Todd Snider: A Ghost in the Catalogue

Article by Sean Neumann

While growing up, Snider found his dad a mysterious figure. He says his family had money for a while, and then suddenly lost it all. Later, his parents got divorced. 

“I think my dad did a lot of coke and was gambling,” Snider tells me. “He was a wild fucker.” Snider says he never knew exactly what his dad did for a living, but it was construction-related. He describes his late father, Danny, who died at 54, as “tough.” 

Years ago, Snider heard rumors that his dad had a hand in organized crime—a theory buttressed both by an Oregon reporter, who once told the songwriter as much, and by the fact that a family friend eventually got murdered in a hit. Snider says he doesn’t doubt the rumors about his dad, but he can’t say for sure if they’re true.

Early on, Danny Snider made it clear he didn’t approve of his son’s career choice. He told the aspiring songwriter that if he didn’t drop the music dream and find a real job, he’d spend his life playing the same shitty bars for the same shitty pay. A conservative Republican, Danny didn’t find songwriting a reputable profession, didn’t share his son’s love of poetry, and distrusted the politics of folkies who strum guitars and pen lyrics about life, love, planet Earth, and social injustice. During his early twenties, Todd would get in heated political arguments with his dad. When the musician would accuse right-wingers of racism and homophobia, Danny would come back and call his son a fag.

As a young man starting out in music, Snider found himself looking beyond his dad for support and inspiration. With his personality and talent a combination that could get him noticed, he had the good fortune of finding father figures who also happened to be some of the country’s best songwriters. One of those was Jerry Jeff Walker, who wrote “Mr. Bojangles.” Snider has said seeing Walker play solo at an Austin bar helped show him the way: Instead of running around trying to get a band together, he could just be a man with songs and a guitar. 

After sending a demo tape to Memphis singer-songwriter Keith Sykes, a friend of both Walker and John Prine, as well as a member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, Snider was encouraged by Sykes to move to Memphis and join the thriving music scene there.

Eventually, Snider snagged a regular gig at a club called the Daily Planet. Meanwhile, Sykes was doing what he could to help Snider launch his career. The songcraft education that began in Austin—how to chart rhyming patterns, for example—accelerated in Memphis. Snider was learning from Walker, Sykes, Prine. And from Jimmy Buffett himself he gleaned a few parlor tricks when it comes to working a crowd. 

From all these guys he also learned how to grind, Snider tells me. With their stories of starting out, and from his observations of these mentors in action, he got an idea of what it takes to succeed. It might mean playing nightly shows to 15 or 20 people for who knows how long. And it definitely means working on a song until it’s perfect. Even if it takes 30 years.

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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