At this past Saturday's Mucklewain Festival outside the small town of Harriman in an even smaller foothills town in Tennessee, Todd Snider was the mayor, at least for the duration of his 50-minute set. Ambling on stage barefoot and vested, his eyes wide and fragile whenever they broke the shadow of the brim of his shapeless hat, he looked like a hayseed acid casualty. (And I acknowledge that's an insensitive description to use for someone who's battled substance abuse.)
But he's a demon-haunted Huck Finn with something to say and a way of putting it across that makes strangers bond. Like I said: mayor. "I've been driving around for 15 years making this shit up," Snider offered two songs in, words pouring out in one breathless stream. "Some are funny, some are sad, some are long, some are short. And I've been known to ramble for 18 minutes at a time." Then he and his underground-hero-stocked band dove headfirst into "The Ballad of the Kingsmen," a potent, passionate defense of rock 'n' roll posing as a ramble and quite possibly the highlight of a day and night overflowing with candidates.
Yep, Snider does both lighthearted and heavyhearted, and that's not an easy trick. He's not content to take on only icons; he's an everythingoclast but one with a unique sense of humor and humanity. Life is a big cosmic joke, and the best way to get in on it is to write songs--ideally with a sound that careens from sing-along rock to introspective country-folk to talking blues, and with a songwriting formula that reads "Apply no formulas."
Thus, on his brand new The Devil You Know, you get tunes about dead-end jobs, our Fratboy-in-Chief, and a dust-up between Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. And Snider continues to get praise from on high, including from the folk/country/rock Mount Rushmore of Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker. Takes mavericks to know one.
Todd Snider plays The Pour House on Tuesday, Aug. 29 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15, and rock 'n' roll heroine Marshall Chapman opens.
NOTE: Due to an editing error, the print version of this story incorrectly attributed two quotes to Snider. This is the corrected version.