‘East Nashville Skyline’ and a New View of Possibility
Korby Lenker photo by Mocha Charlie
EDITOR’S NOTE: As Todd Snider’s landmark East Nashville Skyline album (2004) gets its first vinyl release today, singer-songwriter Korby Lenker shares what the album meant — and still means — to him.
Setting: Austin, SXSW, maybe 2005. Saturday afternoon. I was 28 or 29.
I’d been playing music full-time for six years, lately specializing in traveling long distances to play empty rooms for indifferent bartenders. Now here I was, once more hopeful for the break that would set me free, playing a solo acoustic set on the rooftop of a club on 6th Street.
Always a late bloomer, I was at this point in my musical odyssey more determined than adept. While I worked through my set of earnest derivatives, the power pop trio on the club roof next door worked through theirs. They were really letting freedom ring over there, about 20 feet away. Guitars crunched, cymbals crashed, while I remember the principal features of my own set being a lack of both volume and attendees.
Making a life in music means there will be moments that test you like spit on flint. The morning after that showcase, I woke up to a wind blowing through me. The details fuzz in the distance, but I do remember the feeling. No one cares about you, Lenker. You’ve had your moment. And now it is time to be done.
There was a sense of a closing window, that this might be the period at the end of a really long run-on sentence. I got out of the hotel room and went downstairs and ate a hard-boiled egg in the lobby and watched 6th Street and its Stepford circus of daydrunk doomed and hopeful strike indifferent poses on the sidewalk beyond the window.
What am I doing with my life?
You can be an idiot in your 20s, but 30 is where you start being who you’re gonna be. Thirty was looming like the door to the principal’s office. Perhaps it was time to do something less stupid.
I walked out into the late morning light, turned right, and fell in with the parade. Someone in a filthy unicorn costume stepped by, hoisted aloft on wooden stilts. A kid who looked 16 bent over in front of me and shot a stream of red puke onto his tennis shoes. A guy with a big camera filmed a group of Japanese girls dressed in pink and green Lycra collectively lip-syncing to a song I couldn’t hear.
It’s not like the universe is actively encouraging your perseverance, I thought. Obviously no one is buying what you’re selling. No one is even noticing what you’re selling. You’re selling a whisper in a hurricane.
The more I walked the more I saw, and the more I saw the more I was convinced that music was probably no longer going to be part of my future. Or at least the hopeful part. The world’s judgment had passed, and I was tired of trying to convince it to change its mind.
The crowds started thinning out at West Avenue. A few blocks later I was at Waterloo Records. I had nowhere better to go, so I went inside.
These were the days of CD towers. When new records came out, you didn’t know what they sounded like unless you went to the store and listened. I wandered up to one and noticed the first slot held “The new record from Todd Snider.”
Todd Snider … I remember that guy. A few years before, someone gave me a burned CD with his name Sharpied on. I’d listened a few times. It was the album that had the song about how 99% think with 3% 100% of the time. I thought that was a clever song, so when I saw his name on the CD tower at Waterloo, I shrugged my shoulders and put on the headphones and hit play. I heard a strummed G chord, and then this:
Old timer, old timer, too late to die young now.
Old timer, five and dimer, tryin to find a way to age like wine somehow.
A blast of feeling shotgunned through me. I started crying at the listening station in Waterloo Records. It was a hinge moment in my life. As Jerry Garcia would say, a Truly Weird moment. I listened to the first five songs on the album before I had to leave to catch the plane back to Seattle. Bought the CD and listened to it all the way home.
East Nashville Skyline, it was called. I read the liner notes in the aisle seat. Todd wrote about how he and his friends partied too hard even though half of them were parents and they even smoked pot in front of their kids sometimes. They weren’t proud of it, they just were kind of irresponsible.
I was like, “This guy is bad! He’s, like, not trying to impress anyone. I mean, he sings bad and he can’t play guitar but barely. But. These songs are little miracles of candor and emotion. I absolutely love this.”
I’d been toying with a move, but it wasn’t until Waterloo that I knew. A month after I got back from Austin I gave notice to my landlord in Seattle and moved to Nashville. Drove east with 500 bucks to my name to see what might happen next.
I must have listened to East Nashville Skyline more than any album in the last 10 years. When I first moved to town, I ran into a gal who did some work for Todd. She’d made a video or two, shot some photos. She was nice and liked me enough and I remember she took me once over to Todd and Melita’s house and I drank a beer in his front yard and felt like maybe there was hope for me yet.
Then a lot of other stuff happened. Not all good. I had to quit playing music for a few years and instead worked a job parking cars and writing short stories for no obvious reason.
I went to a few Todd shows here and there and I liked them plenty, but I was doing other stuff at the time. Trying to be a better musician, writing stories, learning about film. Figuring out which way was mine.
