In Between Jobs
On the final night of workshop this semester, one of us made an announcement: singer-songwriter Todd Snider was playing a bar here in Lubbock next week, after final grades were due—anybody wanna go?
All of us were nursing the end-of-semester blues: our workshop manuscripts had been marked-up all to hell, in need of heavy revisions (due next week), and at home, shin-high stacks of student papers awaited our diligent, thoughtful feedback (also due next week—no rush). But soon, it would all be over. We’d luxuriate in the break between Spring and Summer sessions, those two delicious weeks of freedom between teaching appointments.
Most of us had never heard of Todd Snider. He could’ve been a Celtic flutist or a children’s puppeteer, for all we cared—we simply heard the word bar and responded with, “Yes. Count us in.”
But Snider’s name rang a bell for me. Plenty of times, he’d come highly recommended by friends whose taste I trusted. “Snider’s got this one song,” a buddy said, “about a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who threw a no-hitter while stoned on LSD. True story.” What more did I need, really? But for whatever reason, I never sought out Snider’s stuff.
Not that it wasn’t out there. Snider’s that guy who always has a song on those “free” CDs shrink-wrapped and inserted in alt-country music magazines. He’s never on the magazine cover, though. That’s how Snider operates: wary of the spotlight, avoiding household-name status. A songwriter’s songwriter, he’s survived for decades by word of mouth, recording and touring relentlessly, earning a cult following. His name crops up more often in interviews with the big guys. (“Tell us, Willie, who are you listening to these days?”)
We saw Snider at a place called The Blue Light, on Buddy Holly Avenue, the main drag of Lubbock’s old-timey, brick-paved Depot District (aka: where frat boys stumble from bar to bar every Thursday night). I’ve seen a range of acts there: tattooed undergrad garage bands, whisper-quiet folk singers, and aging grunge-rockers. Middle-aged men in bolo ties playing Western Swing and aspiring troubadours opening up for Texas Country stalwarts. None of these shows were wildly attended, the dance floor partly empty, the bar half-full—space enough to perform a drunken cartwheel without disturbing your nearest neighbor. A guy like Todd Snider could maybe fill the place to three-quarters capacity at most, right?
When we arrived, The Blue Light was wall-to-wall people. Most surprising, though, was how “Lubbock” the crowd looked. Our fair city is more than a mite conservative. Bush Country, they call it. People here use the word “Reagan-esque” in everyday speech. Most of the men at the show appeared to be close-minded Bible-thumpers, freshly showered after work and poured into their best T-shirts (tucked in). They clipped buck knives into the hip pockets of their Wranglers and wore cell phone holsters decorated with Texas stars. The logos of their oilfield employers emblazoned the fronts of their ball caps. Make no mistake, these men came to hear some country music.
“I sound country,” Snider said in a recent interview, “but my beliefs belong more in a heavy-metal parking lot.”
Snider took the stage looking the part: cowboy hat, plaid shirt, blue jeans. The crowd rushed to the stage, and Snider started in: “Conservative, Christian, right-wing, Republican, straight, white, American males . . .” The melody was simple, happy even. It sounded like a Young Conservatives rally cry—but then: “Gay-bashing, black-fearin’, poor fightin’, tree-killin’, regional leaders of sales . . .”
A cluster of Lubbock men near the stage threw arms around each other, frat-boy style, and swayed together, singing in unison: “Frat-housin’, keg-tappin’, shirt-tuckin’, back-slappin’ haters of hippies like me. Tree-huggin’, peace-lovin’, pot-smokin’, porn-watchin’, lazy-ass hippies like me.”
When the song was done, the men hooted and hollered, thrusting their Lone Stars into the air.
Snider danced (wobbled?) around the stage all night. Stray locks of long hair poked out from his Stetson, brushing his collar. His shirt was crumpled and untucked; his jeans, kind of baggy. And was he barefoot?
"This next one’s from my new record, Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables,” Snider said. It was a tune called “In Between Jobs,” in which Snider’s broke-ass narrator criticizes a richy-rich man who has ten times more money, most likely some right-wing oilman living too high on the hog (perhaps like the real-life bosses of The Blue Light’s many patrons). In the song, Snider politely asks the rich man for a few extra bucks, but by verse two, the situation escalates into a full-on stickup. The crowd sang along to every word. “I wonder,” they cried, “What’s keepin’ me from killing this guy and taking all his shit?”
What’s keeping them? Is it decorum? The thing that makes a city of conservatives feel okay about singing songs from the other side of the political aisle, so long as everything looks and sounds like their status quo. The same thing that allows a duded-up hippie like Snider to move around among the country music establishment. The same thing that keeps us grad school types from going to The Blue Light every night of the week instead of only when we need it the most.
THIS COLUMN ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN IRON HORSE LITERARY REVIEW VOL 14.3