Todd Snider And Will Kimbrough – “If the melody is right, you can open your heart”
The new Tom Petty album played on the jambox in Todd Snider’s East Nashville basement as he and old friend/frequent collaborator Will Kimbrough faced each other, cups full of Centenario rum and ears perked by Petty’s jangle.
“‘You’re flirting with time, baby’? Is that what he just sang?” Snider asked. Assured of the affirmative, Snider said, “God, what a cool way to put it.”
In one of his own songs, Snider admits to owning “piles and piles of Tom Petty,” a reference to the criticism that some of the songs Snider sang on his 1998 Viva Satellite album sounded quite Heartbreaker-ish, with Kimbrough playing guitars that slashed and chimed like Mike Campbell. These days, no one is making that comparison. Snider is as much a folksinger as a rocker, and the comparisons are usually more along the lines of Prine, Kristofferson or Billy Joe Shaver, three songwriting legends who adore Snider’s way of using a chuckle to set up a knockout punch.
Kimbrough, who barnstormed the southeast in the 1980s with much-adored college bar band Will & the Bushmen, has been affiliated with Snider since they met while hiding in a coat closet (really) at a Nashville awards show in 1994. Kimbrough soon became Snider’s guitar player and co-writer, though Kimbrough’s 2000 solo album, This, put a spotlight on his own highly melodic, lyrical guitar pop. His guitar work has also won him new-century appreciation: He’s accompanied the likes of Rodney Crowell and Jimmy Buffett, and he won an Americana Music Association award for best instrumentalist. He also co-produced Snider’s 2004 East Nashville Skyline album as well as Snider’s latest effort, a searing set of songs called The Devil You Know that came out August 8 on Universal’s New Door label.
In the midst of all that activity, Kimbrough found time to record and release a new album of his own, a seventeen-song treatise called Americanitis (released July 25 on Daphne/Emergent), which pulls no punches in skewering the current administration, the war in Iraq, and the culture that encourages the existence of such things.
Snider’s The Devil You Know is less politically overt, for the most part, but its story-songs depict a society in peril. “There’s a war going on that the poor can’t win,” he shouts on the title track. “Helicopters over the house again.”
On another cut, “You Got Away With It”, Snider’s lyrics offer a former frat boy’s admiring thoughts on his old college brother, who turns out to be none other than George W. Bush. Kimbrough adds to the uproar with guitars, harmony vocals and percussion.
By way of full disclosure, your moderating interviewer here was also part of The Devil You Know, singing, playing some bass, and co-writing a song with Snider about the time Bob Dylan threw folksinger Phil Ochs out of a vehicle. Being around for the recording provided a unique window into the relationship between these two Americana heavyweights, who share wit and musicality and perhaps a bit of healthy and low-level competition. After years together in the same band and in the same van, they know each other better — and love each other more — than a lot of married couples.
But it had been awhile since they sat down for a long talk about music and politics, change and the virtues of open-hearted songwriting. Snider’s house was still decorated from the previous night’s Independence Day party, Petty’s best album in years rang through the room, and Costa Rican rum disappeared quickly. The whole thing seemed very American.
I. WELL, I LIKE THE PACKERS. THAT’S WHAT THREW ME WITH THAT QUESTION.
TODD SNIDER: Will, when we met, I was so into Kristofferson and “The Pilgrim”. You were into Elvis Costello and “Alison”. Now, on this record, you’re doing Kristofferson words with melodies like “Alison”, dude.
WILL KIMBROUGH: Those things do come together. Most of the time, I have to have a melody. That’s definitely part of it for me. It moves me as much as the words of anything. I was into Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin when I was a kid; the music was all that mattered, and the singer was part of the music. ’70s music is so about the guitar, showing the chicks the guitar. But there’s an era of stuff, with Springsteen and Elvis Costello, and Dylan’s kind of like that, where the guy holds a guitar, but you don’t always hear it as much as the song.
TS: I learned from people like Keith Sykes and Will that if the melody is right, you can open your heart and say the most opinionated thing that you want to. You can say something more flamboyant if your melody’s tight. Sometimes the guy listening doesn’t even know ’til he’s done with the song that he disagrees with it.
Sometimes I think how far you can go into politics is directly related to how cool of a melody you can come up with. Also, every time I see Kristofferson I think, “Am I the only one here thinking Booker T & the MG’s?” I know every one of his songs, but when I see him walking around I always hear “Green Onions” in my head.
NO DEPRESSION: For the most part, it’s hard to offend people these days. Bad language won’t usually do the trick. Politics still can, though.
TS: All I know is that there’s a part at the end of the show where you get to meet people, right? They like you. And you go from that element to however you’re getting to the hotel. In between there, there are people that are mad. And they’ve got about half a minute a night to go tell me I’m a dick, or tell Rodney Crowell he’s a dick. I always just think, “I wish that guy hadn’t called me a dick.” In the show, I think if somebody shouted out “You’re a dick,” I don’t think I would hear it. If the idea that you were a dick overwhelmed your show, then that’d be something you’d have to address.