Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Todd Snider

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August 29, 2008

908 miles. That’s the total distance, door-to-door, from my home in New York to the college I attended in Nashville, Tennessee. If you leave at a decent hour of the day, it’s going to take you 16 or 17 hours. If you do it overnight, you can cut that down to 13.

It was always easy to get a friend to drive up with me to New York, as the allure of the Big Apple was worth the drive. It was on one of those overnight drives, as we sped down I-81 in Virginia, that I was told, “You have to listen to this CD. You’re gonna love this guy.”

This guy was Todd Snider, and the album was Songs for the Daily Planet. My friend was right. I was instantly hooked. Soon, I was buying his entire catalog. But it was once I was done with college, and East Nashville Skyline was released, that I became a hardcore fan. I don’t remember what I was doing in Manhattan that night, but it was close enough to NYU that I went to the Tower Records store and bought the CD. It instantly became my favorite disc of his, later topped by its follow-up, The Devil You Know.

I’ve since seen Snider in concert, just him and a guitar in a bar near Union Square, and he’s even better live than he is on record. He has a new album coming out this fall, and while its running time’s a bit too short and it’s not as cohesive as The Devil You Know, fans of his acerbic writing will not be disappointed. Here are some of my favorite songs of his.

#25
“Vinyl Records”
New Connection, 2002

In rapid-fire delivery, Snider catalogs all of the artists that make up his collection of dusty vinyl records. With shout-outs given to everyone from Bob Dylan and U2 to Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash, it makes you wonder what’s on his iPod these days.

#24
“Mission Accomplished (Because You Gotta Have Faith)”
Peace Queer, 2008

The rhythmic opening to Snider’s upcoming polemic is a subversive chant, using the drone of an army drill to satirize the repetition of media talking points that become accepted as truth by a public that lacks the access to verify. Oh, and it riffs off an old George Michael song.

#23
“Just Like Old Times”
The Devil You Know, 2006

One of Snider’s gifts as a writer is painting portraits of the underbelly of society that finds the humanity without dulling the rough edges in the process. Here, a hustler runs into a woman he’s always carried a flame for, and hangs out with her in the motel where she often does her evening work. “Your goal was always the same as mine,” he tells her. “We didn’t want to throw a fishing line in that old mainstream.”

#22
“Broke”
Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, 2003

The original version of this song appeared on New Connection , and it’s the story of a man who turns to armed robbery to pay his bills. As he explains before the live performance documented here, a young fan wrote to him saying how disappointed he was that the song glorified violence. So, in the live version, he performs the song in its complete, original form, then adds at the end: “Don’t shoot guns. Don’t be violent. Don’t shoot guns. Don’t be violent.”

#21
“Happy New Year”
The Devil You Know, 2006

Part of the problem in describing the appeal of Snider’s songs is the temptation to just quote the entire song and point to the lyrics, saying, “See! He’s brilliant!” So I’ll just say that he starts with the irony of adjacent bumper stickers and it just gets better from there.

#20
“Enjoy Yourself”
East Nashville Skyline, 2004

Yes, it’s a cover of that old standard.  It’s the type of thing Willie Nelson would’ve done on Stardust, but he would’ve added strings and such.   Snider just delivers it sincerely with sparse accompaniment, and to great effect.

#19
“Old Friend”
Peace, Love and Anarchy, 2007

There aren’t enough good songs about friends.  Love and loss just makes for better music, I guess.   But there’s something to be said for celebrating that person who you can call “when your back’s against the wall.”

#18
“Stuck on the Corner (Prelude to a Heart Attack)”
Peace Queer, 2008

A departure from the norm, Snider takes on the voice of an upper class father who is working himself to death to keep up with the neighbors and his own family’s sense of entitlement.   He’s “stuck on the corner of sanity and madness”, and what’s scary is that he can’t quite tell the difference anymore.

#17
“Missing You”
Happy to Be Here, 2000

A gorgeous, plaintive ballad about regret and longing for that person who you’ve left behind. You’re not sure how it happened, and you wish you could have her back, but all you can do is indulge in memories on a quiet, lonesome day.

