Tag Archives: Todd Snider

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Todd Snider

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.
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Todd Snider, “Mission Accomplished (Because You Gotta Have Faith)”

Todd Snider has the social conscience of a Rodney Crowell, mixed with the wry, detached humor of a Mitch Hedberg. Too many artists lose their sense of humor when they attempt to make social commentary, but Snider uses humor to strengthen his. The result is akin to a stand-up on a soapbox.

All of this is evident on the lead single from his upcoming album, Peace Queer. The title may be a shout-out to that infamous 2003 banner, but the humor is found in the parentheses. The song blends the rhythm of a military march with the guitar hook from George Michael’s “Faith.”

The first verse begins with an anecdote about Will Rogers, and is followed by one of Snider’s most amusing lines to date: “I met a girl with a Midas touch. I could never get her to touch very much.” Weightier observations soon emerge, and there’s a reference to man taking flight that is simply brilliant.

I couldn’t help but think about Gandhi’s “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” when Snider sings, with slight exasperation, “Fighting for peace? That’s like screaming for quiet.”

But the most interesting part of the song is the final minute, where he repeats variations of “I don’t know, but I’ve been told” until his message is clear: None of us have any idea what’s really going on, and the government and media are making sure of it.

Socrates once said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Snider is a very wise man.

Written by Todd Snider

Grade: A

Listen: Mission Accomplished (Because You Gotta Have Faith)

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Todd Snider, Peace, Love and Anarchy

Todd Snider
Peace, Love and Anarchy
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Anybody who has seen Todd Snider live knows that he performs with just an acoustic guitar. No backup singers, no supporting musicians, and only a harmonica around his neck to spice things up. He has to sell the song with his delivery alone. Amazingly enough, those live performances have more personality and depth than most of what Snider has put on tape to date.

With Peace, Love and Anarchy, the first of hopefully many such collections, we finally have the studio equivalent of those live performances. The compilation collects demo versions of songs that have appeared on earlier Snider albums, along with unreleased material.

As good as “Nashville” and “Missing You” were on their original albums, they sound much better here. The humor of the former track shines through in a more natural way, with Snider cracking himself up and ad-libbing a few good jokes about typical Nashville productions toward the end. He sounds more vulnerable on “Missing You” this time around, a sensitive vocal that matches the lyrical message.

The real discovery, though, is the unreleased material. The lost title track to Snider’s stellar 2004 collection East Nashville Skyline paints that area of town with such vivid lyrical imagery that it made me a bit nostalgic for the World’s Largest Adult Bookstore. “Old Friend” is a fantastic celebration of a long-term friendship between two guys who always have each other’s back, and bail when needed. “Barbie Doll” showcases just how clever a writer Snider is. Calling a girl a Barbie doll is nothing new, but Snider’s reason: she doesn’t have a heart. Nice twist on an old theme.

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Top Twelve Songs about America

We’ve been a bit overwhelmed in country music with patriotic songs since 9/11, and many of them have the stench of expolitation, poor taste, or just plain bad songwriting. In my opinion, the best songs about America tell about Americans, and their experiences. Some of the songs on this list do that; others do talk about America as a whole, but not in your typical flag-waving style. I think they all give Lee Greenwood a run for his money. Here are my 12 favorite songs about America:

12. Sawyer Brown, “Café On The Corner”

The story of 50-year old man who has lost his farm, and is now cleaning tables and washing dishes at a small-town café. The darker side of the American dream, this was released just when the homeless were looking more and more like us. What if you want to work but you can’t find the work? Bashers of welfare and other social safety net programs would do well to listen.

11. Alabama, “Song of the South”

A loving and sentimental celebration of the Depression-era and New Deal south (“We all picked the cotton but we didn’t get rich”) It tells the story of a family that moves from a farm into town, taking advantage of the new federal programs that helped the south so much. It’s ironic that there is such anti-Washington sentiment across the south, since the federal government invested so much to modernize that region and southern states still receive the highest amount of federal aid and benefits, much higher than all other regions of the country.

10. Kathy Mattea, “Beautiful Fool”

A poignant tribute to Martin Luther King that acknowledges the sacrifice he made and the legacy of non-violence that he did not invent, but rather continued: “Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, history repeats itself so nice, consistently we are resistant to love.”

9. Todd Snider, “This Land Is Our Land”

Is this what those crazy liberals are teaching are kids about America? Pretty much. Snider twists the title of a classic folk song to speak in the voice of America’s pioneers – our earliest capitalists. His history is actually pretty accurate – the take-over of land from the Native Americans was not fueled by racism or a concept of manifest destiny – there was just a lot of money to be made. One line: “There’s a lot of land but we need it all, for slave trade and shopping malls.” The narrator makes the “it’s just business” case in a matter-of-fact tone that suggests “hey, we might as well take the land, they’re not getting any real use out of it.” Smart references to contemporary wonders ranging from paper plates and diet pills to pesticides and oil spills, and suggests that even though the land has long been ours, we’re still finding new ways to waste and abuse its resources.

