Show Review: Todd Snider Spins Hard Times into Gold at the Ardmore Music Hall

Show Reviews

photos by Jimmy Faber

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Todd Snider is that rare combo: a consummate songwriter and showman all in one. With a catalog of 16 albums dating back to 1994, along with countless writing credits to his name, he recently returned to his roots, so to speak, with Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3. Shelving his backing band The Hardworking Americans, Snider takes a barebones folky (as in, “what the folk?!”) approach to the Vol. 3 sessions (volumes 1 and 2 were recorded but have not yet been released) that highlights the layered irony of his lyrics, along with his masterful phrasing and peerless comedic timing.

It also highlights a new predilection for the supernatural and suspiciously serendipitous events. His song “The Ghost of Johnny Cash,” which is central to the album, describes John Carter Cash’s vision of Loretta Lynn dancing with the ghost of his father outside the family cabin, as Melissa Clarke’s recent interview with Snider details. Suffice to say, this turn to supernatural inspiration is a bit surprising in a self-avowed agnostic hippie. But as Snider told John Carter Cash before the latter related his dancing Loretta Lynn story, “I’m not really a ‘haunted’ person, but I’m not against it.”

Aside from his apparent openness to supernatural events, Snider also has a well- known history of drug addiction with related trips to rehab, assorted weirdness and broken relationships — including a traumatic divorce in 2014 — that makes one wonder which version of Todd Snider is going to show up when he performs.

Luckily it was a sober, energetic and especially quick-witted Snider who showed up for the Ardmore performance March 14, the second show of his current tour. Unlike his appearance at The Birchmere a week later (also reviewed in Americana Highways), he didn’t bring his dog Cowboy Jim on stage with him, and he didn’t go barefoot. He also wasn’t sporting (thankfully) that frightening, ungroomed beard that showed up in some of the early promotional shots for Cash Cabin.

What he DID bring to the Ardmore Music Hall was his guitar, some new stories, his congenial goofiness, and his sometimes gently satiric, at other times outrageously outspoken worldview. Part Will Rogers-ish voice of the common man, part hippie Zen master and part hard-partying stoner savant, Snider’s infamous between-song banter is droll, painful, prodding and heartfelt by turns. His tall tales almost always end with a pointed punchline (typically a self-mocking or ironically self-undermining one) that you didn’t quite see coming. This just enhances their powerful, reverberative effect.

Fellow Nashvillean Reed Foehl (pronounced “fail” — though, as he told the audience, he likes to preface it with the word “never”) opened for Snider with a set of well-crafted and emotionally affecting ballads on such serious subjects as his father’s decline and his mother’s battle with lymphoma. His father’s love of John Prine, Foehl related between songs, inspired him to pen the Prine-like “Chances Are” about his time spent taking care “of the ones who took care of me / And my highly dysfunctional family.” Several of his other songs shared that focus on mortality, loss and the slow-fast warp of time’s passage, including one containing the refrain “It’s a goodbye world, passing through it” and the stirring ballad “Wake Up the Dead.”

It was thus almost a relief when Snider showed up with his shuffling Chaplinesque gait to brighten the evening with his expected mix of levity, political edginess and hard-earned wisdom re: that hopeless bunch of mammals we call humanity. Dressed in a blue workshirt, chuka boots and his trademark floppy hat, Snider launched right into “East Nashville Skyline,” with its description of crossing over to that neighborhood’s unique “state of mind” with its “discount cigarettes, liquor and wine.” The crowd whooped approvingly as Snider sang about how the radio “kicked us off of the air / So that more Sheryl Crow could come on… Come on!” — and it was off to the races from there.

Snider essentially writes four types of songs: comedic send-ups; explicitly political numbers; songs packed with bittersweet social observations, typically told from the point of view of the down-and-out and/or outcasts; and poignant, sometimes deeply personal, ballads. Of course, being a contrarian he also mixes zinger one-liners into his serious songs and serious notes into his comedic zingers, but despite those hybrids those four categories seem to hold true.

He mixed those categories artfully at AMH, with a slight lean towards the last two. Among the more comedic numbers were “Barbie Doll,” “Beer Run,” “I Can’t Complain,” “Alright Guy,” “Just in Case” and “Iron Mike’s Main Man,” while songs from the bittersweet/socially observant category included “Sunshine,” “Looking for a Job,” “D.B. Cooper,” “Play a Train Song” and the aforementioned “East Nashville Skyline.” The explicitly political numbers came in a row, starting with the obligatory “Conservative, Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males,” followed by the rapid-fire tour de force “A Timeless Response to Current Events” (with its refrain “Ain’t that some bull… shit?”), then “Talking Blues” from Vol. 3, and later on the long, seemingly improvised (though actually not) rap “The Blues on Banjo,” with its bitter, crowning exclamation: “So zippety- do-dah, muthafucker; zippety-ay!”

Snider’s artful interweaving of those three song types leant extra force to his more personal/serious numbers. These included the touching ballad “I Waited All My Life for You,” the moving “Old Times” (which Snider sang passionately), and his first encore number, “Force of Nature.” That last song, off the new album, contains the quintessential Todd Snider lines: “May you always play your music / Loud enough to wake up all of your neighbors / And may you play at least loud enough / To wake yourself up.” (Amen to that!)

Along with “The Ghost of Johnny Cash,” which requires a whole new category of its own, the final song of Snider’s four-song encore was a stunner. He actually took on — head on, as they say — the perennial obnoxious concert-goer’s favorite request: “Free Bird.” Snider’s slow acoustic version of that time-worn cliché of a tune gave it a whole new life, I thought; he seemed to wring every last, surprising emotion out of it, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a threadbare hat. He left the stage jumping up and down excitedly as the crowed roared its passionate appreciation.

You gotta hand it to him: despite the shambolic, sometimes (intentionally?) unpolished demeanor, Snider is an inspired, pro’s pro of a performer when he’s got his act together. Let’s hope his happy streak of great songwriting and focused sobriety continues.

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Tour dates, videos, recordings and merchandise can be found at: https://toddsnider.net/home/

Americana Highways’ interview with Todd Snider can be found here: Interview: Todd Snider on Cash Cabin Sessions, Dreams and Songwriting

Americanas Highways two earlier reviews of Todd Snider’s show are here: Show Review: Todd Snider Enthralls Fans at Birchmere with Reed Foehland here: https://americanahighways.org/2019/02/19/show-review-todd-snider-sold-out-show-at-okcs-tower-theatre-with-canine-sidekick-and-kevin-gordon/

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