#16
“Easy Money”
Songs For the Daily Planet, 1994

The most effective use of the f-word or any of its derivatives that I’ve ever heard on record, and I have quite a bit of hip-hop music in my collection.

#15
“Lookin’ For a Job”
The Devil You Know, 2006

This came out just when I left a job where I was overworked and underappreciated, and let’s just say I played this one line over and over again:  “I don’t need the work like you need the work done.”

#14
“Beer Run”
New Connection, 2002

A catchy hit that never was, though Garth Brooks later cut a song that was blatantly ripped off from Snider’s original.    So it’s not only a great song in its own right, it inspired an even better one that’s a little later on in this list.

#13
“Happy to Be Here”
Happy to Be Here, 2000

Oh, for the days when there was so much peace and prosperity that we could be sidelined by trumped up scandals.   Well, I guess we’re still being sidelined by them today, so Snider’s snarky commentary is still quite relevant eight years later.

#12
“This Land is Our Land”
Songs For the Daily Planet, 1994

Snider speaks in the voice of American colonization, explaining to the Native Americans why there land is now our land.   “There’s a lot of room but we need it all for slave trades and shopping malls.” His criticism seems less about taking the land and more about what we’ve done with it.

#11
“What’s Wrong With You”
Happy to Be Here, 2000

So many of Snider’s album cuts are just waiting to be turned in to country hits, like Mark Chesnutt did with “Trouble.”   Toby Keith could have a field day with this exasperated plea for trust from an untrusting woman.

#10
“Is This Thing On”
Peace Queer, 2008

Put aside the allegory to international politics and focus on the brilliance of the high school bullying scenario actually on display here.    A thug who is picking on a different kid every day to the amusement of his friends is told by one of them that the bully will have to fight him every day, too.  And though the bully wins each battle, he starts to lose the war, as he knows every morning, he’ll have to wake up and fight that kid again.

#9
“Age Like Wine”
East Nashville Skyline, 2004

“Too late to die young now,” Snider notes, as he takes account of the last few years of his life and tries to find a way to age gracefully like wine, even though he’s been living so hard that he “thought that I’d be dead by now. But I’m not.”

#8
“Long Year”
Happy to Be Here, 2000

Remember that Kenny Chesney hit “That’s Why I’m Here”, where an alcoholic finds success in a twelve-step program?  Snider goes to the same type of meeting, laments that it’s been a long year, and by the end of the song, is back at the bar.  A hopeless portrait of addiction.

#7
“If Tomorrow Never Comes”
The Devil You Know, 2006

Title sound familiar?  The opening verse explains why, as he wryly notes, “If you can steal from me, I can steal from you.”   With the “Beer Run” payback out of the way, he delves into a thorny theological struggle with the challenge: “You tell me I’m forgiven like I need to be, I say permission ought to come that easily.”

#6
“Alright Guy”
Songs For the Daily Planet, 1994

Gary Allan reworked the lyrics of this a bit to freshen up the references to Madonna and Sinead O’Connor, but those pop culture quips only serve to set up the hilarious third verse, where Snider is pulled over outside a bar and made to “do the stupid human tricks.”   He sighs, “Now I’m stuck in this jail with a bunch of dumb hicks, and I still don’t know why.  I think I’m an alright guy.”

#5
“The Ballad of the Kingsmen”
East Nashville Skyline, 2004

An epic tale that draws parallels between the controversy over The Kingsmen hit “Louie, Louie” in the early sixties and the uproar over Marilyn Manson and Eminem in the late nineties.   I could quote from it, but again, I’d end up citing the whole song.    Just check it out.

#4
“Maybe You Heard”
The Pilgrim: A Celebration of Kris Kristofferson, 2006

Far and away, the best cut on the Kristofferson tribute album.   Snider found an obscure composition that truly illustrates what kindred spirits the two of them are.

#3
“The Devil You Know”
The Devil You Know, 2006

Snider goes from hiding in his house from a kid who robbed a bank in East Nashville to lending the kid his car so he can get away from the cops that are chasing them.  It’s a ferocious performance, probably Snider’s angriest on record, with his righteous indignation stemming from his view that “there’s a war going on that the poor can’t win.”

