Todd Snider becomes the devil you know – September 2006
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Todd Snider becomes the devil you know  Print

By Jason MacNeil, September 2006

Todd Snider has always been one to go by the beat of his own drum. He doesn't pay too much attention to record sales, isn't keen on how much he's taking in from merchandising on the road and doesn't seem like he's going to spend nights tossing and turning thinking about either.

The Oregon-born and now Nashville-based singer-songwriter has created an impressive catalogue over the course of eight albums. And his latest, "The Devil You Know," does nothing but add to his critically acclaimed body of work.

"The words just sort of ended up going in their own direction," Snider says prior to a gig in Oregon. "It seemed that the more I tried to talk about my neighborhood, my neighborhood was talking about the rest of the world."

Snider says he recorded about 20 songs for the record, with 11 making the final cut. However, the recording process for Snider is as unique as the singer himself.

"I live in East Nashville, which is different than most towns because everybody on the street plays with somebody," Snider says. "You run into your neighbors on the road as often as you do at home. But on days when I'm home and I feel like some song is really finished, I just walk over to the studio my friend Eric McConnell owns.

"I don't tell anybody," he adds. "I just call the studio and say, 'I'm going to walk over there today.' And then I do, and when I get there, I start calling everybody, and then they start walking over. I try to keep it really spontaneous. They usually find out about five minutes before that they're playing on my record. And then they walk over, and I say, 'Have some beer.'"

It's that relaxed, good-natured and free spirit attitude that has made Snider, and perhaps more importantly his work, praised by singers such as John Prine and Kris Kristofferson. Yet, he doesn't put much importance in such praise.

"Sometimes when I'm sitting by myself I'm astonished that I know those guys," he says. "I don't know if you ever read that book, 'The I Ching,' I try to stick to that. I'm not very good at it. I'm a bible-head mostly, but I like that I Ching thing 'Do your work and keep moving.' I'm stopping long enough to be thankful when someone says something nice about me. But I don't want to stand around and dwell on it because people gain weight that way."

Snider also says he hasn't gotten proverbially stabbed in the back when it comes to the music industry.

"Everybody I ever worked with seemed like they wanted to work with me," he says. "I know that I still don't have anybody in the music game that I don't like. I'm difficult to work with because I'm an irresponsible person. I don't have goals. I love to drink and don't care if people know that. I've got like four brain cells left, but I have a lot of ideas."

And it's those ideas that results in "The Devil You Know" working so well. Whether it's the opening track "If Tomorrow Never Comes," which is not a cover of Garth Brooks, or "Carla," Snider manages to give these songs a slightly different take or twist.

After years of songwriting, Snider says he knows when a song has been completed.

"The expression I use is that I can just feel them showing up for work," he says. "I'll have a few songs going, but I'll know in my mind that, 'That one is done, but that one in the middle there is the one that's going to end up showing up for work.' Other times, it's just a certain part or a line will come out, and I'll say, 'That's why I know I needed to get this out.' This will probably be a tool that I'll use for the rest of my life."

Although there are some lighter moments on the record, one of the album's darkest moments comes during "Highland Street Incident." The song, based on a robbery Snider was a victim of years ago, was in the singer's head for years. But the viewpoint is similar to Bruce Springsteen's "Dead Man Walkin'."

"That one was like 10 years throwing around," he recalls. "I kept asking myself, 'Why? Why are you doing this?' Then I kept thinking, 'Certainly it's a song! You got robbed, there's a gun, how could you miss?' But it wasn't a no-brainer until about a year ago."

"I was sitting in a different bar in some different town, and I don't know why it hit me," he adds. "I may have seen somebody who was doing crack. I don't know if you've ever been around people on crack, but they get this certain look in their eye that's different than potheads like me. Then something in me said, 'I wonder what those guys were going through that night before they met me. Those guys had their back against it that night, poor f--kers.' And when I felt like that I thought, 'Oh here we go.'"

As ominous as the lyrics are for that particular track, Snider also throws some veiled, but pointed barbs towards a few politicians on a few numbers. "You Got Away With It (A Tale Of Two Fraternity Brothers)" is such a song, with the lyrics similar to events regarding a certain president and his brother. Snider says the song came together after his wife was singing the chorus and added the title line.

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