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Talking Todd Snider Margaritaville Blues

Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way is out May 9 from Touchstone. It’s about the inevitabilities of time and change and Margaritaville. And it’s about the guy who sang Margaritaville into existence. Salon let me write a little about that for them. 

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I was supposed to be covering golf. This was a couple of lifetimes ago. I was a sports writer covering golf and assigned to go to Michigan and work a Champions Tour stop while commuting to Toledo, Ohio to also cover the LPGA event that had Jamie Farr’s name on it. That tournament’s sponsored by Marathon Petroleum now, which is too bad. I remember walking out of the clubhouse one day and running into Farr out back, grabbing a smoke with the kitchen staff.

All I remember about the Champions Tour stop was that Gary Player pulled Peter Jacobsen away from a parking lot interview to tell a dirty joke. These were the post-Fuzzy Zoeller days. You had to be careful around reporters, I guess. Even if this particular reporter didn’t give a shit about a dirty joke. I just wanted to get my work done and get to northern Michigan to interview Todd Snider.

In college, a roommate got his hands on Snider’s first record, Songs for the Daily Planet. We loved it. Morning radio in Detroit took a liking to “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues.” We recognized he was on Margaritaville Records and, as we were heading to Columbus, Ohio that summer to see Jimmy Buffett at Buckeye Lake, my roommate wondered, “Why doesn’t he have Snider open for him?”

And then Snider opened for him. He and the Nervous Wrecks brought Mike Utley and Fingers Taylor out for a blisteringly unrehearsed and inaccurate run at “Livingston Saturday Night” and it was fantastic. When Snider’s second record came out, we all went to see him at the Ark in Ann Arbor. It was wild, and wicked and loud and our feet were on the stage.

So now it was 2006 and I was beginning to get restless writing about sports and I knew The Devil You Know was getting advance praise and that Snider was from Beaverton and so I pitched a profile to the Oregonian’s arts section and they said, “Sure.”

He was playing a festival in northern Michigan. I booked a room, made the calls and was told to track down his road guy, Elvis, when I got on site. I did and about an hour before Todd was about to take the stage, Elvis buzzed me and I went to the green room, which was more of a basement apartment below the stage. It was dark, and quiet. Todd offered me some wine, and then a joint. There was an inflatable Roswell alien on the wall. There was small talk amongst the group of us in the room.

From nowhere, a woman — a very drunk woman — emerged and sat down next to Todd and proceeded to tell him how great he was in what was obviously (to him) excruciating detail. Elvis ushered her out.

When it was time to go on stage, I walked up with the group, watched the first song while peeking out from behind the curtain, and then wandered around out front to catch the rest of the set.

I was making for the exit when he closed with John Prine’s “Illegal Smile” under a full moon in the northern Michigan woods. It was a perfect moment. I jumped in my car, caught up with the group in a gas station parking lot down the street and we all went back to the cabins they were renting. Someone made a fire. We drank more wine. The conversation loosened. We talked about the Stones and Dylan and that old Faces of Death movie everyone claimed to have seen in high school. We talked about Portland and old records and new records.

When I woke up back in my hotel room the next morning, I was fuzzy, and my tape of the interview was in even worse shape. But I got an email from Todd a few days later and we’ve kept in touch since. I wrote a few stories when I was still at the Oregonian. We drank vodka and cranberries in a church in Austin, Texas during SXSW while Mojo Nixon stood nearby in cutoff jeans and a Hawaiian shirt.

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About that book …

Last year, he swung into Portland to play three nights at the Aladdin Theater. He had a concept. Each night, he played from a different set of records. They were really great shows, some of my favorites. And I’ve seen Todd play a lot of shows over the years.

Two days before, he and I sat on the deck of a floating home on the Columbia River. It was sunny and cool and there was a fire. We talked about Buffett and Margaritaville, what could have been and what is, and the way the world changes. All the questions I was using the reporting of this book as an excuse to wrestle with.

Shocking to no one who knows Todd’s work, three or four of my favorite quotes in the book are his. They’re smart as hell. They’re funny as hell. He wrote some about his Margaritaville years in his memoir, I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like. But we took that story in a few new and different directions (I think), had a few laughs and then he went off to play some music with Peter Buck. It’s a good gig if you can get it and survive it.

On opening night at the Aladdin, he walked out on stage and played a perfect “Margaritaville,” drawing out some of the song’s hidden sadness and frustration — all while the Buffett fans in the audience chanted, “Salt! Salt! Salt!”

And so I was lucky. Todd was a fantastic resource. As was Will Kimbrough, who without hesitation invited me over to his house in Nashville one night to talk at length about writing, and touring and the life of a working musician. But you can read about all of that in the book.

Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way is out May 9, which is a week from today (if you’re reading this on May 2).

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