A superb album that answers the age-old question ‘What exactly is americana?’
Ed Snodderly is a bit of a Renaissance man as he not only sings, plays guitar and piano and writes songs but he’s also an actor (see most famously in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”), teaches and co-founded the iconic music venue in Johnson City TN, the splendidly named Down Home Coffeehouse and Pickin’ Parlour.
Born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, to a father who was a Fuller Brush salesman and a mother who was, in his words, a “housewife extraordinaire”. Snodderly’s grandfather was a farmer and old-time fiddler, who, along with his brother, won several ribbons at Knoxville-area fiddlers’ conventions in the 1920s and ’30s. Snodderly started playing guitar aged 12, absorbing the old-time music played by family members that was simply part of the Snodderly’s homespun DNA. He released his first album back in 1977 and since then has released nine more the latest being ‘Chimney Smoke’.
Recorded at Mountainside Audio Labs in Nashville and produced by R S Field (Todd Snider, Shaver, Justin Townes Earle, Allison Moorer, etc.), Snodderly is backed by his band, The Shoestring Seven which consists of a veritable who’s-who of veteran musicians: Shawn Camp on mandolin, Steve Conn piano, accordion and organ, John Gardner percussion, Steve Hinson pedal steel and slide lap guitar, Chris Scruggs and Gary J Smith bass and Kenny Vaughan on various guitars with Snodderly on guitar and piano. Adding background vocals are a number of singers including Gretchen Peters, Maura O’Connell, Malcolm Holcombe and Amythyst Khia who had been one of Snodderly’s students and appears on three of the tracks.
The album starts with ‘Better Just Ride The Mule’ a jaunty song featuring Hinson’s pedal steel and Khia’s harmony background vocals. This is followed by ‘Gone With Gone And A Long Time’ which starts with picked guitars and again features pedal steel and has the added bonus of Peters on harmony. Next another jaunty song ‘Chimney Stack’ which has Camp’s mandolin driving the song along and Khia providing vocal sweetening. The fourth track is the gentle ‘There You Are’ with Holcombe on backing vocals and more of Hinson’s delightful pedal steel. Up next is ‘Barn’ a loping, up-tempo song dedicated to Michael Nesmith driven along by John Garner’s drums. Track six is the gospel-tinged ballad ‘Just Like You River’ that features Conn’s church-like organ, a choir and strings orchestrated by Chris Carmichael. That’s followed by ‘Jump Dance South’ another mid-tempo song that meanders along with more pedal steel from Hinson and accordion from Conn. Next is ‘Crow’s Fever’ which has a southern soul sound with wah-wah guitar and another of Carmichael’s big string arrangements. Track nine is ‘Walking In The Sunshine Again’ a sprightly tune that lopes along and features pedal steel up-front and centre. Then comes ‘Before School’ a melancholy, piano-based ballad. The penultimate song is ‘So Far Away’ which features O’Connell on backing harmony vocals. The final song is ‘The Diamond Stream’, an old country-sounding mid-tempo song that takes the total time of the album to a value for money forty-five minutes.
Snodderly’s voice has tinges of Sam Baker, Gene Clark and on one or two tracks a pinch of Dylan which makes his smoky, aged in Tennessee malt liquor vocals always very listenable. His songs are always interesting and his lyrics worth listening to. They can sometimes be a bit obscure and obtuse with evocative lines such as ‘A pack of juicy fruit in your pocketbook of time’, ‘Rembrandt paints still in his death’, ‘The air inside his jacket is full of evergreens’ and ‘Children humming a barefoot tune’ amongst many others. However within the twelve superb tracks, Snodderly conjures up middle America and sings about creeks, rivers, barns, drifters, trains, cars, jukeboxes, mountains and sunsets. They may be americana tropes but Snodderly’s lyrics are not clichéd in any way.
‘Chimney Smoke’ is a superb album from a master of the songwriting craft aided and abetted by superb production, consummate musicians and wonderful backing vocalists – what more could you ask for?