Being Todd Snider

A brush with the man I'll never be

The first time I heard Todd Snider, I hated him. It wasn't because I thought his music sucked — in fact, it was quite good. He sounded kind of like, well, me. My hatred was fueled by pure jealousy. Snider was all over the Gen-X airwaves with an unlikely hit — 1994's "Talking Seattle Grunge-Rock Blues," which hilariously skewered the grunge scene — and I wasn't.

I received excited phone calls from old friends: "Hey, man, there's this funny song on the radio that sounds just like you! Is it you?"

"No, it wasn't me," I'd inform them through clenched teeth. It was Todd fucking Snider.

Soon afterward, I had my first press write-up — an exciting moment for any performer, except that I was accused of trying to be like Todd Snider. Actually, I was trying to be more like my songwriting hero, John Prine. I desperately wanted to meet Prine and get signed to his label, Oh Boy! Records. It was my dream.

Then one day in a coffee shop, while reading a music magazine, I spotted the headline: "Todd Snider signs with John Prine's Oh Boy! Records."

The magazine ended up a crumpled heap in the trashcan as I slouched out the door. "Someone has stolen my life," I muttered to myself.

So I decide it's time to do something.

Posing as a music journalist, I call Snider's publicist, who falls for my ruse. A week later, Snider calls me for an interview. He's on the road "in the middle of nowhere," his cell phone fading in and out, on his way to open for Prine that night in Salt Lake City. I'm green with envy, but I decide to put away my petty jealousy. I'm simply curious about who this person is, living the life I dream of living.

Snider is so gracious and personable that five minutes into our conversation I break down and tell him the truth. He becomes more interested at that point, turning the interview around and asking me the questions. We talk about our heroes and our influences; our list is exactly the same: Bob Dylan, Jerry Jeff Walker, Arlo Guthrie, Prine, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, even Jimmy Buffett. The petty jealousy resurfaces when I find out that, with the exception of Dylan, Snider has either met, hung out with, or is friends with everyone on the list. "I don't know if I'd want to meet Dylan," he says. "I wouldn't know what to say."

Since Snider is the same age as me (36), I begin to wonder if I have a twin brother I don't know about. But we're not so alike. The major difference between us is that Snider is drawn to the gypsy-folksinger lifestyle, while I admire it from afar. Compelled by the road, Snider has patterned his adult life after his heroes, most notably Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Jerry Jeff Walker.

"I saw Jerry Jeff when I was 20 and I just freaked out. I thought, 'This is it. This is what I'm gonna do with my life,'" Snider says.

A suburban child of the '80s, Snider was born in Portland and has since lived in more towns than he has fingers. He now resides in Nashville with his wife — that is, when he's not on the road, which is most of the time. "That's the thing that really sucks — being away from her," he says. "But she comes out with me a lot, so it's not so bad."

Like the work of Ramblin' Jack, Snider's songs are replete with images of highways, toll roads, hotel rooms and stories that seem to be culled from the Section C of some discarded newspaper found folded up in a booth at Denny's. Snider admits that hanging out with Prine has made him a better songwriter.

"He's taught me to be more conversational in my writing," he says. "You don't always have to be striving to write poetry."

I admit I'm still jealous as hell.


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