Midway through the performance of “Tension” from his new live double album, The Storyteller, Todd Snider says in an aside to the audience, “Shit, I live in East Nashville,” and the audience responds with a resounding cheer.
East Nashville is home to many great singers, songwriters, and musicians who travel all over the world, but no one wears their East Nashville pride with more joy and enthusiasm than Snider. To many, he is East Nashville’s ambassador to the world — and it is hard to disagree.
The acclaimed singer-songwriter most famously immortalized the East Side on his 2004 release, East Nashville Skyline. Then there is his song by the same name in which he artfully (and accurately) equates East Nashville with a state of mind. And on the quasi-spoken-word number “From A Rooftop,” he calls the East Side a “dream world” and says, “We’ve got great news and we’re shouting it from the highest rooftop we’ve got.”
On several of his songs, Snider name checks East Nashville spots past and present, like Radio Cafe, the Slow Bar/3 Crow Bar, the Alley Cat, and Lipstick Lounge.
Snider even gives props to East Nashville with the name of his just-for-fun, side project, Elmo Buzz and the East Side Bulldogs. The Bulldogs, who headlined last summer’s big Thirth of July benefit block party, perform a Snider original called “37206” which features memorable East Side references, including the inside joke, “I got the T-shirt — and the bumper sticker.”
And Snider isn’t just spreading the East Nashville gospel through his music, he is practically moonlighting for the East Nashville Chamber of Commerce in print and on the airwaves.
For example, in a 2007 interview with The New York Times, he said, “When I got here [East Nashville], it felt like Austin in the ‘70s. Everybody on your street’s a musician, too. It’s as close as I’ll get to Greenwich Village, or that fantasy I had about it when I was a kid.”
On his official website, you will find a hilarious video from East Nashville Nature Films called “The Phoner,” which documents “the East Nashville folk singer” conducting a phone interview, complete with whispered voice over, a la BBC nature programs, by Snider himself.
Frequently, Snider is asked to explain the difference between Nashville and East Nashville. He has a number of short responses, including:
• "The CMT side of town and the No Depression side of town."
• "The conservative side of town and the liberal side of town."
• "The right side, and the East side, the cool side"
Snider moved to East Nashville from Fairview, Tenn., in the late ’90s. His wife — the accomplished artist Melita Osheowitz Snider, whose paintings have adorned his most recent albums, wanted to move into the city. “My wife was looking for a house, there was one in Franklin and one here, and she picked the one here,” the self-described hippie folk singer recalls, while on a short break between dates in New York City and the West coast in support of his new record. “I think it was because of the bar up on the roof; she thought I would like that,” he adds with a laugh.
“If we’re gonna talk about the neighborhood we should talk about Skip [Litz], ‘cause I always thought he kind of invented it,” he says of the revered and legendary Radio Cafe sound engineer who passed away in 2003. “He was the one who just kept talking about it as if it was a music neighborhood, then all of a sudden it was. That guy was a fucking community leader if there ever was one. When I think back on when I first got here… he was the one who told me about everybody who lived around here and introduced me to everybody, and showed me this was like a music town.”
Snider met Litz just prior to the release of his first album for John Prine’s OhBoy label, Happy To Be Here. “I would go for this walk every day which would go past his house five times, for my exercise,” he explains. “As I was walking past his house he was out on the porch drinking still from early in the morning. He saw me go past, knew I was going to go past again, and by the time I came past, he had my new record, that wasn’t out yet, cranked, and he knew that would get my attention.”
Snider says Litz “never would tell me” how he happened to have a copy of his unreleased record, but adds, “That started a conversation which lasted about four years, five years.”
Not long after Litz’s death, Snider went into Eric McConnell’s studio in Lockeland Springs, the same studio where Jack White produced Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose album, to begin work on his final record for OhBoy Records, East Nashville Skyline. One of the songs he recorded for the album was his homage to Litz, “Play A Train Song,” which is also one of the performance numbers included on The Storyteller.
“I’d just been here long enough to really feel like I was part of a community,” he says regarding his choice of album title. “Then Skip died, and I felt even more part of a community. [At] that funeral, and those after parties, friendships were sealed that have gone on for years.”
