When Todd Snider brings his What the Folk? Fest back to the Levitt Shell for the second straight year Saturday, he will likely be playing for thousands on a stage crowded with some Nashville’s hottest young talents.
But Snider soberly recalls the modest origins of the cheekily named fundraiser 22 years ago.
“I think the first one I probably did as a way to draw attention to myself or something. The charity was just the excuse to get Ross Rice and people like that to play for free,” Snider says of the 1991 benefit for the Memphis Food Bank, which was held at the old South End bar.
“I think we raised, like, 180 dollars,” he said. “When I went and gave the food bank the money they were, well, more than appreciative — just more for the thought really — and they explained their whole trip to me. So by the second one I had a better awareness of what it meant to be able to help people in even the smallest way with music.”
At the time, Snider was a 25-year-old wannabe troubadour who had settled in Memphis under the tutelage of master tunesmith Keith Sykes. After years of honing his craft in bars like the Daily Planet and the Starlite Music Room, he was being courted by a major Nashville record label and on the cusp of making it big — not for the last time, it would turn out.
“By the second one I had been hired and fired from a label and had more singing friends because of it, so the second one was a little bigger and at the New Daisy,” Snider says of the second What the Folk? in 1992. “My favorite memory is of my brother and his ex-wife handling catering out behind the back of the New Daisy, and they freaked out when homeless people started coming up and asking for food. They wanted security to get rid of them. The whole night was about getting food for homeless people. I don’t mean to make fun of my own family, but that was hilarious.”
Snider, who soon moved to Nashville, continued the festivals for a few years, even after he had become an established recording artist with albums like 1994’s Songs for the Daily Planet and 1996’s Step Right Up. But when he signed with a new manager in 1998, the folly of spending his one annual Memphis date on a charity show for which he didn’t get paid was pointed out to him. So the What the Folk? Fests fell by the wayside though a group of artists, including Amy LaVere, a sometime Snider collaborator who plays this Saturday’s festival, tried to continue the tradition in 2002 with the even more hilariously named Who Gives A Yam? festival.
About eight years ago, Snider, under new management, cranked up the festivals again, and has been holding them sporadically around the country ever since.
“I love it when our work at music can actually help some people do something more than dance,” Snider says. “This isn’t rich singers helping somebody. This is some working singers joining with a charity to try and create a nice day in the park for everybody, us included.”
Nowadays What the Folk? benefits the shell, a venue Snider has felt a strong connection with ever since he first played there in the early ’90s, dropping acid at an anti-drug benefit. But the feel of the event is the same, with Snider bringing up artists who are his friends first and foremost.
Joining him and LaVere on this year’s lineup are: the equally acerbic songwriter Elizabeth Cook, Snider’s band mate in the side project Elmo Buzz & the Eastside Bulldogs and his co-star in the upcoming “hypothetical documentary” East Nashville Tonight; Yonder Mountain String Band member Jeff Austin, whom he describes as “like a brother to me;” and Amanda Shires, a talented singer-songwriter-violinist whom Snider met when she played on his last album, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables.
Shires, who plays in Snider’s band as well as that of her husband, Jason Isbell, jokes that she remembers the “first time I didn’t meet Todd.” In 2007, Shires, the former member of the late Bob Wills’ band, the Texas Playboys, was booked to play one of her first solo shows opening for Snider in her native Texas, a show for which he never showed.
Shires did open for Snider a few times after that before the two really bonded during the Agnostic Hymns sessions. Since then they have become songwriting buddies and Shires has played other What the Folk? Fests. Snider, newly ordained as a minister, even officiated at Shires and Isbell’s wedding earlier this year.
“What I like about Todd is he’s really all about the art of the music,” says Shires, who has learned as much about writing from him as she has pursuing a graduate degree of late at Sewanee: the University of the South. “He’s not at all a business-minded guy. I really like that he’s true to himself and true to his art. When you do become friends with him he’s open to you, and with me, anyway, he’s gives me lots of good advice and tries to help me with songs.”
With Shires set to release her fourth solo album, an effort that is already getting a lot of buzz following the success of 2011’s Carrying Lightning, Snider worries that he and Isbell may soon lose her to her own shows. But he has little time to fret too much over it. Besides his upcoming film debut, he recently wrote a book for Da Capo Press, formed a band with Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools, recorded a song with Turbo Fruits, and is heading to Texas soon to cut a straight country record.
Todd Snider’s What the Folk? Fest
6 p.m. Saturday, Levitt Shell, Overton Park. Free. Visit levittshell.org.