"Oh my god, the guy across the street needs to put some f**in' clothes on!" Todd Snider is sitting by the front window of his house in East Nashville, Tenn., enjoying a break from touring behind his latest album, The Excitement Plan. Apparently his neighbor has decided to step outside sans shirt and pants. This is especially odd considering it's going on noon. "He's standing out there on his porch and he's got some tattoo of a chick on a horse on his back. He's just new, and at least now we know if he's a boxers or briefs guy. Briefs."
The guy sounds like he comes straight out of a Todd Snider song — his characters are frequently unable to follow social graces or just past caring.
If there's any performer who gets MORE interesting with age, it's Todd Snider. His albums and shows have only gotten better over the course of his 20-year career, earning him a devoted fan base and a growing critical reputation. Live, Snider's engaging combination of storytelling and song, free-associating observations about himself and the world, and on-stage ease are entertaining enough to bring him back to Asheville half a dozen times in the last few years. "Oh, Asheville!" he says when reminded of the locale of this particular interviewer. "That's the town with the somethin'-to-do street and all the hippies! I love hippies. I'm a bit of a hippie folk singer myself."
But just a bit. Folk singer Snider may be (he does his gigs solo now), hippie tendencies and politics he may have (he does play barefoot), but he brings genuine rock 'n roll priorities (drugs, fun, disrespecting authority, arrested development) to the table as well. And his songs have continued to deepen in their empathy, perspective and wisdom on the world, even if Snider can't seem to bring that wisdom to bear in his own life.
"I've learned nothing," he says, commenting on the song "Greencastle Blues," a song based on an incident that happened last year in Indiana, where Snider, 42, was arrested for marijuana possession. Sitting in the back of the police car, Snider is alternately resigned and defiant, wondering, "How do you know when it gets too late to learn?"
According to Snider, the "Greencastle Blues" story ends with an ironic twist.
"The sheriff of that town went to jail, too. He came to the gig, and we became friends, but about two months after he went to jail," he says. "I guess he was milking the town. Which I applauded."
You get the sense that if Snider truly values any authority figures, it's older songwriters, whose accomplishments and traditions he's been immersed in for most of his life. Over the course of our conversation a wide range of songwriters' names got dropped, from Carole King to Bobby Bare to Woody Guthrie. Struck by the presence of three piano-based tracks on the new record, I asked him if that's why I was seeing so many Randy Newman comparisons in the press.
"I think the piano part on the new record sounds like that Bob Dylan record New Morning," Snider says. "I wanted it to, anyway. I really like how he 'pokes' at it. Somebody like Randy Newman can really play the piano, but at least back then Dylan sounded less … accomplished. I really like that unaccomplishedy sound."
According to Snider, Newman was more of a vocal-phrasing influence on the new record. Snider recalls meeting the towering, bespectacled despiser of short people on one occasion. "I met him on a plane once, and he was brutally honest, and I loved him for it. He said he didn't listen to me because his kids liked me. He said if he listened to my music, he'd either love it, and that'd ruin his day, or he'd hate it and that would suck, too."
In order to get that "unaccomplishedy" sound on The Excitement Plan, Snider found himself working with Don Was, producer for two of Snider's favorite acts of all time, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
"Don had Dylan and Stones stories for days, and that was what I did the whole time, ask him about those guys. That was my favorite — well, that was almost as good as making the music."
While making music is one of Snider's top priorities, he's far more reserved about the ins and outs of the actual music business itself.
"I've stayed out of the music business for almost 20 years. I'm really lucky like that," he says. "Once I give an album to my manager I just forget about it. I just say, ‘I'm done. Don't let my phone go off.'"
It's probably this combination of craft and carelessness that has endeared Snider to his fan base over the years.
"Hopefully I'm getting better," Snider says. "Technically, I'm getting better at what I do, but taste is relative, so it's up to the listener to determine whether they still enjoy it or not."
who: Todd Snider, with Cletus Got Shot
what: Satirist songwriter
where: The Orange Peel
when: Saturday, July 18 (8 p.m. $15. www.theorangepeel.net)