Todd Snider gave the crowd in Raleigh ample warning that someone might get mad.
"I'll be sharing opinions," he told the early Saturday afternoon audience at Farm Aid in September, "not because they're right or make sense, but because they rhyme."
He then played "Conservative Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males," a 2004 song whose endrhymes are secondary to its send-up of, well, mostly everyone. Snider's warning, of course, seemed about as disingenuous as Senate hopeful Thom Tillis' proclamation that he had put an extra billion dollars into education. Snider has some words for politcians like Tillis. "They just tell us what they think we want to hear," he sang during another tune from 2004's East Nashville Skyline. "They promise us whiskey. They won't even give us no beer."
Snider is no policymaker, and he doesn't write or sing anything that he doesn't deem to be true. He's much too careful with language for anyone to believe otherwise. So why does he hedge with his audience, then, as he did in Raleigh? Is it because he's a good-timing, semi-famous songwriter just getting by, Jerry Jeff Walker-style, and not really looking to pick fights.
Not exactly: His whole career has seemed, in large part, like a series of word-led fistifcuffs.
Amid the election cycle of 2012, Snider released Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables. He has issued more material since Agnostic Hymns, including a benefit album for Kent Finlay, a friend and songwriter whose cancer has relapsed. And he is currently touring with a super group called Hard Working Americans, whose album is a careful selection of sociopolitical excoriations, like Scott Taylor's "Welfare Blues" and Randy Newman's "Mr. President Have Pity on the Working Man." But none of it has been quite as powerful, poignant or perfect as his voting-time tirades.
Snider is known for spinning sometimes lengthy yarns between songs, and Agnostic Hymns starts in similar fashion with "In the Beginning," an account of prehistoric man and the "world's first shelter," where the human race began. Early humans lived in a state of overwhelming fear, Snider posits, wondering that most primordial wonder: Why are we here?
With no good answer, they—we—became distracted, proliferated, took up more and more empty space and started to live happily ever after.
Until one day this one guy said to this other guy, he said
"Hey, have you seen that guy over there?
He's got more than everybody else has gotTo me, that don't seem fair"
Well, the second guy agreed with the first guy
Everybody else did too
Till they all got so worked up, they figured
there was something they just had to do
Divide his things up among each other
After they killed him of course
For they could see no real good reason not to just
take what they wanted by force
When they found him he said
"Hey, wait a minute fellas, I wouldn't kill me just now
You can see that I've got more than any of you
have ever got, wouldn't you first at least like to know how?"
And with that, he had their attention.
The rich man turns his stall into a rather comfortable system: "God gave me this, because I'm humble—and he can do the same for you, too!" He puts everyone to work, suggesting that if God sees them all working, he'll reward them with riches, too. The angry mob capitulates, buying in to a fundamental hoodwink that stretches forward in time all the way to "personal responsibility," the phrase politicians now prefer when they're punishing the poor. Snider sings over low, raw electric guitar and violin. Amanda Shires provides haunting back-up vocals in the chorus: "Who you gonna trust, if you can't trust me?"
Her hook sets the menacing tone for the entire album. On "New York Banker," Snider slips into the skin of a high school teacher who watches his retirement evaporate when the Goldman Sachs subprime junk bond Abacus goes belly-up. Our tragic hero had been told by said banker that a bond based on "home loans getting paid" was safer than gold. Everyone bought in.
Several characters later, Snider finds himself "In Between Jobs," imbibing every ingredient of a volatile emotional mix—one part despair, one part anger, one part bravado, five or more parts liquor. The cocktail leads to bitter lines, as Snider meditates on other people's money and the actual currency itself, concluding that it remains the root of all evil. The song ends with Snider's unemployed character approaching spontaneous combustion. "Just knowing how much more you've got than me," he sings, "I'm thinking, 'What's keeping me from killing this guy ... takin' his shit.'"
Snider, like the rest of us, wants a sincere answer to this last acerbic question, which seems to appear in public discourse at an alarming rate in these top-down times. When medical-related bankruptcies occur daily, when corporations grow less content with the favoritism they already enjoy and skip U.S. taxes entirely by moving overseas, when primary school teachers make less than bar backs, when police shoot up the neighborhood and when voters get suppressed, are we marching toward an inevitable day when violence becomes the only way to regain ground? Snider seems to write as a warning against the end, a harbinger of the worst of it. Perhaps the economy is recovering, the way we're told it is. But Snider's lyrics remain an important reminder of those dark times, a recognition of the grey clouds rolling overhead and reinforcement for the hardship of getting clear of them.
In his hysterical autobiography, I Never Met A Story I Didn't Like, released earlier this year, Snider remembers being in the mansion of Jimmy Bowen, then the head of Liberty Records. Snider calls Bowen a "funny guy" and writes, "I asked him if he believed in God. He looked around his place, opened his arms, and said, 'He sure seems to like me.'"
Maybe one day, the North Carolina political establishment will allow God to like teachers, minorities and gay people, too. If so, can Snider write a rhyme for that?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rhymes with liberty"