A few minutes into an interview with singer-songwriter Todd Snider, I got a good dose of the candid rambling style that makes his live shows so appealing.
Recalling a very early gig at Kent State University, he tells of burning incense in the dressing room and being asked if it was marijuana.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Snider joked, given that his memories of the gig are clearly quite hazy.
Snider and his band the Burn Outs perform at the Kent Stage tonight at 8 p.m.
Snider has carved out a niche as sort of a stoner/slacker alternative folk singer with a razor sharp wit, so it may come as a surprise to learn that Jimmy Buffet played a key role in his career.
Snider was born in Portland, OR, and grew up in Atlanta, Houston, Santa Rosa, CA and Austin, TX. He moved to Memphis in the 1980s and landed a regular gig at a local club, the Daily Planet. Singer-songwriter Keith Sykes, from Buffet’s Coral Reefer band, discovered Snider there and helped him land a record deal.
His 1994 debut album, Songs for the Daily Planet, included the minor hit Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues, a spot-on rant on angry alternative bands of the day.
Rolling Stone has called him “America’s sharpest musical storyteller.”
“I think that as a folksinger it’s my job to share my opinions, but I think that just as a good person or a normal person it’s also my job not to think that my opinion is valuable,” Snider said. “It’s just part of the job.”
While many of his songs touch on serious topics such as economic struggles, Snider appreciates that he is first and foremost there to entertain.
“The main part of the gig though is to help be Saturday night,” Snider said. “I like that. I don’t even care if they’re listening. I’m lucky that they usually do, but if someone’s meeting a girl, that’s just as good with me. Or anything, catching up with an old friend, or dancing or taking LSD or whatever. I don’t want to be good for you.”
At first, Snider’s storytelling approach was borne out of necessity.
“At the first shows I ever did, that was sort of my nervous reaction to the world, I think,” Snider said. “I was trying to do open mic nights and that part of it was just there. And then I got a gig and I had like nine or ten songs and I was supposed to fill two hours, and I started seeing that I could kill time with that.”
But Snider found that he had a natural ability to entertain audiences with his humorous stream-of consciousness tales.
“Once it started to sort of turn into something and I started to play bars and people were coming, I started meeting other people that did this type of stuff,” Snider said. “I realized there were other people doing it, like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Arlo Guthrie, Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine – I just studied that stuff. I still can play all their songs and tell all their stories.”
This year Snider released two albums, Time As We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker, and the new original set Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables.
“I do a few of the new ones off both of the records, and then whatever’s on my mind that day with some old stuff, and then usually we get to a part that we call the Freebird section where people yell out what to do and I try and do them,” Snider explained.
Snider is remarkably frank about his role in the grand scheme of things.
“Come to my show and do whatever the (blank) you want,” Snider concluded. “You can light off bottle rockets if you want. Or take all your clothes off if you want. You can yell at me about your sister all you (blanking) want. I love it. I don’t give a (blank). Do whatever the (blank) you want until the security guy says stop. And then probably stop.”
Tickets are $20 and are available at the box office. Doors open at 7 p.m.