‘Reno’s favorite son’

Todd Snider may not be from Northern Nevada, but he writes and plays like a member of the family

“You know, I remember the night I got throwed in the Reno jail for Vacancy,” folk hero Woody Guthrie tells listeners in his inimitable style. “I didn’t know it was against the law,” he continues. “Hell, every rooming house in town has a sign out in the yard that said: Vacancy.” This was one of the many times Guthrie referenced Reno, including his famous song “Philadelphia Lawyer,” originally titled “Reno Blues.”

Todd Snider, the closest thing to a present-day Woody Guthrie around, also has a Reno vagrancy story. In Reno some time ago, Snider fell asleep on a rock near the Truckee River. Assuming he was homeless, a young lady approached him and asked him if he needed any food. He “felt real funny telling her no,” so he acquiesced and joined her for what turned out to be free sandwiches and a pretty good day in Reno.

Snider’s latest tour brought him and his band The Nervous Wrecks to John Ascuaga’s Nugget during the first weekend in February. He performed barefoot for the two shows.

“He’s like Bob Dylan but funny,” local musician Ryan Puliz said.

The Friday show was short but packed with his most famous songs and stories, and topped off with two encores. On Saturday night, his show lasted nearly an hour and a half—about twice as long as his Friday performance. He cut the number of long stories to two, opting instead to beef up his set list with songs that exhibited his rock streak a little more than his Friday show.

Although their depictions of homelessness in Reno vary greatly, Snider and Guthrie have much else in common. Both are iconoclastic heroes for their respective generations in the American folk music scene. Both are known for their witty banter before, during and after their songs, and for injecting their political views into their songs, often ironically. And both toured Reno often and enjoyed it.

Snider is enjoying a rise in national popularity fueled by his incessant touring since 1994. His 2006 album, The Devil You Know, his ninth album, has received acclaim from all of the outlets that matter, which bodes well for his upcoming album. He has a soft spot in his heart for Reno, and not just because of the free sandwiches.

“I always look forward to [playing Reno],” he says. “It’s always one of my favorite shows.” He seems to mean it, too: He has chosen the city to be the beginning point of his last two long touring seasons, despite living in Nashville.

He has other reasons for loving Reno. He has noted several times in interviews over the years that one of his favorite shows, his “top five favorite times I’ve ever gotten to play or sing for people,” was at a Firemen’s Ball in Reno. It was the first time he ever played a show in Reno, and it left quite an impression. Reno was also where he played his favorite show with his wife, artist Melita Osheowitz Snider, the first of several times they have displayed their craft together. (He had gig on the rooftop of the Nevada Museum of Art, and her work was on display inside.)

Despite making his home in Nashville, Todd Snider seems to have an affinity with Reno, whether in his songs or on tour.

Reno has made it off the stage and into Snider’s music, as well. Like many other country and alternative country musicians, Snider has covered (but not recorded) Johnny Cash’s standard “Folsom Prison Blues,” which is sort of a rite of passage or secret handshake for alternative country insiders like Snider. The song famously paints Reno as the place where one would go to shoot a man just to watch him die and has become emblematic of the tragic and tortured nature of country music’s darker corners.

This, of course, is too much for Snider, a consummate jokester, to leave alone completely. Although he sings the number in an equally powerful and enigmatic way compared to Mr. Cash’s original, he throws in some of his own style when singing the song live. He discreetly changes the famously unpunctuated Reno lyrics to say instead that he “shot this cat in Reno, and I shot him just to watch him die.” There is more energy in the way Snider sings it and some added levity in the unscripted pauses he provides.

Not everyone could tamper with one of the most famous lines in country music, but Snider pulls it off.

Aside from covering Cash’s famous song, a song that merely mentions Reno, Snider also has his own song about Reno. The song, “45 Miles,” is from his Happy to Be Here album. It demonstrates anything but happiness as the protagonist’s life is clearly collapsing all around him, as depicted through the metaphor of an auto accident on an icy highway.

“45 Miles” was written when he and his guitar player, Will Kimbrough, were trailing their tour van in a rental car. They were coming into Reno from Lake Tahoe in between shows. “We hit a patch of ice and slid over into the other lane and had a head-on collision that totaled both cars,” he recalls. “There was a sign saying that we were about 45 miles away [from Reno].”

In the time it took for them to walk to their touring van a few hundred feet up the road, and the time it took for the police and service vehicles to arrive, Snider was already making up the words to his latest song: “There’s a truck turned over on the highway/Flares burning out of the snow/Freezing rain in the passing lane/I got 45 miles to go.”

“It was really scary, actually,” the 41-year-old says about the event that inspired his sad Reno song, and it shows in the song’s lyrics. His father is sick, his sister is going broke, and his favorite bar is being closed by an anonymous “they.” The closing of the bar is about as light-hearted as the song ever gets, which is atypical for Snider, before it ends by saying “things were not all right” on that 45-mile stretch of road leading him into Reno.

Through songs like this and his remarkable interest in Reno while touring, Snider has cultivated a powerful following in the biggest little city, resulting in multi-night shows selling out to flocking fans well in advance.

He has also been called “Reno’s favorite son” and gets notably uncomfortable when asked why this might be. “Oh, I don’t know,” he demurs at first, collecting his thoughts. “I swear I wouldn’t know.” It is clear that he is only buying enough time for his real answer.

“It’s nice to be somebody’s [favorite son],” he adds after unsuccessfully deflecting the question. “I’m so sick of [my brother] and all of his sports crap.” He is laughing now, and he rolls right into his own inimitable style of banter. In no time at all he has retracted his criticism of his brother, retracted his retraction and chastised himself for being soft with respect to his brother’s “favorite son” status in his own family.

“I don’t want to be a powder puff about this,” he adds, feigning frustration. “I have some things I need to get off of my chest.”

The response is perfect Todd Snider banter. He answers the question while denying its premise: Todd Snider fans love him because he is one of the most authentic, humble and hilarious folk artists to tour America since Woody Guthrie. Todd Snider fans in Reno love him for these same reasons and because he seems to love them, too.