It was seemingly business as usual when Todd Snider last visited Lexington.
A popular local draw for years, the East Nashville songsmith was in town for an evening set at the Christ the King Oktoberfest. Though limited to a mere 50 minutes of stage time, Snider opted for the familiar. His performance was full of folkish, nervous tic reveries like Alright Guy, Can’t Complain, Beer Run and a curiously brief Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, a tune that usually comes with a motion picture-length narrative as a prologue.
It was like any other Snider show – whimsical, fully unfrilly and ripe with an amiable, boozy charm.
That afternoon, a package arrived. It remained unopened until my arrival home after Okotberfest had shut down for the night. Its contents: a new Snider EP disc called Peace Queer, a record still three weeks away from release. As Snider had chosen not to introduce any of the new songs at Oktoberfest, Peace Queer was immediately sent to the stereo.
What was expected was more of the same revelry the songwriter had conjured onstage earlier that evening. What came out of the speakers was arguably the most sobering and topically minded music Snider has ever recorded. It was rootsy and unassuming in tone, save for the brief electric boogiefest that erupted during Stuck on the Corner. But it was also politically turbulent in terms of temperament.
If Peace Queer was any indication, it seemed life for the Alright Guy had become troubled on an almost global scale.
“I usually go to a bar before my gigs,” Snider said by phone last week. “Or if I’m home, I’ll go sit in a bar and listen to people talk. And these days, people are almost always talking about war. You’re not supposed to talk politics and religion in a bar. But today, believe me, they are. Me, I want to talk about the Cubs. But what I’ve been hearing really informed these songs.”
Peace Queer‘s political tone is ushered in with a disarming Bo Diddley groove on Mission Accomplished (Because You Gotta Have Faith) and the sort of confessional storytelling charm that has long fueled Snider’s best songs. But the antagonist of Mission Accomplished is to pretty easy to spot within the shuffle.
“Working for a man who could not stop lying; drove us all off a cliff and called it flying,” Snider sings. “That ain’t flying. Most men flying seem to understand that a man hasn’t technically flown until he lands.”
The eight song, 26 minute Peace Queer then veers into a sailor’s wartime lament set to an easy country blues melody (The Ballad of Cape Henry), two versions of a more homeward battle with a schoolyard bully (the spoken Is This Thing Working? and the sung Is This Thing On?) and the disc’s cool, comfortable title tune (Ponce of the Flaming Peace Queer) which, in a major shift for Snider, is an instrumental.
But Peace Queer is also disturbing in a way that even Snider couldn’t have predicted. On Dividing the Estate (A Heart Attack), gluttony is redefined, whether intentionally or not, for the new age of the corporate bailout.
“The Bible says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter heaven. It astonishes me there are so many wealthy Christians in our country. I’m not judging them. They can live by and break whatever rules they want for all I care. But I grew up a Catholic kid, so I speak Catholic. So what I wanted to do with this song was paint a picture of a person, maybe even a system, that started off humble and just got fatter and fatter until it eventually popped.
“I mean, if I go out on the road and become the guy that eats everything on the deli tray, drinks every beer and tries to hit on every girl that passes by, I’ll just get fatter, louder and dumber until, eventually, I’ll just fall down.”
Peace Queer‘s ace in the hole is a reworking of the Vietnam War protest anthem Fortunate Son that John Fogerty wrote and recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Snider slows the tune into a dark, whispery meditation colored by ghostly, reverb-drenched singing by Patty Griffin, who also harmonizes on Cape Henry.
“My intention was to make the song sound hopeless and exhausted.
“My friend Doug Lancio, who plays guitar for Patty and sometimes produces her music, lives down the street. I was over at his house recording the song and Patty stopped by. She heard what we were doing and said, ‘Can I sing on that?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? Of course, you can.’ I really look up to Patty. She’s a lot like Dylan. She just keeps finding new ways for her music to change and still stay interesting.”
On Monday, Snider returns to Lexington for a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, a program he seems to have special affinity for. The songwriter’s 2002 performance of Long Year on the show was so to his liking that he included it on a concert album the following year called Near Truths and Hotel Rooms.
But unlike Okotberfest, the Peace Queer songs will be front and center for the WoodSongs return.
“It sounds silly, but I really don’t get to control where these songs go,” Snider said. “In that sense, I guess I’m more of an editor than a writer. I really teetered on whether I would even let these songs out of the house. They were planned for the next album (the just completed The Excitement Plan, due out in 2009), but they didn’t really fit in.
“It was like they were screwing the movie up. So I thought I’d put them out on their own little EP. I wanted them to be their own little thing.”
Todd Snider performs at 7 p.m. tonight at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Also performing will be The Refugees. Tickets: $10. Call (859) 252-8888