With quick wits and tall tales, three songwriters sparkle
It was smart for organizers to put brilliant songwriters Paul Thorn, James McMurtry and Todd Snider on the same bill. But it posed the conundrum of featuring three artists accustomed to headlining. In what order should they perform?
The hippie went onstage last. And he began his set with his greatest hit, “Beer Run.” Snider had the MontBleu Showroom audience at “B.”
“What the fuck!” Snider exclaimed after he finished the song. “How am I going to follow James McMurtry and Paul Thorn? I figured I better play my best jam.”
Each artist has a unique, compelling style. Thorn writes short, catchy songs with homespun country humor and passion. McMurtry paints his stories with more strokes of description. Snider philosophizes.
An older crowd of more than 1,000 filled the showroom. It seemed most were there to see one of the three songwriters but didn’t know much about the other two. They undoubtedly left as fans of all three.
Thorn has an authentic rural Mississippi drawl, and his story about once being a prizefighter is true. Former world champion Roberto Duran beat Thorn by a technical knockout, but both boxers sustained injuries. They shared an ambulance ride and Thorn asked Duran about his mind-set in the ring. “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail,” he said, giving Thorn a song idea for his new line of work.
Like quick jabs, Thorn played eight songs in a half-hour set, concluding with the hilarious “I Guess I’ll Just Stay Married,” which includes the verse, “I couldn’t get laid when I was single, even if you threw me in a women’s prison.”
With that, Thorn looked to the side of the stage and said, “Anyone who can write a song this great should have Todd Snider and James McMurtry open for me!”
McMurtry delivered plenty of humor, too, but with a deadpan style. Characters fill his tales; the songs are not autobiographical. In between the tracks, McMurtry manually tuned his 12-string guitar by ear, not electronics, just as it’s done on a front porch.
“I work in rhythm and meter,” McMurtry said, introducing his final and most powerful song of the night, “State of the Union.” Palacios is a Spanish name of a Texas town, which is oddly pronounced by its residents as a word that rhymes with fascists.
The song opens, “My brother’s a fascist, lives in Palacios, fishes the pier every night. He holsters his Glock in a double retention. He smokes while he waits for a bite. He don’t like the Muslims. He don’t like the Jews. He don’t like the Blacks and he don’t trust the news. He hates the Hispanics and alternative views. He’ll tell you it’s tough to be white.”
Next came Snider, barefoot, incandescently disheveled, congenial as a peach. It’s not an act.
Early on, he asked for requests and audience members obliged for the rest of the show. When he heard a song title, he’d nod and say, “OK.”
After the well-known singalong “B double E, double R, U – N, Beer Run,” there was a totally believable story about acid and bananas in Hollywood and a song about a vinyl record collection that includes Widespread Panic and Mojo Nixon and, of course, “Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White, American Males.” Even those guys laughed, perhaps a bit uncomfortably.
Snider’s self-awareness and delivery is what makes him so captivating. He writes with such poignancy it inspires a listener to think as hard as to laugh.
Before the encore, Snider finished “Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.”
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.