You would think in the 21st century's new dawn of epic political blunders, reckless incompetence and manipulative disregard for truth, courtesy of our beloved Administration, that protest music would be ripe for a comeback. Yet, surprisingly, that hasn't been the case, even though we desperately need it. At its best, populist art can put headlines into perspective as well as inspire us to make changes.
In the classic tradition of the masters of topical songwriting — your Guthries, Dylans, Springsteens of the world — Todd Snider brings his uniquely wry spin to this genre. With his eighth record, The Devil You Know, released earlier this year (and recently named one of 2006's best albums by Rolling Stone), he continues to sing rowdy, bittersweet tales of desperadoes, lost gypsy loves and hard-luck grifters on the run somehow surviving against the powers that be.
Snider's not-so-secret weapon in his singer/songwriter arsenal has always been his sense of humor. From his early folkie days of satirizing the influence of Grunge music with his first release, Songs for the Daily Planet in 1994, to his later comic stories in song, Snider loads each of his records with character-driven monologues soaked in his off-kilter wit and charm. Above everything else, he's a storyteller — and one of the best.
Every night on tour, standing barefoot in torn denim and wearing his trademark floppy hobo hat onstage, he announces in his loopy drawl, "I've been driving around 18 years now making this shit up, singing it for anybody that'll listen. Some of it's sad, some of it's funny and sometimes I'll go on for as long as 18 minutes between songs."
Imagine a more impish, slightly stoned, world-weary version of a guitar-plucking, tall-tale-spinning Huck Finn, and you start to get the picture.
He's always been a gypsy by nature, moving between Portland, Austin, Memphis and Nashville for the last 20 years. From his current Nashville home, he says, "I feel I have the religion of a gypsy. I mean, as much as it's based on being full of shit, this feels less full of it than some other religions, or maybe a more honest way of being full of shit. Gypsies became Christians like everyone else 'cause they didn't want no trouble, and sometimes that's why I feel like I'm one. I don't mean that with a negative slant either — isn't that a good enough reason to be one?"
In the questing spirit of a true troubadour, Snider has always grappled with religious themes. "I was a Catholic altar boy, so I speak Catholic," he says. "But I'm trying to work that out by myself. We use words like 'faith' and 'belief' when we don't know for sure about God, and I almost don't care if there is one — I'm still enjoying the conversation I have with him in mind. I just keep it to myself. His words can remind how so many of us substitute religion for spirituality."
On the album-closing "Happy New Year," he calls himself an "evangelical agnostic," which comes as close as any label can to summing him up. He declares, "If I have one small pothead Folk singer's opinion, it would be that religion starts off as personal belief, but it's turned into this thing we think we know. It's this certainty of religion that clearly plays a major part of the destruction in the world, and especially in the war we're in now."
As the song's lyrics spool out, he sings, "We can't just kill what we don't understand/But I turn on the TV/And see that, oh yes, we can."
With our President arrogantly professing he has his own hotline to God and routinely imposing that phantom dialogue on the rest of us (such as telling us that God wants him to wage war on the heathens who don't believe in what he does, whether it's his agenda, his "morality" or the neo-con way), it's this kind of subject matter that renders Snider's material so relevant now.
"I love what Billy Joe Shaver says — 'I don't think I'm better than anybody else, but I'm also as good as anybody,' " Snider says. "Though I feel comfortable sharing my opinion, I want to be real clear that I'm sharing it to learn and not to teach.
"I know what I'm talking about' is just not a truth, no matter whose mouth it's coming out of," he continues. "Look at Bob Dylan, probably my favorite person in the whole world, and I think he was hip to that at age 19 when others pressed him for answers and he refused to fall into that trap of certainty, of knowing it all. He was in search of some greater truth, always questioning in humble, noble ways."
The new song that specifically deals with Bush and the ever-increasing collateral damage inflicted by his policies and behavior is the lilting Country waltz "You Got Away with It." The lyrics focus on two spoiled frat brothers who grow up in the shadows of Camp David and Yale, drunk and privileged, dodging responsibility left and right, oblivious to the problems of those who live in the real world. Sound like anyone you know?
The song's low-key brilliance lies in its subtle, wicked satire of Bush without ever mentioning him by name. Rather than go on a literal, heavy-handed rant like Neil Young does on his recent album, Living With War, he chooses metaphor and spare but revealing imagery, the tools of a poet. This way the song won't be dated after Bush staggers from office. Plus, as serious as Snider can be in song, there's usually a joke or a goofy, deadpan look at the end of one.
In the end, he tips his tattered hat to fellow searchers in "Just Like Old Times": "Living out our own kind of American dream/Your goal was always the same as mine/We didn't want to throw a fishing line in that old mainstream."
TODD SNIDER performs at Newport's Southgate House Friday.