Thursday, January 6, 2005
For Todd Snider, every song tells a story. He plays the kind of music that makes you listen to the words and as you listen a picture appears. His lyrics are full of the finest details of people's lives. You see the wrinkles on their foreheads. You see the scuffs on their boots. You see their scarred hands lifting shots of whiskey.
His stories are not always pretty ones, and they aren't often love stories. He shows people struggling with depression and drug addiction. He tells the stories well, because they are true. He's lived them or watched the people close to him live them.
"Play me a Train Song" is the story of a man named Skip Lets, who was the "unofficial mayor" of East Nashville, Tenn.
He was famous for yelling at bands to "play me a train song."
"He yelled it until someone played a train song," Snider said. "He was a big old biker. He would yell, the band would play for him, and people would buy drinks for him."
When Lets got sick, and the doctor told him he had a year to live, he asked Snider if he could go on the road with him.
"It was fun, but it was hard," Snider said. "And I came out of it pretty addicted to the same pain pills he was addicted to."
(Snider is very candid about his history of drug and alcohol addiction and isn't shy about putting the details in his songs.)
Snider painted a portrait of Lets in his song about him.
"He had a funny sense of humor and hit on my wife all the time," Snider said. "He was a character, and everybody knew him. He drove this big Cadillac, and he would always park as close as he could to the door so you almost couldn't get into the bar.
"All that stuff is in there."
Early in Snider's career, he told his label that if they were looking for someone to play on the radio, they could walk on by.
"I like songs that don't sound like they were written to make money," he said.
"I remember being really taken aback by 'Mr. Bojangles.' I thought this really had to happen, and I found out later that I was right."
Songs, he said, don't have to be true, but they need to feel true, like the song "Me And Bobby McGee." The song was written by Kris Kristofferson for Janis Joplin, but when you hear her sing it, you believe it happened to her.
Snider got his start in music at 26, when he was discovered by a member of Jimmy Buffet's band in a Memphis, Tenn., bar. Buffet financed Snider's first album and introduced him to the world outside of Tennessee. That was 11 years ago.
Snider attempts to put on a show similar to Arlo Guthrie's. He tells stories. He sings his songs, just one man on stage (usually barefoot) with a guitar, harmonica and his voice.
He sings a song called "Alcohol and Pills" (written by Fred Eaglesmith) that chronicles the lives of a few tortured artists such as Hank Williams and Elvis Presley.
"A friend of mine wrote that song, and I always liked it," Snider said. "I've always been an idiot with drugs, and I feel a real connection with this song.
"It's about people doing something they thought would make them happy, but it doesn't. There's not a line you get to cross, and then you've made it. In fact, Jimmy Buffet, he's every bit as miserable as I am for no real reason. Poor people and rich, we all battle with that."