Todd Snider's talent as a songwriter has never been much in doubt. Unfortunately the same can't be said of his ability to find an audience for his cheeky blend of country and folk-rock. Snider released two albums on Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Records in the mid-'90s before dropping from view. Now comes Happy to Be Here, released on John Prine's Oh Boy Records. The good news is that Snider's melodic knack and smart-ass sensibility remain in evidence. The bad news is that he's still making music that seems destined to fall between the commercial cracks.
The title track is the perfect introduction to Snider's sound: Driven by rootsy strumming and Dylanesque harp, the tune is instantly hummable and determinedly goofy. Snider does even better when he departs from his folksy shenanigans. "Forty Five Miles" has the bluesy thump of an early Stones workout, with Johnny Neel contributing some delicious Hammond B3 organ. "Betty Was Black (and Willie Was White)" is a twangy, low-down interracial love tale that showcases Will Kimbrough's resonator slide guitar. (The song was written by the Bis*quits). "Ballad of the Devil's Backbone Tavern" has the feel of a Dixieland hootenanny, one that features squalling horns, Peter Holsapple's deft picking on banjo, and some natty tap-dancing by Kim Richey. Veteran Nashville boardman Ray Kennedy gives the disc's best songs a shimmering veneer.
After a time, though, Snider's act wears thin. On songs like "Lonely Girl" and "Just in Case" -- a love ballad about a prenuptial agreement -- his warbling sounds more derivative than plaintive. Snider lacks Steve Earle's gritty genius or Prine's plainspoken charm, the kind of special gifts that allow a hybrid artist to win crossover listeners in these days of niche marketing. He's the kind of songwriter whose material could make a million bucks for some lucky Nashville bohunk. Just not him.
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