Then I wrote some songs that a few people cared about, and I started playing more shows. I kept getting invited back to places so I kept playing and writing and trying to figure out what next. Always what next.
And then a few months ago an ad popped up and said there were still some tickets left to Todd’s show at the Ryman, so I bought a couple.
My date and I got to the show and ran into some friends in the lobby and some people who might be friends but I can never quite tell, and then we went into the dark auditorium and took our seats.
The Ryman seats are actually pews, and the real estate given each butt doesn’t favor the wide. We all crowded into our pew, and right as we all got settled, two big guys stood in the aisle looking at us apologetically. So we all piled out of the pew into the aisle and then in came the two big guys.
The new arrivals were real Todd fans. Longtime. The guy next to me immediately introduced himself. He said his name was “Fire.”
“Fire?” I asked.
“Yeah, brother!” said Fire. He then produced a vape pen. “Do you smoke PCP?”
I was sure he was kidding so I gave him my “I’m sure you’re just kidding” chuckle.
Fire shrugged and took a long pull from the vape and breathed it into his jacket. It smelled a little bit mediciney but the smell vanished almost immediately and then the lights went all the way down and Todd Snider came out, followed by his dog, Cowboy Jack.
Todd pulled the strap of the guitar over his shoulder and plugged himself in while Cowboy settled down at his feet, near the edge of the small circle of carpet in the center of the stage.
Halfway through Todd’s first song, the dog was asleep.
What to say about Todd Snider? The years haven’t improved his singing, and the guitar playing will make you feel like you could maybe play the Ryman too. But the charm and the wit and the sheer personality of the man cannot be denied.
At the beginning of the show he said something like, “Once when I was younger I asked this old timer what it took to be a songwriter. The guy said, ‘Well, I’ll say, make sure you’re never not in a situation where, with 15 minutes notice, you can have all your stuff packed up and ready to move out. You might have a pretty messed up life that way, but I promise you’ll get some good songs out of it.’” Then Todd said, “I’m 53 years old and I have to work pretty hard at keeping my life as messed up as it is, but I want you to know I do it for you.”
The crowd cheered and he charged into his classic “I Can’t Complain.” Everyone sang along. Fire sang loudest.
At one point Fire handed me the pen. I know my way around one and I also enjoy breaking a rule now and then, so I asked him if it had a button.
“Just pull for 5 seconds and blow it in your sleeve.”
I took that to mean no button, so I pulled for 5 seconds and blew what ended up being nothing down the sleeve of my jacket. Fire seemed pleased I was on board so that was good enough for me.
I watched the concert and I knew most of the songs and I loved all the songs and I loved the man and I also felt what I can only describe as a pang of conviction. Say what you want about Todd Snider: He’s not everyone’s thing, and I wonder if he’s a very loyal friend, and I’ve seen him enough times to know that his performances are not exactly consistent. But he’s given his whole life over with complete sincerity to something that actually matters. He set out to write one true song, and then another, and another. And everything has been second to that singular pursuit. Maybe his life is a mess, I don’t know, but if you asked me what I really thought, I’d say the difference he’s made with the songs he’s written and the way he’s written them … it’s been worth whatever it cost.
The songs. “Age Like Wine,” which is what brought me to tears at Waterloo. Or “Just Like Old Times” or “Nashville” or “Beer Run.” So many good songs. Not just good songs. True songs. Funny songs. Thoughtful songs.
Somewhere in there Todd played one of my favorites. “Play a Train Song” is about the late self-proclaimed mayor of East Nashville, Skip Litz, a man from a long-gone iteration of our ever-gentrifying hamlet. It’s a sharp portrait of a guy who lived for freedom and pleasure and trouble. Likely broken in several places, and yet, the song implies, Here Is a Man Who Lived.
It all went by too fast. When John Prine came up for the encore, Fire handed the pen back to me and this time I saw there was, in fact, a button. I pushed it and pulled and counted to about 3 before my lungs responded with an “Oh hell no.” I let out a coughing fit of noise and smoke that made the whole row in front of me turn around and shake their heads. Fire broke into a fit of laughter. My date rolled her eyes, and Todd and John sang “Illegal Smile.”
We got home and I was kind of mad because I left the T-shirt I’d bought in the Uber, but my date made a little nightcap anyway and I sat down and sang through “Play a Train Song,” which to me is a narrative gem on par with “Pancho and Lefty” or “Tangled Up in Blue” or Gretchen Peters’ “Five Minutes.”
I got this old black leather jacket, got this pack of Marlboro Reds
Got this stash here in my pocket, got these thoughts in my own head
The right to run until I’ve gotta walk or until I’ve got to crawl
I’ve got this moment that I’m in right now, and nothin’ else at all.
East Nashville Skyline came out today on vinyl. Buy you a copy.
Oh, and it wasn’t PCP. I knew it.