#2
“Waco Moon”
New Connection, 2002

“Quit too late, you’re gonna die too soon.”   Snider learns of a peer of his who overdoses on New Year’s Eve, and swears “I never will get over what I heard about you first thing New Year’s Day.”  As he condemns her for throwing away her talent and speeding her young life away, he realizes he’s making the same mistakes himself, and has to stop before it’s too late.

#1
“Sunshine”
East Nashville Skyline, 2004

“They tell me depression runs in my family”, he thinks to himself as he contemplates jumping to his death.  “Well, that doesn’t help me much.”   As the cops try to talk him down from the building ledge, the crowd below starts screaming for him to jump, making him feel that he’s “already in hell as far as I can tell.  Just listen to these people scream.”

After jumping, he meets St. Peter, who tells him he can’t kill himself and get into heaven, but tells him, “You look like a victim of circumstance.  So I’m just gonna break every bone in your body and give you a second chance.”   True to Snider’s approach, things aren’t suddenly better again.   Real life is never that simple.  But he’s ready to live it anyway, even if it’s always a challenge and rarely a joy.

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  1. John MagliteNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent feature. I liked all of your choices, though that sort of figures since I like pretty much everything this man does. I might also add “Just in Case” from Happy to Be Here as well… ‘I love you, honey, but I still want a prenup.’ It’s pretty classic.

    Two notes:
    #19 is a duet with Jack Ingram.
    In #2, the friend he’s talking about is Billy Joe Shaver’s late son, Eddy.

  2. TrailerNo Gravatar says:

    Nice list! In my estimation, all you left out was “Ballad Of The Devil’s Backbone Tavern.” And I’d have “Long Year” higher. Todd’s a great writer and performer, but he’s nearly as good a comedian. His live recordings and bootlegs are among my favorite long-play listens. His in-between song commentary is priceless. Anyway, enjoyed the read!

  3. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for making me take a look at Todd Snider some months back. I’m a fan. Great list. I also love
    “Statistitians Blues”, “Betty Was Black (And Willie Was White)” and “Once He Finds Us”.

  4. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Oh yeah, I meant to add “Tavern” to my list too.

  5. BrodyNo Gravatar says:

    Good list. There’s several on here that I need to check out.

    Check out the live version of “Waco Moon” on the Billy Joe Shaver tribute album. Snider gives a little background behind the song. The rawness of the performance it what nails me.

  6. Mike M. says:

    Kevin I want to thank you for introducing me to Todd awhile back on this site. I have to say I really love his work. My absolute favorite song is “You Think You Know Somebody” from “Songs for the Daily Planet”. It’s a great song that hits close to home. The end is like a punch in the stomach. I also love “Class of 85″ from “New Connection”. It paints a very vivid picture.

  7. [...] Country Universe’s Kevin J. Coyne counts down his 25 favorite Todd Snider songs. [...]

  8. Stephen H.No Gravatar says:

    “Beer Run” was on a 2002 album, according to your list, and Garth’s song charted in 2001. So when was Todd’s actually written?

  9. mrsandyNo Gravatar says:

    Great list. I haven’t heard the Peace Queer CD yet, so that opens up some spaces on my list. I’d add “The Devil You Know” (love the line “they pull the kid over for driving while African”). “Some Things Are” is my favorite from the “Peace, Love…” album (even if I’m not quite sure what the story behind the song is. And I was surprised my #1 isn’t even on your list: “Play a Train Song.”

  10. Hey, “Devil You Know” was #3 on my list. Love that song!

    I like “Play a Train Song”, though if I was going to add one more song from East Nashville Skyline, it would be “Nashville.”

  11. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I know and love Snider’s music so much better now than when I first read this post. And those bootlegs (which are legal since Snider has an open recording policy for his shows) are awesome. The man goes on forever, but it’s all hilarious.

  12. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    PS. Brody’s totally right about that version of “Waco Moon.” It’s raw. I imagine it was difficult for him to sing it in front of Billy Joe Shaver.

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