Hillbilly Highway – Todd Snider is a beauty

by Sheldon Birnie

Todd Snider is an American folk singer with a keen eye for quirky detail and a sense of humour and delivery not unlike the late Mitch Hedberg. He’s also a goddamn beauty of a dude, and his appearance at the Winnipeg Folk Festival this year is a highlight on the horizon for me.

I got into Todd’s tunes when I worked up at Riding Mountain National Park – which our federal government has decided to let languish in the wake of budget cuts – cleaning the campground. A buddy kept talking him up as we tidied the fire pits and scrubbed shit off the walls of the public washrooms. Finally, I went over to his pad to drink some beer one evening, and he threw on “Beer Run” – a tune one of Garth Brooks‘ songwriters would later rip off.

“This is great!” I told my pal. “What else do you got of his?”

From there, it was on. I fell hard for tunes like “D.B. Cooper” and “Vinyl Records.” Todd’s cover of Fred Eaglesmith’s “Alcohol & Pills” reinvigorated my interest in Fred, which has since bloomed into full-on obsession.

My all time favourite Todd tune, and one of my all time favourite tunes period, is “Play a Train Song” off his (arguably greatest) album East Nashville Blues. Now, I’m a pretty lazy guitar player at the best of times, and pretty poor at figuring songs out on my own. But something about “Train Song” got me good, and I struggled my way into the simple arrangement of chords. Any time I get up on stage or sit around a campfire with a guitar, that one gets played. Robert Earl Keen thought about the same thing, and recently covered the tune on his 2011 album Ready for Confetti.

I got to talk to Todd over the phone recently about his upcoming Folk Festival performance. He was quite a funny fella and real gracious with his time. Look for the interview in the June/July edition of Stylus (hits the streets June 7), with a (mostly) uncut version appearing online later in June. But here’s a little taste of our conversation, with Todd giving me the full background to “Play A Train Song”:

Todd Snider: “That’s a song about a friend of mine named Skip Litz. This neighbourhood I live in, East Nashville, it’s sort of a musician’s neighbourhood, and it started about ten years ago. He was kind of the architect of all that. He was a roadie for Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show, then he ran sound down at this bar right in the middle of our neighbourhood. He sold dope. He’d do anything. He was the hub, the mayor. If you needed an amp, you called him. If you needed a drummer, you called him. He was like the pimp of everything. If you needed a human toe, like in The Big Lubowski, you called him.  He had become a really close friend of mine. He lived right around the corner. We became like everyday, best friends for five years. I was the sidekick. The Barney to his Andy. The… well, I guess Fonzie didn’t have a sidekick. The Squiggy to his Lenny. I would ride with him. He had this old Cadillac, and he would park it… He was just cool. It was like out of movie or a cartoon to see this guy. In fact, just this morning my wife was going through a closet and she found this sign that we saved after he passed away. It was hanging in a bar here, and it says “No Smoking, Unless Your Name is Skip Litz.” So that’s how, I don’t know why, but he would park on the sidewalk. He just did what he wanted and it was known. He’d walk into a bar and yell “Play a Train Song” and the band would do it. It was a fun tradition around here. Sometimes the band would try to stand up to him and they’d realize that the whole crowd was going to go with him. I imagine if you’re from out of town you’d think he was just a drunk heckler, but you’d better play a train song or the crowd would start booing. So he was a cool guy. Then he found out he was going to die, then it was getting worse. There was a surgery here and there. Towards the last 8 months of his life, he asked if he could come travel with me, cuz that’s what he wanted to do. Then we went, I think we went like the beach in Florida and went swimming and shit and had a blast. Then we came home and I was supposed to go to Virginia, and we were having a little cook out the night before we were supposed to leave and I couldn’t get him on the phone. I went over there with our roommate and my wife and two of our friends to see where he was. For some reason we had a funny feeling about it. We went over there and he was laying on the couch. The television was all that white static stuff, you know, when the channels were gone. And he was laying there smiling, like whatever happened, he was probably watching something funny on TV and his heart just popped or something. But it looked like he was laughing. And he was stiff and cold as shit. I went over and shook him and knew right away, shit, it’s over. And so then, he was friends with all these songwriters around here. One of his riffs was, he’d say “You a songwriter? Well I’m a song, man. Just different. And better.” And when he died, boy, I wrote a song, but it wasn’t the only one. There’s about five or six songs about that guy.”

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