Todd Snider

Todd Snider

Todd Snider is on the happy back end of happy hour at a favorite East Nashville bar, talking about his new album Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables. “This record doesn’t come from good times,” Snider says. “I wanted to sound the way I feel, which sometimes means sounding like a broken soul.”

On the 10 new songs, Snider doesn’t talk around the vulnerable part, or the angry part, or the part about how everything we’re taught about goodness and righteousness and capitalism, about God and family values winds up exploding into violence and chaos, wonder and longing. He might carry the mantle of “storyteller” – it’s what he titled his live record, after all – but Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is anything but a nice, folk/Americana troubadour album.

It’s not a nice anything.

It is jagged, leering, lurching and howling, and filled with unhappy endings both experienced and intimated: “It ain’t the despair that gets you, it’s the hope,” he sings in the album-closer, “Big Finish.” That Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is also roaringly funny is tribute to Snider’s unique sensibilities, and to his standing as what Rolling Stone magazine calls “America’s sharpest musical storyteller.” Anguish without laughter is boring, like intensive care without morphine, and Snider has never been within 100 miles of boring. Also, he didn’t earn the attention, friendship and fandom of American musical giants like Kris Kristofferson and John Prine by writing mopey protest songs.

Anyway, these aren’t protest songs and they’re not meant to incite class warfare (though he knows they might anyway). They’re populated mostly by losers in the midst of losing, with a couple of spotlight appearances from the humbly anointed 1 percent. At album’s outset (“In The Beginning”), Snider credits the church with sustaining peace by noting that “We still need religion to keep the poor from killing the rich.” From there, it’s on to the certainty of warped karma (“Good things happen to bad people,” he sings in “New York Banker.”), to a remarkable reworking of “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown” (possibly the album’s most acerbic song, and from the pen of Jimmy Buffett… no, really), and a slew of stories inspired by the world at large, writ small and barbed, in a manner both penetrating and empathetic. There’s one happy love song, called “Brenda,” about Snider’s favorite couple, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.

“I admire that relationship a lot,” Snider says. “What Mick and Keith have is real, and it can’t be touched and it can’t be beat. I’ve never met them, but I believe in the Rolling Stones. That’s who I think about at Christmas, anymore. They opened their hearts and gave us so much. And they tried to be true to each other.”

Musically, Snider and co-producer Eric McConnell sought a sound that mirrored the times and that didn’t replicate anything they’d done together on critically acclaimed works East Nashville Skyline, The Devil You Know or Peace Queer. With McConnell on bass and Snider playing guitar and harmonica, they gathered a core band of percussionist Paul Griffith, violinist/vocalist (and gifted songwriter) Amanda Shires, and keyboard player Chad Staehly, along with guest guitarist Jason Isbell and harmony vocalist Mick Utley, and offered up a sonic mission.

“I told them I wanted to make a mess,” Snider says. “That was the goal.”
And so a handful of accomplished musicians set about making a mess. And did so. Shires’ violin is the call-and-response heroine to Snider’s lyrics, filling the role Scarlett Rivera filled for Bob Dylan on Desire. Only messier. Meanwhile, Griffith makes like some off-kilter offspring of Keith Moon and Zigaboo Modeliste while Snider’s guitar plays lead switchblade.

The result is something disconcerting, cracked and wholly original. It’s something that stands apart from the music of Snider’s heroes, and from Snider’s own, much-celebrated past. Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is Snider’s 12th album (14th, if we count a “best of” set and a collection of B-sides and demos), and it uses its predecessors not as a compass but as a trampoline. Snider found different song forms, different inspirations (from Alaska ne’er do well Digger Dave to Chicago Mayor, former White House Chief of Staff and friend….. no, really….. Rahm Emanuel) and different means of expression. He paints a world where begging turns to mugging, where investment turns to ruin, where babies grow into felons, where honesty is blunt trauma: “Wish I could show you how you hurt me in a way that wouldn’t hurt you, too,” he sings. And there’s no way.

Ayr Mountaineers

The Ayr Mountaineers are an Americana/Country band rooted in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. All songs are originally written by singer/guitarist Ella Bertram, with an array of handsome boys standing behind her in support. Their backporch-pickin’ sound warms the heart, taps the toes, and makes the bodies shake. On stage you will find Alan Best on the piercingly sweet accordion and mandolin, Jack Fleishman on the hoppy banjo, Stacy Harden playing his deep melodic bass, and Jennifer Curtis shredding the fiddle. Since fall 2010 they have been playing in and around the Triangle, filling restaurants, bars, clubs and parks with their unique mountainous sound. Early 2012 marks the release of their debut, self-titled album which, as you will find, flows like a crisp mountain stream into a whiskey still.

HalleyAnna Finlay simply sings like her songs were stamped on her heart at birth. Evidence: The Country. HalleyAnna's superb debut collection swaggers ("So Heavy") and sways ("Fast Train") with effortless elegance. The album, which deftly spotlights her meeting point between Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris, serves as a shining introduction to a skyward bound emerging talent. High watermarks – particularly, "Back in Your Arms Again" and "Peace Is Lonely, Love Is War"– already show HalleyAnna growing exponentially sharp as a songwriter.

"Experience is what happens when you don't get what you want, so songwriting makes me feel better," she says. "Any time I'd go through a heartache growing up, my dad would say, 'Well, you'll get a good song out of it.' Sure enough, I really did. You can't write every single song about how somebody broke your heart, so some of the stuff I've done is more serious. 'Back in Your Arms Again' may sound like a song about somebody who dumped you, but it has a much deeper, eternal, death-related theme about meeting in the next life."

For the last decade, HalleyAnna has honed her songwriting skills at Cheatham Street Warehouse, the legendary Central Texas listening room owned by her father, singer-songwriter Kent Finlay. She now leads the next generation of compelling writers who follow James McMurtry, Todd Snider, Bruce Robison and others who started out at Cheatham Street. "I grew up listening to people who play music in Texas," says the youthful singer-songwriter. "I really love the traditional stuff that's going on in East Nashville like Elizabeth Cook and Caitlin Rose and Hayes Carll and Slaid Cleaves here in Austin. They embody the same traditional country that I like."

All personify the literate storytelling so identified with the Texas music tradition and HalleyAnna has put her creative writing studies to good use following their footsteps. Look for further proof one her sophomore effort (due in early 2013). Americana all-star Bill Chambers (Kasey's father) produced the collection. "Working with Bill is so easy and great," HalleyAnna says. "Bill came up and was here for the summer touring with Kasey and he had about a week window to make a record with me. He brought this really nice microphone that Kasey used on 'The Captain' and 'Barricades and Brickwalls' and we did vocals pretty much live. We cut the album in five days in the Wood Shed in San Marcos."

Brian T. Atkinson, author of I'll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt
Photo by Bill Sallans

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Todd Snider with Ayr Mountaineers, HalleyAnna

Friday, May 31 · Doors 7:00 PM / Show 7:45 PM at Haw River Ballroom