The making of East Nashville Skyline was a defining moment in the singer-songwriter’s career, a moment when he took complete creative control. Describing how records are normally made, Snider says, “You give the record company your songs, and if everybody likes them — which I think is fair, I never had a problem with that — then the checkbook comes out, and the studio opens up, and you go cut them.”
But in approaching his sixth full-length studio album, he didn’t want to wait for the label’s approval. “I went to Eric and said, ‘Let’s make a record, and just assume it’s going to be okay. Take a chance on me, man, that you’re going to get paid. ’Cause I’m going to call them up up and say, hey I’m ready to make a record and I’m done.’
“That also led to a whole lot of community,” he continues. “‘Cause that was a whole lot of people taking a chance on me, the whole cast of that record.” East Side players who took “a chance” on Snider on those impromptu sessions include drummer Paul Griffith, bassist Dave Jaques and Dave Roe, and guitarist Tim Carroll, as well as unofficial East Nashvillian guitarist Will Kimbrough, a longtime collaborator and member of the Nervous Wrecks, Snider’s former backing band.
According to Snider, the sessions weren’t actually scheduled. “Once Eric and I agreed that we were going to do this record, I would just go to his house and start calling to see who was home. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I’m going to make a record next month on this date.’ It was like, ‘Wanna make a record?’ ‘When?’ ‘Now, right now — pick up a twelver on the way over.’”
Despite this unorthodox approach, he notes, "When it was done, it did pretty darn good.”
Since then, Snider’s career has been on the rise, and he gives no small credit to his wife. “Some of my friends are pretty aware that things started working for us comfort-wise around the time of making East Nashville Skyline, but also many of my friends say that was the beginning of artistic growth as well,” he says. “If that’s true, it very simply a reflection of my wife’s artistic influence on me.
“She is probably the biggest influence I have. The aloof heart- meets-humor riff was hers first, and she showed me how to take that from her work and apply it to mine.”
Part poet, part jester, part rock & roll wild man, Snider’s ever-evolving artistry is on full display on The Storyteller. The performances were culled from concert recordings in 2010 by tour manager Elvis Hicks and production assistant Brian Kincaid, and the majority of the songs are from his most recent albums, beginning with Skyline. Many of the tracks came from his Nashville performance at TPAC’s James K. Polk Theater, as well as from performances in Asheville, N.C.. and Ann Arbor, Mich., plus his appearance at Bonnaroo.
Don't make the mistake of thinking this is like many live albums, throw-aways used to fulfill recording contracts. No matter the greatness of his records, you haven’t fully experienced Snider until you have seen him live, with hat and six-string, and without shoes.
“I told Brian and Elvis to try and do a ‘best of’ last year,” Snider said of the new live collection. Then he adds with a smile, “It was an easy record for me, I didn’t have to do anything.”
Hicks and Kincaid took their selections into McConnell’s studio, and the producer-engineer tweaked and assembled the double album’s 24 tracks. The collection includes a number of stories the artist told in concert, segments he calls “Arlo-type shit,” in reference to folk singer Arlo Guthrie’s musical monologues from the ’60s, most notably “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” featured in the film and on the album, Alice’s Restaurant.
These days when he’s not performing solo, Snider is backed by a jam band from Nederland, Colo., called Great American Taxi, led by guitarist, singer and Leftover Salmon founder Vince Herman. They can be heard on many of The Storyteller’s tracks, and are backing him on an album of material by one of his friends and mentors, Jerry Jeff Walker, which he is recording with producer Don Was. They tracked half the material at the House of Blues studio when both Was, who produced his last studio album, The Excitement Plan, and the band were in Nashville recently.
“We did the mellow side, the finger-pickin’ stuff, and then sometime in the next year we’ll all get tipsy and do the rest of it, do all the rowdy shit,” he says of the tribute planned for Walker’s seventieth birthday on March 16, 2012.
Before then, Snider will record his tenth studio album with Was, which he hopes to release late this year. But first, he will continue to tour in support of The Storyteller.
“While I am often playing 800-1,000-seat venues, and even 2,000 sometimes these days, I still am often in 300-seaters and probably always will be,” he says. “The amount of towns out there to see is almost infinite and I hope to die trying to see them all.”
And while Snider is out there, traveling from city to city, he will continue his work as unofficial ambassador, spreading the word about his beloved East Nashville.