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Southern Discomfort : Todd Snider Sings of Trailer Life and Tennessee Barflies, With a Touch of Jesus as a Chaser

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Open the CD booklet of Todd Snider’s new album, “Viva Satellite,” and you’ll find a shot of him walking disheveled and apparently tipsy along the center stripe of two-lane Tennessee Highway 100, oblivious to what passes for rush-hour traffic in his adopted hometown of Fairview.

Snider said the unorthodox, 5 p.m. photo session in front of his house caused enough of a stir for somebody to call the police. In the photo, you can see a pickup truck veering wide to the right of Snider, a staggering figure in jacket, baggy pants and sneakers treading precariously, one upon the other.

“I never felt I was in danger, but I had a bottle of wine with me,” recalled Snider, a singer-songwriter who follows his hero, Jerry Jeff Walker, in juggling rowdy, good-ol'-boy rockin’ out with a sensitive storyteller’s streak. (He and his band, the Nervous Wrecks, play Friday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana, second-billed on an unusual, genre-hopping touring package with blues-rock guitar phenom Kenny Wayne Shepherd and alterna-rock band Uma.)

The police handled things in low-key, small-town fashion; Snider got his CD shot, and the peace was restored outside his residence, which he says his artist girlfriend has painted in a checkered pattern.

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Snider, who grew up in Oregon, says he painted the songs on “Viva Satellite” in Southern hues to capture his current surroundings.

“I wanted to make it about Memphis and living in the South,” he said. “In Memphis there’s a part called Frazier--it’s the Skynyrd part of town. We had a friend out there called Moon Dog; when the band first formed we went out there all the time, we’d sit around, play guitar for the people who would come to his toolshed [which had been converted into an unlicensed bar], drink and bring the kids.”

Snider’s South could be just about anywhere USA that people find themselves restless and up against it. He sings of the soap opera of trailer-park living in “Double Wide Blues,” of untethered youth looking for trouble in “Rocket Fuel,” and, in “Out All Night,” he portrays a kid trying to forget the void inside left by emotionally distant parents.

The frazzled narrator of “Guaranteed” joy-rides his channel changer to compensate for his powerlessness in the world outside his TV room: “I know I may be throwing my time away / But at least I’m remotely in control.”

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Snider also sings what Mike Ness of Social Distortion likes to term “rebel love songs” and songs about another kind of love--for Jesus.

This assortment makes “Viva Satellite,” Snider’s third album since 1994, easily his best, maintaining his characteristic heart and crusty humor, but avoiding the novelty tinge that first won him attention on first-album numbers such as “My Generation (Part 2)” and “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” both of which mused wryly on pop culture.

Snider, 31, says he wasn’t worried about being typecast for his novelties.

“I’ll take any label,” said Snider, who comes off in conversation like a gravelly voiced, free-associating, phrase-juggling, semi-focused half-brother to Tom Waits. “I’ve been called lots of different labels. I’ll make up my own: Self-made-redneck-liberal-anarchist-stoner-barfly-rock-'n'-roll-Jesus freak.”

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The “Jesus freak” part was hinted at on his first two albums but comes out clearly on “Viva Satellite” in “Once He Finds Us” and “You Never Let Me Down.”

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Snider said that, at the spiritual low ebb of his recording career two years ago, he let producer Tony Brown talk him out of putting the Jesus-invoking, traditional-gospel-tinged “Once He Finds Us” on his second album, “Step Right Up.”

“He said, ‘Don’t do this; you’re going to offend people.’ At the time I was in a terrible place; I didn’t have the strength to stand up for it.

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“I had been on the road for two years, living pretty hard--not much different than I’m living now, but I’m learning to pace it,” he said. “I’d just got kicked out of a relationship, had nowhere to live. I was looking for this party that didn’t exist, and I felt further away from God at the end of [recording] that second record than I’d ever felt before.”

Snider knew where Brown was coming from: The producer didn’t want to risk turning off rock fans who might associate a singer invoking Jesus with conservative Christianity and its portfolio of judgmental positions on social issues.

“I’m too liberal for the Democrats; that’s my disclaimer,” Snider said. “People get confused when you say ‘Jesus.’ People have killed so many people in the name of Jesus. But I feel I’m getting braver about it. When you put your heart out, some people will knock it; they’ll roll their eyes, which is what people do when they’re really scared. I’m getting used to it.”

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Snider says things have been going much better for him since that low ebb--except that his house was broken into and his collection of Jerry Jeff Walker records remains missing, although the rest of the stuff was recovered when the thief tried to pawn it.

His career hasn’t soared, although--with his crunchy rock style and a pliant singing voice not too far afield from Steve Earle or Tom Petty--it’s not as if he’s anything foreign to mainstream tastes.

“Sometimes I sit around and think about different things we can do to get bigger, but the more I focus on playing guitar and the advantage of the travel we do, the better.”

Snider says his immediate goal is to be among the first to buy Kenny Wayne Shepherd a legal drink of alcohol: The former teen-guitar sensation turns 21 the day of the Galaxy show.

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“I’ll probably buy him more than one,” Snider said.

Asked for closing thoughts, Snider offered these:

“I’m a 31-year-old, hunched-over freak show; I’m still confused, but I have absolute [expletive] faith that tomorrow is going to be as good as today.”

Also: “I have something I really need to get off my chest. Van Halen doesn’t hold a candle to David Lee Roth on his worst day. It’s a crying shame, it was a real dent in the fender of rock ‘n’ roll when those [expletive] freak shows let go of one of the greatest showmen in America. That, and God is love.”

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* Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Todd Snider and Uma play Friday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $26.50-$28.50. (714) 957-0600.


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