new home at Oh Boy, a label owned and run by the legendary singer-songwriter John Prine.

Snider’s latest album, his first for Oh Boy, is titled Happy to Be Here, and that’s a theme that tends to come up over and over in his songs and in conversations about his life and career. The album’s title track, in fact, is explicit about how grateful he is to be where he is. In the context of discussions about political scandal, he observes, “I can’t pray for someone to fall/Let all them people do what people do/I’m just happy to be here at all.”

Other songs examine the world from a somewhat more cynical, if still good-humored, perspective: On “Just In Case,” a young lover expresses his undying love and proposes marriage, promising a lifetime of devotion, but “just in case, this morning I’ve been by my lawyer’s place/I didn’t think that you would mind; here honey, sign this dotted line.”

“Betty Was Black (and Willie Was White)” takes on the topic of interracial marriage; “Missing You” looks back tenderly on a romance that went bad; and with “Keep Off the Grass,” Snider reflects wryly on the number of people who seem to want to tell him what to do.

Happy to Be Here finds Snider returning to the stripped-down acoustic setting of his earliest work. It’s not that he didn’t love playing rock ‘n’ roll, but “the thing I know how to do and have the most fun doing is playing folky, story-type songs,” he says. “On Saturday night I like to rock, but most other nights I like it when the crowd is sitting down.

“I have a bad back, anyway.”

The album focuses on Snider’s voice and his acoustic guitar, but there are some interesting stylistic change-ups on the program as well, such as the swinging “Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern” and a bluesy scorcher titled “Back to the Crossroads” that closes out the album. An impressive array of guest artists is on hand, including Peter Holsapple (former leader of the dBs), who shows up on mandolin, and Joey Spampinato (of the NRBQ), who plays bass on “Forty Five Miles.”

But these days, Snider is touring solo, and that’s how he’ll be performing at the first Rollin’ on the River concert. Playing solo is how he got his start, and it’s the format that brings back some of his happiest memories as a musician.

“When I was 19, I played a lot of gigs where the crowd consisted of two drunks and the bartender, and all of them had their backs to me,” he says. “But I can’t recall ever having a mean crowd.”

One of the best concerts he remembers playing was in Reno, at the Firemen’s Ball; another was a gig in Switzerland during which he had the late Eddie Shaver (son of Billy Joe Shaver) playing lead guitar in the band. But his favorite place to play remains Memphis, Tenn., “the first town where people would actually come to see me. A lot of my friends are there, and my mom is there.”

It seems like Snider has plenty of friends all over the country these days. And no matter where he’s playing, you can be sure he’ll be happy to be there.