Petty Differences

Todd Snider's roots grunge country blues

The Todd Snider collapsed in an MCA Records conference room for his next-to-last interview of a long, long day at the mercy of his publicist is a far cry from the wired and wild Snider that slapped an audience of Kenny Wayne Shepherd fans silly last night. That was Snider leading his Nervous Wrecks, maybe one of the best up-against-the-wall-redneck-mother, badass-kicking party bands this side of Jerry Jeff Walker's Gonzo Compadres.

Today Snider is simply a wreck, scruffy and crusty with glazed eyes that say, "I feel like Mr. Bojangles has been dancing all over my face for twenty-four hours and I'll give you my soul if you just shoot me now or let me go home."

Viva the life of a rising rock & roll star: promising enough to warrant a full-day of press promoting your third album, Viva Satellite, but a ways yet from the Eddie Vedder vantage point of being able to say screw it. Good enough to scare the bejesus out of the bands you open for and win over their fans, but still best known for a novelty song -- "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues" -- from your 1994 debut album, Songs for the Daily Planet. As a songwriter, you're so good that one of your biggest heroes, outlaw Texan Billy Joe Shaver, has compared you to *his* heroes -- Willie Nelson and famed country songwriter Harlan Howard. And yet still you have to face interviewers who'll tell you they love the new album but, gosh, didn't you realize it sounds just like Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedoes?

It seems a fair enough question, given that "Out All Night" and "Yesterdays and Used to Be's" (to name but two candidates) are as much could've/should've-been Petty classics as Petty's "American Girl" was a could've/should've-been Byrds track.

Snider, perhaps too tired to sigh, merely nods. "Throughout the session, we were greatly aware of that," he concedes, but quickly dismisses the matter as irrelevant rock critic laziness. "But I've been playing since I was twenty, and I'm thirty-one now -- and you're comparing me to Tom Petty. I *love* Tom Petty, so if that's my big tag for life, that doesn't scare me. I don't think it's *true*. I think we're better than them."

He grins, and a ghost of Snider the Nervous Wreck flashes life across his face. But the steely look in his eyes says he's serious, and it's hard not to be impressed by the bravado. Then, with a self-effacing shrug, he deflates it. "I'm not in a race to sound *different*. I think the Smashing Pumpkins may make some new music some day, but I'm not going to."

Instead, Snider is content to concentrate on what he does best, which is catchy-as-hell, straight-up rock & roll, like Satellite's current single, "I Am Too." And wry, too-hip-for-Nashville country ("Doublewide Blues," a snapshot of trailer-park life complete with "numbchuck [sic] kids"). And soul-bearing, honest-to-God gospel ("Once He Finds Us"). All that, and a deep-fried cover of Steve Miller's "The Joker" so cool you forget what a shamelessly cheesedick song it is at heart. At his best, Snider -- a Portland, Ore. native who cut his musical teeth in Texas, Atlanta, and Memphis -- sounds like a *lot* of different people outdoing themselves and each other, all crammed into a big, battered suitcase held together with bungee cords.

As musically varied as Satellite is, though, it's a much more streamlined, rock radio-friendly affair than his first two albums [Planet and '96's Step Right Up], which both leaned a little more on the country side. Snider dismisses any talk about a change of focus, however, noting that he's already recorded a just-for-the-hell-of-it album of straight country for his own amusement and doesn't rule out the possibility of someday releasing a similar project.

"[Viva Satellite] is decidedly more rock, but I don't think it abandons our Jerry Jeff Walker/Joe Ely side, which is where we kind of come from," says Snider. "We started putting country music and rock music together a long time ago, when Uncle Tupelo was still sounding like the Replacements."

Like Step Right Up before it, Snider admits that Satellite is another half-realized attempt at his dream project: a cohesive, Red Headed Stranger-style concept album. Both attempts found him biting off more than he could chew.

"I've always wanted to do a concept album because I'm such a Willie Nelson fan," he says. "But I don't have a good enough attention span to stay with it, or understand exactly how you tie it all together. 'Doublewide Blues' was supposed to be a thematic tone for this record -- a lot of the songs are about people in that song. I had big visions about it being a concept album about living in Memphis and, as always, it ends up being a [mixed] batch of shit."