8. Dixie Chicks, “Travelin’ Soldier”

Many suggest that the reason the popularity for our current war is dwindling is that more and more people know somebody who has died, been injured or is currently in danger in Iraq. The most revealing part of this hit is the indifference of the football crowd: “One name read, and nobody really cared, but a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.” It’s easy to be unmoved by the casualties of American soldiers, and Iraqis for that matter, if there’s no personal connection. Perhaps the biggest service of this song is to put a name and face on every soldier through telling us the story of one.

7. Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Stones In The Road”

Chapin traces how the children who witnessed the cultural revolution grew up and apparently didn’t learn the right lessons. A rebuke of the concept of success that makes people “climb that ladder rung by rung.” She suggests, however, that deep down, we know this is wrong, as evidenced by our encounters with the homeless – “we give a dollar when we pass, and hope our eyes don’t meet.” She wants Americans who lived through those changes to listen to that voice of conscience today and make a difference, but the cynicism of adulthood makes her think it isn’t going to happen.

6. Garth Brooks, “We Shall Be Free”

In a hopefulness that is quintessentially American, Brooks suggests that once we fully embrace the concept of equal rights in America, we will truly be a free nation, and celebrates this as a goal to work towards. A bit controversial back in 1992 for the line “when we’re free to love anyone we choose,” and implicit endorsement of gay rights, he seems to instinctively understand that institutionalized fear of different races, religions and lifestyles restricts the freedom of all of us. He sees the beauty that the framework already exists for America to be the beacon of freedom for the entire world. All we need is the courage and the leadership.

5. Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)”

This song captures how Americans across the country all became united for at least a day or two, and how strong the emotional impact of the devastation in New York and Washington was on all Americans. Jackson takes us on a cross-country tour of how Americans from all walks of life responded to the tragedy. Often overlooked is his subtle call for more love in the world as a response to the events. I don’t think anybody’s ever asked him what he means by emphasizing the greatest gift God gave us was love in the chorus, but it suggests that Toby Keith is quite wrong when he says that “everybody” wanted to put a boot in someone’s ass in reponse; we may have been angry Americans, but bloodthirsty is not as universal an emotion as he thinks.

4. Merle Haggard, “Okie From Muskogee”

A classic counter-counterculture hit, this song captures the mid-western resistance to the major social upheavals on the coasts. Characterized as more angry than it really is, Haggard seems to make the point that change is simply unnecessary in Muskogee, where “football is the roughest thing on campus” and “we don’t smoke marijuana” – rather, their illegal drug of choice comes in a jug of White Lightning. Realistically, there probably were many people in Oklahoma smoking pot and “making a party out of lovin’”, but Haggard speaks in the voice of the town, where even if these things do go on behind closed doors, they will not define Muskogee, like the city of San Francisco was defined by the draft-card burning hippie scene.
Certainly, there were people in San Francisco who wished it was more like a small town in Oklahoma, much like many Okies rolled their eyes at Haggard’s white-washed portrait of their towns. The media insistance of diving America into red state vs. blue state is not a new phenomenon, but the way Haggard’s song resonated with Americans from all over proved the dividing lines in America are social and political, not geographical.

3. Johnny Cash, “What Is Truth?”

If Haggard is the dad that doesn’t understand why all the kids are going wild, Cash is the younger uncle who sticks up for them at the dinner table. Cash gives voice to all the frustrations of a generation being sent off to die for a war that isn’t just, and being called cowards by the previous generation who suffered great losses in a war that was very just and necessary. The generation gap is more like a chasm, but Cash tries to bridge it. The most powerful verse captures this struggle:

A boy of three sitting on the floor,
looks up and says, “Daddy, what is war?”
“Why that’s where people fight and die.”
A little boy of three says, “Daddy, why?”

Young man of seventeen in Sunday School
Being taught the Golden Rule
And by the time another year’s gone around
It may be his turn to lay his life down

Can you blame the voice of youth
for asking, “What is truth?”

2. Waylon Jennings, “America”

Forget “God Bless The U.S.A.” This is the 80’s country hit that is the best celebration of America. “I come from down around Tennessee, but the people from California are nice to me; it don’t matter where I may roam, tell your people it’s home sweet home.” He celebrates all of America, his brothers “are all black and white and yellow too.” Who else would have the courage and understanding to celebrate both the soldiers and the draft dodgers in the same verse?

1. Iris Dement, “Wasteland of the Free”

Eerily prescient, this was written in 1995. Every listen gives me chills. Everything that is bringing America down – the corruption of religion by politicians, corporate greed, rampant ignorance, new McCarthyism and war for profit – is exposed in a brilliantly crafted tirade that is overflowing with righteous anger, enough to make you think that if Dement visited the White House, she’d be overturning some tables. Full lyrics here.

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