Todd Snider: A Ghost in the Catalogue

Article by Sean Neumann

Inside the 400-seat theater,  the lights dim and Snider comes onto the stage, a mile-wide grin on his face, raised hands making peace signs. A crowd of mostly middle-aged fans rises and applauds. After getting ready to play, Snider nods hello and begins to strum and sing. Moments later he backs away from the mike, and you can hear him chuckle in disbelief as the crowd continues singing his song louder than he was singing it.

Later on, there’s a moment of magic as everybody in the theater who can whistle does so in unison, right along with Snider. And then there’s the interlude when his brown-and-black dog, Cowboy Jim, a fan favorite who’d wandered onstage earlier, comes back out and starts barking in seeming agreement as Snider sings a line about an old radio station that carries veiled social commentary: “We used to listen then.”

Intimate accidents like the crowd turning into a whistling chorus, or Cowboy Jim’s perfectly timed woofs, which sent a delighted charge through the theater, are the kinds of things that have kept Snider hooked on performing music his whole adult life. 

“I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” Snider tells me later, using the words “electric” and “cosmic” to characterize those moments of sudden communal harmony. “You’re part of this gig and you feel like you’re part of this bigger thing. It’s like God wanted it to happen. So, it’s like, Let’s drive another six hours and do it again!”

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THOUGH in person, in his book, and in his music over the years, Snider has never had a problem discussing his life’s journey, which has seen its share of ups and downs, he chose to limit the autobiographical stuff on this new album. Half the songs address societal and political matters, while three more explore music-making itself, and Nashville musical history. Had he wanted to mine his recent life for material, there would have been a lot to consider. He got divorced in 2014. He also started abusing painkillers, a habit that began when he developed a back problem. He spent too many days in a narcotic haze, and missed some shows. But he’s feeling a lot better now, and says weed’s all he needs. 

His new record doesn’t touch much on his divorce, despite its impact on his life the past few years. Snider doesn’t really see the point, he tells me, in those “bummed about a girl” musical laments. “Sometimes I think those songs get so whiny,” the songwriter continues. He believes “Like a Force of Nature” says enough about what he’s been through, and says it in the right way.

Wise, moving, and unsentimental, this tune, with perfect phrasing and subtle wit, opens, “Well, if we never get together again/ Forgive me for the fool I’ve been/ See if you can remember me/ When I was listening to my better angels.” The narrator then confesses to a need for constant motion, an urge so strong it’s like a force of nature. 

“I can’t keep myself from moving,” Snider sings, his tone weathered, a voice with mileage on it. As it happens, the songwriter himself, he estimates, has lived in 50-plus residences, to go with decades of cross-country touring. 

When it comes to the early part of his roaming life, biographical accounts tend to vary a bit, as Snider’s story has acquired some romantic lore over the years, troubadour tales taking on lives of their own. But a teenage relocation is a constant in the different accounts. Born in Portland, Oregon, Snider moved from suburban Beaverton to Austin, Texas, in his teens. His parents had gone broke, and his older brother had found work in Austin, which helped motivate the change of scene. 

Sean Neumann is a Chicago-based journalist and musician who spends much of the year touring with his bands. His writing on politics, sports, and television has appeared in Rolling Stone, ESPN, VICE, and more. Follow him on Twitter @neumannthehuman

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