Long, long ago in a neighborhood far, far away (spiritually speaking; and it was 15 years ago, to be exact) Todd Snider made a record called East Nashville Skyline, which he’s releasing on long-playing vinyl for the first time. Seems rather strange to think a vinyl release wasn’t a thing in 2004.
To clear out the headspace required to be productive and prolific and head and shoulders above the rest requires tenacity and a singular purpose. Snider’s been able to maintain his career for a very long time by adjusting his sails to deal with the headwinds.
Somewhere around the middle of said career he made the album presently being discussed, which in hindsight, turned out to be a watershed moment. It was Snider’s penultimate record for Oh Boy and, subsequent to its release, attendance at his live shows began to increase dramatically.
ENS was coproduced (along with Snider) by Will Kimbrough and recorded by Eric McConnell (who both Snider and Kimbrough feel deserves greater recognition for his role in the making of ENS).
“Todd needed someone who understood the feel,” says Kimbrough, reflecting on the album’s production. “My role was interpreter.” One key aspect of pulling this off was working with musicians who understood musical references like, as Kimbrough puts it, ‘“This one should have the feel of Lou Reed’s New York,’ or whatever.”
One of McConnell’s contributions was what could be viewed — especially in the current land of countless ProTools tracks — as a limitation: The album was recorded on one-inch 8-track analog tape. “The limitation of eight tracks was a huge part of it, and it was liberating. We’re making a record that sounds like a record I love,” remembers Kimbrough.
The above would all be academic, of course, were it not for the songs, for they are the coin of the realm. In this regard, Snider’s bank account was full when he made ENS. “Todd knew what he was looking for, and he had the songs,” says Kimbrough. “He knew he wanted a Billy Joe Shaver song [“Good News Blues”], and he had a reason for wanting it. Some of them he wrote during the making of the record, but he had a vision.”
Bookended by the Snider-penned “Age Like Wine” and the Sigman/Magidson classic, “Enjoy Yourself”, the songs on ENS find Snider grappling with questions of mortality in a bittersweet, sometimes poignant, and often funny way. Listening to the album 15 years on reveals aspects of both its timelessness as well as continued relevance; the incredulity of “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” and his commentary on the Columbine High School shooting woven into “Ballad of The Kingsmen” could easily be referenced from today’s headlines.
Flat-out, electrified, country-shuffle numbers like “Incarcerated” — with its outro “Nobody suffers like the poor people suffer”, and “Nashville” — featuring the sum-it-all-up-in-a-phrase “There ain’t nothing wrong that we can’t fix in the mix” reflect Snider’s ability to expose the irony and cognitive dissonance lurking just beneath the surface of the American psyche through storytelling.
“Play a Train Song” is, perhaps, the most recognizable of the bunch, and for good reason. It embodies the heart and soul of the neighborhood for which the album was named at the time in which it was made. It doesn’t need to name-check Five Points or Radio Cafe.
The magic is in the moment it captures.
Originally released July 20, 2004 on Oh Boy Records, East Nashville Skyline will be reissued on vinyl this fall. Catch the latest at toddsnider.net.