Todd Snider lives on the other side of the tracks from the Music City establishment. It’s in his attitude as much as his address. With a reverence for Americana in its many forms, and a delivery that can mirror the wry wit of early Dylan or the earnest twang of John Prine, Snider tells humorous tales of sketchy characters and uses thought-provoking wisdom from the dive-bar underbelly to rail against what ails him.
He first made his name in the mid ’90s as a solo act, delivering insight and humor in the talking blues tradition of Woody Guthrie. His 1994 debut came out on the major label MCA, and he’s written songs that were cut by country heroes Gary Alan and Jack Ingram. His best work started to come during a stint on mentor Prine’s Oh Boy Records, which included the albums Near Truths and Hotels Rooms and East Nashville Skyline.
In recent years, Snider has amped up his sound and embraced a ramshackle electric side. It’s prominent on his latest album, Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables, which features help from a cast of players from his East Nashville neighborhood, including Jason Isbell on guitar and Amanda Shires on fiddle. C-VILLE talked with Snider by phone in anticipation of his show, along with his band The Burnouts, at the Jefferson Theater on Thursday night.
C-VILLE Weekly: Many of your songs are about East Nashville, a blue-collar part of town that a lot of people probably aren’t familiar with. What’s it like?
Todd Snider: “I’ve been here 12 years. It’s a drinking neighborhood with a bit of musician problem. All of the musicians I put together for the latest album live within walking distance of my house. This is a fascinating place. Elizabeth Cook and I just made a movie about it—an Alan Lomax kind of thing where we filmed as many people as possible singing songs.
It was a wild night here last night. There was a big fight at this gambling event. Two girls were making out and this guy from a different side of town started saying shit about it. My drummer started giving it back to him, but musicians don’t fight. He was a big guy, so two of our friends had to get him out of the building.”
Speaking of fights, there’s some noticeable angst on your latest album, especially about wealth inequality in the song “New York Banker.” Do you consider yourself a protest singer?
“I’ve heard that said about these songs, and it doesn’t bother me if that’s how someone wants to label them. I come from a very right-wing family. I married a Jewish-Mexican girl, so now I don’t have a family. I would say my songs are an O.C.D.-driven result of that. Growing up, I was the one in the house that was more of a fan of Hunter Thompson than Ronald Reagan, and eventually it turned into this act that I do.”
What made you gravitate to the more electric sounds on this record?
“I’ve always been fascinated by gypsies, and that’s where the fiddle comes in—like Scarlett Rivera from Desire-era Dylan. I wanted it to feel really loose. I also really like Crazy Horse’s Ragged Glory, so those are two records we were thinking about during the recordings. It doesn’t do me any good to make a record that a Steely Dan fan would like. My engineer thinks the best mic to use is the one that’s closest, and that’s my style.”
The album’s Jimmy Buffett cover, “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown,” sounds more like one of your songs than his.
“I’ve kept that song in my pocket for a long time. I’ve also felt a close connection to the girl in the song, and I knew I would record it one day. When the album started shaping up, I realized it would fit with the overall theme. It’s a real middle finger to the west side of town from the east side, which is what the whole record turned into.”
“Brenda” is about the relationship between Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. What inspired that tune?
“Backstage, Keith is considered a god and Mick is known as the business guy. I’ve never bought into their perceived images. I think they’re probably both very similar people. I think Mick is a great poet and singer. I read the book [Life] that Keith wrote, and it made me want to stick up for Mick. The song started as a poem, and I sent it to Don Was, who said it should be a song. I worked on it for another year or two and tried a bunch of different music with it before it was finally done.”
You’ve made 12 albums now. How would you say you’ve changed as a musician over the years?
“I’ve become humbler and shook off some of the things that I worried about when I was younger. Right now I’m really having fun with the electric guitar, and there are some more things I’d like to do with it. I don’t know if anyone’s going to care or want to hear it. I’m happy with what comes out of my heart. It cranks open and we hit the road.”
Todd Snider and The Burnouts/Jefferson Theater/March 7