Playing through the pain
When Nashville-based Todd Snider plays the Manship Theatre on Saturday, it will be an unusual gig for the folk rocker.
The night will start with music by Gina Forsyth, but continue with a reading from Snider’s book, “I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like: Mostly True Tall Tales.” Then, he’ll take questions from the audience or play some songs, depending on how the audience feels.
It’s not the show he’d do under ideal circumstances, but circumstances aren’t ideal.
“I have a form of degenerative arthritis, so both standing and playing guitar — it’s not going to be good,” Snider said. “I have to act like a jock just to be able to walk around and not look like Fred Sanford all the time.” Snider’s arthritis became particularly bad last year, so much so that he was prescribed pain medication for it.
“I like drugs,” he said. “But I don’t like having to take them.”
He stopped taking the medication after a month, then went to see a doctor in Los Angeles who treated him until yoga and exercise could help him function. He accepts his situation, but that doesn’t mean he’s not sad about it.
“I was just getting good on guitar.”
Snider’s career started in the mid-1980s, and like his one-time labelmate and touring partner John Prine, his songs have heart, but many also have a playful streak that carries over to his conversation. One of his best-known songs, “Statistician Blues,” begins, “They say three percent of people use five to six percent of their brain / 97 percent use three percent and the rest goes down the drain.”
Snider merges the musical aspirations of Bob Dylan and the working class philosophy of the folk greats, particularly Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, the friend of folk legend Woody Guthrie who has lived long enough to also be friends with Dylan; Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson. Snider wanted to be his friend and succeeded. Now he’s working on Elliot’s legacy.
“I’m trying to get him to leave me his nickname in his will,” Snider said. “It would break my heart if I can’t keep being what I call ‘The Ramblin’ Jack Elliot of my time.’”
A storytelling show’s not as unusual for Snider as it might sound, though. He has always been a storyteller in concert, and friends and fans have joked for years that audiences liked his introductions to his songs as much as the songs themselves. He mocked his tendency toward lengthy between-song patter when he introduced himself on his “Todd Snider Live” album, saying, “Sometimes I may ramble on for as many as 18 minutes between a particular song,” but Snider wasn’t entirely joking. To write “I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like,” he went into between-song mode.
“All I had to do was say 90,000 words to my friend (singer/songwriter) Peter Cooper, and I do that three times a week anyway.”
The book is very much a product of Snider’s live shows. After a concert in New York City, someone in publishing at Da Capo Press who was in the audience asked him if any of his stories were typed up and wanted to see them. The book will be on sale Tuesday, and Snider enjoyed the process of this book so much that he’s considering a second. Now he’s learning if stories will actually carry a show. So far, he has only played one storytelling show like this, but he’s optimistic.
“We did one in Chicago and everybody had fun.”
Despite his arthritis, Snider hasn’t given up playing music live. He sings but doesn’t play guitar with his rock band Hard Working Americans, and he looks forward to touring with them. The current tour has him on a fairly relentless schedule with only two days off in April. “I prefer playing 35 nights in 35 days,” Snider said. “It becomes this insanity. You couldn’t be rich enough to pay to get on a ride like that. It’s like a Hunter Thompson film all the time. That’s what I’m signed up for, is the weird part. The music’s fun, but I’m looking for some kind of gas.”