God Only Knows

Todd Snider's restless soul belies a heart of gold.

Todd Snider

Mississippi Nights (914 North First Street)

$18 Saturday, $25 Sunday or $40 flat for tickets to both nights. 314-421-3853.

At the end of one of his many scatter-shot, uncensored free associations, Todd Snider hints that he's just "one of those guys who wants to write shit down." He's also, to quote his songwriting hero Kris Kristofferson, a walking contradiction: a God-fearing, God-doubting, spiritualist, screw-up, pessimist flower child.

And somehow, like Kristofferson or John Prine (another mentor), Snider is also one a hell of a songwriter.

Now 40 years old, Snider could have wound up a novelty act dated by the subject of his only substantial hit: "Talking Seattle Grunge-Rock Blues." "To fit in fast we wear flannel shirts," he sang with a cockeyed-yelp. "We turn our amps up until it hurts/We've got bad attitudes and what's more/When we play we stare straight down at the floor." It wasn't "Blowin' in the Wind," but in 1994 someone needed to say it.

Snider grew up in Portland, Oregon, but most of his youth was spent moving between Santa Rosa, Austin, Houston, Atlanta, Memphis and Fairview, Tennessee. "It's what you're traveling to and around and from that counts," he says sardonically. "I sure haven't learned any fucking thing from it. I'm a negativist. The years kinda pound you down. I'm not jaded, but my back hurts. If the doctors figure something out, I'll try it. But I haven't figured anything out. I'm almost convinced that I haven't learned anything. I bet you I could prove that I've lost brain cells."

He fled the Northwest to get away from college life — sports especially — but also familial chaos. His father was a construction manager, as sketchy and reckless as his son.

"He rivaled me pretty good," Snider says. "He was pretty rough, pretty drug-oriented. I'm not even ashamed of it. He was a grifter-type. His partners would always turn out to be the owners of titty bars, and when we'd go broke, it was because he didn't pay his taxes."

In 1993 in Memphis, Snider's tattered-heart-on-a-tattered-sleeve wit and fuck-up charm caught the ear of Jimmy Buffett, who signed him to his MCA-affiliated Margaritaville imprint. His first album, Songs for the Daily Planet, portrayed him as Generation X's smart-mouthed answer to Phil Ochs. His politics, when discernable, were mostly shrouded in pot smoke and slacker satire. "Here's to living off dad as long as you can," he jeered in "My Generation, Pt. 2." He knew how absurd life felt; he just didn't have a clue what to do about it.

"I realized that because I didn't have a long history with anyone or any big expectations," he says, "that I could fail at anything I wanted. Being broke a lot helped too. Not having anything to live up to, not having anything or anyone waiting. I don't know if I could have played open mic every Wednesday in Portland. In San Marcos [Texas], shit, I didn't have to play under my own name."

Though he says he probably won't stay, Snider has settled into a home and married life in East Nashville, where he's remained loyal to the disaffected but talented misfits who hover around the edges of Music City. (Good friends Will Kimbrough, Tommy Womack and Peter Cooper still play in his band.) Somehow his proximity to the world's most profitable songwriting industry has only pushed his lyrics toward sharper politics and more complex ethics.

In 2002, the stupid, catchy "Beer Run" was all over country radio; it was even nominated for a Grammy. One of Garth Brooks' songwriters heard Snider sing the goofy chorus at a street festival and "creatively borrowed" his idea. Rather than bring down the law, Snider just wrote another song, "If Tomorrow Never Comes" (the first track on his new album The Devil You Know), which blatantly plagiarizes Brooks right back.

"It made me happy," Snider says of the theft, "because I was trying to work on this song about how hard it would be if someone on this Earth had to pay for something they did eternally. I'd argue with God about that. I was trying to write about these three questions: Why are we here? What are we supposed to do here? Where do we go after here?

"I was trying to write about forgiveness. I took a line from that guy, knowingly, but he took one from me, so I figured I owed him anyway. From the start of it, I'm guilty, and then I go on to sing how nobody is guilty! Does that make sense?"

In Snider's moral universe, it does. Though he takes aim at war, evangelical hypocrites, George Bush and God him/her/itself, Snider is mostly a writer of doubt and irony. The world is still absurd to him, but he's never satisfied with explanations about why — especially his own.

"I trust that those people who come to see me are counting on me not to bullshit them rather than to agree with them," Snider says. "I try to do it with respect to this idea: Is there knowledge? Real compared to what? I'm not sharing my opinion with you because I think I'm right. I'm sharing my opinion with you because it rhymes. That's what you're counting on it to do. If you came here looking for an answer or even for the wrong answer, then you might as well split."

Snider's satirical targets are familiar, but they're never merely obvious, and they never really judge. In "Happy New Year," the final song on The Devil You Know, he declares that "we can't kill what we don't understand" — but then turns on the TV and sees that, yeah, well, we can and do. That's insight for Snider: realizing that you'll never be smart enough to stop being human.

"My wife says I'm a sucker for people like Mike Tyson, Barry Bonds, Tonya Harding, Courtney Love, Yoko Ono, Liam Gallagher, Ryan Adams," he says. "I wouldn't even call them underdogs. You know who I like right now? Britney Spears. If you watch TV, we all know we're smarter than her. If we're standing at the doughnut shop, we can all agree that we're smarter than Britney! It angers me that people think they are smarter than her, smarter than Mike Tyson. That's the part of my soul that will probably kill my career — when people figure out I've been trying to sing Charles Manson into Heaven since the beginning. I'm being sincere about that.

"But I don't want to be misunderstood," he adds. "If there is a God or even not a God, I don't want to lie to that entity — whatever it is. That idea is consuming to me. I want there to be a God, I want that Heaven thing set up where I could see my dad. I would trade everything for that."

8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, December 30 and 31. Mississippi Nights, 914 North First Street. $18 Saturday, $25 Sunday or $40 flat for tickets to both nights. 314-421-3853.

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